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Photos and Story Telling

Inerpreting PaintingsBooks after books instruct us on how to interpret paintings. We even have stacks of books educating us about how to tell a good impressionist painting from a bad one. Why is the cupboard so bare when it comes to interpreting photographs?


Sure we have practical guides about exposure, white balance, and getting things focused, and even the more esoteric rule of thirds, but nothing like the volume of guidance when it comes to paintings. No surprise that photography contests are judged by subjective criteria like whether the photo "pops". Corn pops; pictures just hang. So it is that I crossed paths with Linda, a college teacher of art appreciation, for paintings of course, who gave me an idea that could work for both.


Linda looks for a story in her paintings. Sometimes staring for long periods, Linda would do her detective work on the details, looking for clues about the people, places, or things displayed. A face, sometimes just the eyes, would reveal an emotion. If that was fear or wonder, Linda would look for more details about what caused the emotion. She's the first to admit that clues are sometimes scarce and she has to do some imagineering, but never against the clues gathered so far.


If the picture has no people, Linda builds her story around the tale of the water's journey through the mountains on its way to the waterfall. About a mountain, it could be its rise or erosion, or the many things it has seen in between.


Big Horn SeepAnthropomorphism is totally allowed. Is this bighorn sheep really angry, afraid (not likely), or just curious? What experience could it have had to make it feel that way. So the story unfolds, and soon there is a yarn about tourists antagonizing the sheep, foolishly grabbing its big horn, and how the story went south for them from that point.


Telling stories takes words, so photoblogs are natural constructs for photos that tell stories. If a photoblog can tell a story, so can songs. The lyrics of the best ones compound the effect. Consider how the music and the lyrics of the Sound of Silence combine for their powerful message. This brings me to the ability of all three together to deliver a story, which is why I like these "mblogs". These are just tools however, and we still have to return to our inner child, the one that can imagine a hundred stories by playing inside a cardboard box. Then we can piece together remarkable stories from photographs.


Steinbeck did something like this. When asked how he produced such realistic and engaging characters, he said he had an exercise to build that ability, much like one can build a muscle through exercise. He would sit in a cafe, nursing his drink over an hour during which he would build stories around the rest of the cafe's customers. A gal glancing at her watch, for example, would be waiting for her late lover. The red lipstick was to impress him, perhaps because she had something important to say. Since she wasn't smiling, her news is that she was leaving him. No, then there would be no lipstick to look sexy. She must be laying down an ultimatum about the other woman.


So it would go until Steinbeck had clothed each cafe customer in a story, and that story would define their background, character, and aspirations. He rarely used them in one of his books, but his message is that story building was how he cultivated his craft as well as how he savored the world around him. He imagineered his way to wonder, and perhaps that is the best way to interpret photographs, to judge how well they support our ability to create stories that engage us.


Flower With Turned PetalIf we admit story telling as an interpretation method, we have defined a very subjective experience. Each of us come with our own stories, and one photograph will drive us to invent a different story than someone else, in fact, the same photograph can inspire two different stories the two times that we look at it. The picture at right wouldn't win kudos for color or clarity, but I found it a good story birthplace. I rambled on in my mind about a mother's care for her children. On another day, my imagination director took me on a ride about standing out as an individual, how that one petal turned and stood out bravely from the others. A clear and straight picture of that flower may have worked in a flower book to identify it, but that would launch fewer stories.


Now imagine if I were a judge in a contest, appreciating the photographs based on the stories birthing in my mind. How unfair to the photographer, basing their ribbon on my ability to tell stories, yet this is what I feel many judges do. I don't think they're being ingenuous, in fact, I feel they're responding to a very genuine human urge to experience art deeply. All it means is that photographers cannot categorize or rate their products against objective metrics like the bad news on my bathroom scale or the good mileage of my little car. Judges pretend to rate photographs objectively, mainly because we've paid them to try, but perhaps we're all just telling stories.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Shikli

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Contributor: Peter Shikli
Created: 06/26/2015
Updated: 07/08/2015
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