THE VISUAL JOURNEY
I believe that a photograph never lies about the photographer. Yes, the photographer. Not the subject. The photographer! We all see the world filtered through our own personal life histories. What we know and what we believe influence how we see.
Whether we reveal it consciously or unconsciously, we all have a point of view. Our photographs “reflect” how we see. Our emotions, our fears, our thoughts, our ideas all inform our photographs — and reveal our inner feelings about the world.
Self-awareness is key to becoming a good photographer, and being a good photographer enhances self-awareness; this is a symbiotic relationship. Recognizing your vision is not something that happens overnight, usually. Some of us pick up a camera knowing what it is we want to say. But for most of us that discovery can take years and in most cases is a continuously changing process.
The camera offered a way to document my point of view. So I set out to make my own pictures and then to get them published. This grew into a life-long mission — to show the decency, dignity, and virtuous character of people of African descent. This has never precluded my making photographs of all kinds of people. I do. In fact, a recent project harks back to my original passion to document the wisdom that I saw in my older relatives. This project, called Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging, is again about capturing what I was not seeing elsewhere. In our society, elders when not being ignored are too often portrayed as frail, ill or in some way compromised — in short, an unwelcome burden. So I made a conscious decision to show others what I feel is missing in our society’s attitude toward its eldest members. Aging is a blessing. I believe that aging gracefully can become a work of art.
I shot hundreds of images of elders of all races. My publisher selected my images of African Americans. Eighty of these ordinary yet extraordinary individuals make up my book and national traveling exhibition, Elder Grace: The Nobility of Aging. However, numerous smaller more intimate exhibitions were spun off for communities throughout New York City and its environs. These local shows — in banks, community centers, libraries and hospitals — feature people of all races. Confronting ageism is the message here.
Recently I appeared on a museum panel with jazz photographer Charles “Chuck” Stewart. He told those present he came to photography at a young age. His mother gave him his first camera, and the day he brought it to school, opera singer Marion Anderson visited. His photographs quickly became bestsellers among the student body, encouraging and showing him that photography could have emotional and financial rewards. As for jazz, he says, he always wanted to be a musician. His camera was his ticket to the music scene. He naturally wanted to document the people he most admired. His photographs reveal his passion for music and the respect he holds for its creators.
Ansel Adams, whose breathtaking photographs have become icons of the American West, was a fearsome propagandist for environmentalists. His photographs leave little room for discussion.
One of the greatest American muckraking photographers, Jacob Reis, used his photography in the early 1900s to bring to light an appalling chapter in American history of unregulated child labor and dreadful urban living conditions. His photographs are particularly amazing because he never sacrificed the beauty and humanity of his subjects to tell his story. Never defined by their condition, his subjects are human first; being poor and downtrodden comes second.
Some photographers use the medium to confront fears. Whatever draws photographers to war would take volumes and several knowledgeable psychiatrists to untangle, but my guess is fear is a major contributor. We confront things to break their hold over us. Sometimes we may not even be aware, on a conscious level, of the devils we may be exorcising.
Perhaps you are beginning to see themes in your photographs, but probably only if you’ve been shooting for awhile. It takes time to amass a collection of photographs and more time to adequately assess your work, but like any self-examination, it is worthwhile and revealing to do so. Talk to any artist and he or she will most likely tell you that certain topics seem to naturally pop up in their work. Writers have shared with me that after writing several stories, they might discover that they are analyzing over and over again, in different stories and in different manners, issues of non-communication in coupled relationships or perhaps lost souls in a materialistic society. Whatever it may be, certain themes recur. The same holds for painters who express their ideas visually. It may be aggression, it may be love, it may be loneliness, but the exploration of issues and ideas is there.
A Collective Voice
The individual image says one thing; collectively, in a photo-essay they can have the power to say more and ever better things.
For almost three decades, I traveled back and forth to Africa, South America and the Caribbean documenting the traditions and culture of people of African descent. When I began my travels in the 1970s, no one, or few people had heard of the African Diaspora. In fact, African people didn’t often think collectively then. But in the 1990s, new thoughts began to creep into academia. First scholars whispered about an African Diaspora; in time a full-fledged debate raged. One day hearing all those words flung back and forth, I realized I had the documentation to help put this argument to rest. I began organizing the “finger exercises” I had been accumulating for three decades. I put them into collective categories, such as ancient places, spirituality, sanctuaries, and manners. I made more trips in search of the missing pieces to fill in the harmony and add rhythm to make my symphony. It came together as my fourth book: Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa. I like to think that each of the images in this book is strong on its own, but there is no doubt that the collective voice of all the photographs offers a fuller, richer and more powerful story.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t immediately know what it is you want to say with your photographs, and in your photography. Even those of us who think we do, often find it changing. By paying attention to your work and identifying themes that naturally develop, in time you will recognize your inner vision.
First you have to amass a body of work to examine. By learning how to articulate your vision and all the possibilities available to you as you sight through your camera, you will begin to develop an understanding of what you are seeing and shooting. Your eye will become clearer. Your aim surer.
KINESICS & LINGUISTICS
The Visual Window
A camera can’t compose a picture. Only your eye can. Seeing and recording with a camera is a special process that has its own language — a visual language. As with any language, you start by building vocabulary. Visual vocabulary is made up of moments that happen right before your eyes. Most of these subtle markers of time go unnoticed. Day-to-day living does not require you to be so attentive to visual details. You have to learn to identify them — to train your eye to separate out these visual nuggets, just as your ear learns to differentiate the words of a language before you can speak it.
Your visual vocabulary must become as automatic as your spoken one before you can begin to compose strong images.
Visual vocabulary is defined first by elements of behavior — human behavior and the behavior of other natural things. Second there is light, which by its very nature is ever-changing. Then there are form and space and the variations that give them dimension: shade or color, texture, pattern and rhythm. Form and space are the positive and negative elements in a photograph. To summarize, visual vocabulary is made up of behavior, light, form and space.
Corners in Time
Stand on a crowded street corner, and you will witness a multitude of behaviors in a very short time. Once you start to pay attention, you’ll be amazed at how many subtle changes in behavior you actually observe every day of your life. The idea is to get to the point where you instinctively recognize when behavior alters. It is at these moments of transition that you are given a glimpse into the nature of a moment. I call those critical junctures corners in time. They occur when a person retires one persona and begins to take on another, almost like changing clothes.
Drama often reveals itself in these crucial moments of change.
Light is the second component necessary for visual understanding.Think of it as your energizer. Its presence activates everything it touches. A few years into my career after I had worked for Look, Time and Newsweek, I went to see John Sarkowski, photographer and then-curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography collection. I had always thought I had been attentive to light and that I understood it. After selecting a couple of my images for the museum’s collection, Mr. Sarkowski suddenly said, “I don’t see the time of day in your photographs. Show me the time of day.”
Time of day, I realized then, is defined by light. I had already become proficient shooting into light and using it to enhance drama, but something was missing. And Mr. Sarkowski identified it. Where the sun is, the angle of its rays, shadows, even streetlights all reveal time of day. After my encounter with Mr. Sarkowski, I set out to train my eye to recognize and register the subtleties of light, and, where appropriate, record them in my photographs.
Sunrise and sunset differentiate the beginning and end of a day. Less obvious examples are the slanted rays of the sun suggesting early morning or late afternoon, and long shadows and short ones of high noon. I particularly like shooting outdoors in what I call 30 degree light. It is the time just after sunrise and just before sunset. There is about an hour and a half window as the sun is coming up and going down when the rays slant from 0 to about 30 degrees; shadows become quite long and dramatic then. There is something exceptional about the light quality. In the morning it can be fresh and bright; and at night it often becomes rich and moody.
Now we come to form and space, two more ingredients in visual vocabulary. They are the positive and negative aspects in a photograph. Sometimes the space is more important than the forms. Then the space informs. Take for example, two people talking. Since photography is a visual medium, body language is more important than spoken words.
I personally enjoy showing the space between and around people, created by their body language, to illustrate behavior. It can be very revealing. When the space is harmonious, I call it emotional spooning. Lovers and good friends are comfortable with this intimate kind of spacing. However, some relationships are forks and knives. You know immediately by the unpeaceful space between persons that there is anger, jealousy, frustration, defiance, irritation, or some other painful emotion being felt.
How Much Do You See?
To fully appreciate form and space, it is necessary to examine the shades or colors, patterns, textures and rhythm that are all around us. Walk into an unfamiliar room. Spend a few minutes looking around. Exit and then see how much detail you can recall. Were there pictures on the wall? How many? How were they arranged? What was the pattern on the rug or floor? Was there wallpaper, paint, paneling on the walls? What color? Were there chairs? Did the seats have texture? Were they caned? Upholstered? How many windows? Did they have curtains? Shades or blinds? Were they open or closed? Was there a fireplace? Any lamps? What shape? Were there books or magazines laying around? Bookcases? Any vases of flowers? Any plants?
Doing this exercise makes one aware of how much detail you missdaily. This activity can be completed with a camera, but I suggest running through it first without your camera.
All the elements in a visual vocabulary work together. The more you study each one, the more you will realize that they are all interconnected. As with the words in your spoken vocabulary, they work together and are sometimes indistinguishable.
The Three C’s
Now that your eye is becoming attuned to the subtleties of behavior, light, form and space, you’re ready to begin composing pictures. But first I want to introduce three more concepts that will help you structure coherent images and communicate your personal vision. I call these the three C’s: Content, Composition and Context. A thorough understanding of these is just as important as building your visual vocabulary.
As you familiarize yourself with these three concepts remember that all art is a personal statement, and you are the one making it.
People or Places?
We’ll start with content, which is about the subject or what’s in a photograph. The best way to get comfortable with content is to look at the works of other photographers who make pictures of the subject matter that most interests you. Are you drawn to people or the environment? Shoot whatever you are drawn to at the moment. It’s the rare person who knows immediately what he or she wants to shoot and the even rarer person who doesn’t either change and/or enlarge or narrow that passion throughout a lifetime. There is no law against changing your mind, especially on the road to growth and clarity.
The second concept important for structuring strong images is composition. Good composition causes your eye to linger. You are compelled to pay attention when visual elements are organized into a strong, coherent composition. There are many ways to show a tree — straight on, a leaf, the trunk, some roots, the line of the branches against the sky, a knot, and on and on. Choosing any one of these approaches says nothing about composition. But how you structure what you decide to photograph makes all the difference.
How you compose what’s in the photograph is as important as its content.
Balance is key to good composition. It’s the rare photograph that is bisymmetrical; nature is not perfect. But balance is still key — asymmetrical balance. This kind of balance depends on your eye to equalize the elements in the composition. Balance is contingent on shapes, the space around them, their tone or color, and their placement.
Lines are another important element in composition. Diagonal lines, which I use often, give movement to your photographs. A diagonal focus adds energy and depth to a composition. Straight lines are more stable; the elements are not going anywhere, and they are often quite strong. Curving lines suggest movement and can also serve as connecters for elements in a photograph and give the elements cohesion.
Empty space, often called negative space in a photograph, is critical for good composition. The demarcation of space can greatly influence composition. An accent in a wide-open space can add depth and perspective to the main elements in your photograph. The important thing is to be aware of accents and use them to break space. Keep it simple, because the simplest visual statements are the strongest.
Reflections of Living
Now let’s look at the third C. First there was Content, next Composition and now Context. Our external vision is contextualized by our internal sense of self. In what context do you see what you want to photograph? Even if you’re not immediately or even consciously aware of it, you see things (we all do!) in the context of your own life and experience. Are you attracted by what you are photographing? Are you repelled, awed, frightened, overcome, angry at what you see? When you are conscious of these feelings, you can make them work for you, or — if need be — overcome them.
Think about what bothers you, and confront it. Are you afraid of height? Try making photographs from a glass elevator or from the top of the Empire State Building. Are you shy? Try approaching people and asking to make their photograph. It’s not as difficult as you might think. It has been my experience that many people participate in the photo-making process because they are flattered by the attention. Remember you are making a record of their being and offering them another view of themselves.
Shoot from the Heart
It takes practice to learn a language. You probably don’t remember how long it took you to learn the language you speak. But most of us don’t start forming coherent sentences until we are at least four years old. That’s a lot of practice time. A visual language takes just as much time and commitment. When you become fluent in it, you will be ready to handle the split second decisions necessary to make exceptional photographs.
By putting you heart into your picture making, your eye will follow.