Creating an effective narrative through visual images is not easy to do. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been developing guidelines for doing just that. I was busily drafting blog posts about how to ask yourself key questions about what you really want to say in your work, choosing your next project, pre-visualizing that project, choosing the format and media to support your vision, working within the scope of your plan, editing your images, sequencing the images to create a clear narrative, blah blah blah.
And that was all to explain how to build to a single-layered narrative. This morning, I stumbled upon this series of images from 1939 by Russell Lee (yes, once again I was spending time on Shorpy.com). Forget the single narrative. In these three images, Lee creates a multi-layered narrative between the multiple subjects and the viewer.
Only in the first of the three photograph does is eye contact made between subject and viewer, but it’s enough to take the viewer from observer to participant for all three images. Everything in these images screams spontaneity, yet each is framed and composed as if a well-planned painting, especially the final one.
In an era of mobile phone cameras, instant uploads and disposable digitals, you’d think that we’d see exhibitions of spontaneous moments like these in every gallery. Maybe the convenience of “look at me” modern photographic gadgets and social media sites has driven the photographer in us to become too much a part of the subject.
The resulting images may be fun and worth posting for the entertainment value, but it doesn’t exactly make for good photography, or good photographers. OK so those images are not meant to be fine art. That doesn’t mean we need to stop being good at making them. One of the keys to becoming a better photographer is caring enough about the craft to get out of the way.
A good series is not about, “look at me”. It’s about looking at the images and visually listening to what is said through them. Your images really do speak for themselves. If you’ve done your job, the viewer will ask about the photographer later. It’s been said that the photographer is in every photograph. True in one respect, but I think the photographer should be invisible in every image as well. Get out of the way more often.
By the way, Russell Lee is the same photographer who created the image discussed in my post, “What I Learned from a 1939 Migrant Worker. Lee’s “From All Over: 1939” proves that a series of images is not needed to establish a lasting narrative. Sometimes a single image is enough.
And if that image is really successful, you can even skip the artist statement. It will only get in the way too.