I’ve decided my best way to generate “hits” (which for me means: meaningful and potentially popular creative works) is through the doing of photography. I’m not a musician or fiction writer, but I have been doing photography quite seriously over the past 8 years; so photography is my medium.
Deciding on photography isn’t enough though. What are you going to do with it? Two important questions-decisions come to mind:
1) Target Output: individual photo or photo series?
There’s no doubt that an individual photo can be a “hit”; there have been some famous individual photographs by the likes of Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams, and Henri Cartier-Bresson to name a few.
But a single photograph is typically visually “absorbed” in seconds. Perhaps, if multiple things are going on in the photo, someone may spend a whole minute looking at it; but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. The barrage of images people face on the Internet may be one reason people spend so little time looking at any one image.
It’s difficult for one photo to communicate anything too complicated. Stories and even songs–it seems to me–can deal with relatively complex issues or concepts.
Photos tend to focus on one very simplified aspect of a scene. In fact, photos that don’t do so, are typically criticized for being “unfocused” and not compelling. (That “focusing” is so central to the technology of photo making may have something to do with the preference for simplification.) So, a photograph is typically none too complex.
A photograph is a single frame of unchanging visual information; this is both a strength (allows one to closely examine a frozen scene in much detail) and a weakness (nothing is changing; so once you’ve visually processed the scene, you tend to lose interest in it).
A photo can initially hold attention, much like the hearing of a new pun. But like a pun, interest often wanes quickly upon repeat viewings/hearings–i.e., it has a fairly steep interest drop-off curve.
If there’s more to the photograph than mere visual excitation (e.g., it’s a photo of a loved one or of a place that’s been an important part of ones life), then the drop-off may be much less severe.
If you move on to a series of photos (versus a single photo), at least 2 additional features are introduced: 1) viewing is required over more time and/or space (for example, in a gallery, slide show, or over a sequence of pages in a book), and 2) multiple representations (photos) are presented (which can be helpful in solidifying a central concept or branching out to portray a more complicated idea framework).
At the very least, more photos means more content. Whether this additional content is used wisely to expand upon or reinforce a concept or, contrarily, to provide unnecessary and/or unwanted redundancy (or introduce irrelevancy or distractions) is the primary challenge of doing a series.
Personally, I have found that doing photo series (versus one shot “wonders”) is more work (especially in terms of editing), but also, more rewarding; I think the latter is due mostly to being able to develop a concept more fully and building a larger coherent piece of creative work; it’s like the satisfaction of having completed a successful novel compared to a short story.
When I work on a photo series, I feel like I’m working at the level of producing a movie or a song. The photos extend over time (and space) and provide a sequence of “scenes”.
This unit of output (the series) suits my ideas and is also a natural evolution from my background in event photography, where you shoot and edit a set of photos that represents a single wedding, bar mitzvah, fashion show, etc.
(For more on this topic, also see this post)
2) Control: Planned or Candid?
Another important choice that has to be made is whether the photos will be planned or candid. Street photography is usually candid, much like the candid event photography I typically do (I seldom “pose” people at events).
I like candid photography: it’s more authentic and interesting from a “social scientist’s” viewpoint (I have a background in both psychology and communication).
That said, I also have at least two issues with it:
- It’s “reactive” photography: you react to and see what you can get; you don’t dictate any meaning in the scene; you grab whatever “meaning” you can find.
- An individual shot is usually less than ideal; but if it’s anywhere close, you take it. You are not in control of the scene and usually, there’s something less than ideal about it from an aesthetic or meaning viewpoint (e.g., there’s one little element that throws the scene out of balance or distracts from the main focus of it and so on).
What’s wrong with reacting to and grabbing whatever meaningful–if commonly less than ideal aesthetically or coherently–content you can find? Two things: 1) inefficiency and 2) tenuous control over the message/meaning.
You can easily spend a lot of time looking for ideal situations to develop in order to photograph them. Timewise–and effortwise–it’s not very efficient.
Or…you can set things up in terms of light, elements & characters in the scene, setting, composition, and so forth just the way you want them and then shoot them and be done.
In terms of message or meaning…sure, you can locate things in a scene that communicate a message or viewpoint consistent with your ideas and values. However, you are at the mercy of what’s going on in front of you. Maybe you’ll see something that is consistent with your ideas; maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll be so desperate to find something meaningful, you’ll try to force meaning on ambiguous scenes so that at least you’ve captured something, even when it’s not a true representation of what you’d like to communicate.
I do candid photography quite often; I like candid photography. However, when I’ve got a message I’d like to communicate via photography, attempting to find an ideal visual representation of that message in a scene over which I have no control is not usually effective.
Imagine trying to write a story or song only with words or sounds that just happen to appear in front of you as you sat there trying to compose something? Sure, a random word or sound might be the inspiration for a story or song; but at some point the author of the story or song has to become proactive and make the composition happen from inside their brain. To me, this is why I have to construct scenarios and scenes and then photograph them–in order to accurately render (with photos) a message that is coming from within me.
The way I see it, composing “hits” is typically a proactive activity where the “author” initiates and guides the production of the content. Though “art” can conceivably be produced as a reactive activity, it gives the artist less control over the process, the message, and the structure of the final product.
Paintings can be masterpieces, and paintings are typically one-frame visual representations. Why not produce one-frame photo masterpieces?
This latter aspect is more of a personal preference. A single frame “masterpiece” can be produced; it does happen. However, for me to be satisfied with one frame, I’d have to make it quite “layered” to get in the depth of content I’d want to communicate…and photographs, as opposed to paintings, tend to be more simplified and focused (as I discussed previously) on a single facet of a scene.
There are certainly photos that operate more at a overall scene level and include lots of simultaneous details and actions; I happen to like those types of photos. But these seem to be the exception. Usually, again, photos are very focused on a single person or action in a scene. Even landscape photos tend to focus on a simple overall shape, “texture”, color/color-combo, or pattern. There is clearly a maxim in photography that “simpler is better”.
So, if people tend to prefer simple photographs, my best way to present depth or complexity with photography is via a series of photos.
Therefore, if I want to create a meaningful (to me) “hit” using photography, a planned photo series seems the way to go!
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