Rule 4: The Photographer in the Sensual World

I can just about taste it (the lettuce, that is, not the turtle).
I can just about taste it (the lettuce, that is, not the turtle).

To start today, let me don my Captain Obvious uniform, right down to the special hat and epaulettes. Let’s begin with a blindingly obvious statement, and then work our way to the somewhat-less-obvious: photography, being a visual medium, relies a lot on the eyes, not only in its consumption, but also in the making of a photo.

Now the less-obvious bit. We spend so much time thinking about the photograph as pure visual that there’s a tendency to forget the other senses play a big part both in making a photo, and also in its eventual perception. You’ve got those other four senses lying around, as it were, so it’d be a shame not to use them just ‘cause there’s a camera in your hand.

Think about all the associations tied in with our senses. They aren’t just a way to interact with and process our environments; they’re a conduit to a vast storehouse of memories. All those tastes, smells, textures, and sounds are also how we interpret and understand the world and what’s in it. When someone looks at a photo – yours or anyone else’s – they’re not just looking; they’re unpacking all the other “stuff” that’s present in the photo.

Now, let’s look at it from the photographer’s point of view. The question becomes how to take all of that stuff – the associations that go with a lifetime’s sensory experience – and convey it in a photo. It’s one thing to snap a photo of, say, a Thanksgiving dinner; it’s quite another to be mindful of it to a degree that you can convey something of it through your photos. How do you take all those sounds, tastes, textures and smells and somehow squeeze them onto a 4”x6” piece of paper?

For practical purposes, it’s hard to get a single photo that’s going to impact all the senses equally. Since we all perceive things differently, one person looking at a picture of a Thanksgiving dinner might be drawn to the texture of the cranberry sauce, while another might be “hearing” one of the guests saying grace over the meal. I’ve mentioned being present in the moment when you take a picture, and here’s another reason to do that: besides the visual, what’s the next thing having the biggest impact on you right then, and how might you incorporate that into the photo? Challenge yourself; how can you convey those non-visual elements of your scene? How do you pick up on the stray bits of conversation, the feel of a linen tablecloth, the taste of the turkey and stuffing, the bouquet of the glass of wine you just drank?

Brian Eno once lamented that too much of music comes from, and is aimed at, the head. It neglects the feet, the heart, and so much else. He said that music should never make the listener ask, “Well, that’s nice, but what’s the rest of me for?” Photography’s like that, too, both for the person viewing your work, and also for you as you’re making the photo. Giving your other senses a space in the photo, even if you just choose one other sense on which to focus for any given scene, adds a dimensionality and depth that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Photography can be a wonderful feast for the eyes, but it shouldn’t starve the rest of you.

Postscript: As I was milling over the ideas for this post, researching, writing, and rewriting, I came across two great articles that I’d like to share with you. The first comes from Sara Healy, whose writing and “story photos” are great prompts for art, writing, and just thinking about creativity. The other comes from Mel and Philip Tulin’s Outdoor Eyes, a ridiculously comprehensive site for outdoorsy types, some of whom may also happen to be photographers. “Seeing With Outdoor Eyes” says some of what I’ve said above plus a whole lot more.

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