Beyond Photography: Bill Bruford, Meet Sebastião Salgado

If you’ve never heard of Bill Bruford — who, at one time or another, drummed for Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Gong, UK, David Torn, and Kazumi Watanabe, not to mention his own projects with Bruford, Earthworks, Patrick Moraz, and Michael Borstlap* — you’re missing out on quite a bit. As if it weren’t enough that Bruford’s tastefully polyrhythmic, delightfully off-kilter drumming practically defined Progressive Rock, the drummer went back to his jazz roots in 1987, and proceeded to expand the boundaries of what was possible behind the kit there as well.

I followed Bruford’s career through myriad twists and turns from my teenage years up to his retirement in 2009. His music was challenging, but always accessible. The man clearly didn’t like to stay in one place for too long. But for as much as I enjoyed the music, one thing he’s said has always stuck with me: “You exist to serve the music. The music does not exist to serve you.” He expanded on this in a recent interview, saying that musicians too often approach music thinking only of what they can take from, rather than contribute to, it… an attitude that’s hardly limited to musicians, unfortunately.

Sebastião Salgado: Fireball, Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991
Sebastião Salgado: Fireball, Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait, 1991

Listening to that interview, I got to thinking about someone else who successfully reinvented himself and his work, and who’s likewise prospered because he’s consistently as willing to contribute to photography as to take from it. Sebastião Salgado started out as an economist, but by 1973 he would turn his attention to photography.

The nearly four decades since have seen Salgado documenting people on or near the margins of society. Concerned more with what he terms the “archeology” of the changes wrought in the physical and psychological landscape by the forces of modernization, globalization and capitalism than with art, his work has nonetheless earned the label and reputation of serious art. In his books An Uncertain Grace, Workers, Terra, Migrations, Sahel and Africa, Salgado has turned an unflinching but sympathetic eye on humanity in all its forms. His work succeeds precisely because he approaches his subjects on their own terms:  “The picture is not made by the photographer, the picture is more good or less good in function of the relationship that you have with the people you photograph.” One could argue that as a documentary photographer, he could do nothing else; however, a good many current photographers who claim to work in a Street or documentary style don’t take nearly as much care with their subjects as Salgado does.

On one level, Salgado and Bruford probably couldn’t be more different. They’re separated by geography, experience, their respective media, and quite a lot else. On the other hand, I think that if the two were ever to meet face to face, they’d find that they’ve operated, each in his own way, in and from a very similar place. It’s an outlook and approach to craft that relies heavily on a response to what’s going on (whether it’s a copper miner or a Tony Levin bassline), based on an active act of collaboration rather than a strong-willed insistance that there’s only one right approach. As Salgado himself put it, “It’s not the photographer who makes the picture, but the person being photographed.”

As I mentioned earlier this week (Rule 22: The Art is to Conceal the Art), your ego is not your art. I do think that creativity and a healthy dose of ego necessarily go together; none of us who create, who put the love and the sweat equity into perfecting our craft, do it for the sake of being ignored, and on some level I think we do what we do because we feel that it can make a difference, even if only to one other person besides ourselves. However, if we allow our ego to be a motive rather than just another ingredient, and decide that really, what we do or make is there only for the sake of attracting wealth and followers, then we’ve immediately got it ass-backwards.

That ego can manifest itself in any number of ways. If we’re going to continue the musical analogy, let’s imagine for a minute that you belong to a band that relies heavily on improvisation. You’ve got this bass figure that sounds like Jaco channelling Hendrix. Never mind that the rest of the band is playing something that sounds like it came from “Flamenco Sketches,” you’re getting your Jaco on regardless, dammit. Well, guess what? It’s not only musicians who do it. The rest of us have done it, too, from self-proclaimed street photographers** practicing ambush tactics on their subjects, to photographers who have a favorite Photoshop preset that gets used on everything from wedding portraits to landscapes, or portrait photographers who’ll try to whack their square peg subjects into whatever round hole they’ve relied on for years. If you approach your subject — whether it’s a living subject or an inanimate one, the end result’s still much the same — with the assumption that you know what’s best for it, trying to bend it to your will, it doesn’t matter if your subject’s a bird in flight or variations on “Birdland.” You will have stifled any room that your subject had to breathe, and will have closed your work off to what your subject had to say.

Let me repeat: I don’t think that there’s any work that’s totally devoid of self, of ego. But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in these “pages,” your craft is about engagement. It’s about finding a space in which creator and creation can coexist, communicate, and be present to one another; in essence, our work is about collaboration with and within our medium. That collaboration works best when it’s not about us alone.

*This is just a partial list, mind you; an exhaustive one, with discography, would be one very long document.

**I can name names, but I’d rather not. Not out of any sense of professional decorum, mind you; just that I hate drawing attention to people whose only aim seems to be whoring for attention in the first place.

Bill Bruford:

On Amazon: Click Here

Sebastião Salgado

Website: Amazonas Images
On Amazon: Click Here

Your purchases through the Amazon affiliate links in this post help keep The First 10,000 going. Thanks for your support!

Rule 22: The Art is to Conceal the Art

Small World: Greece, Athens, Acropolis. 1991 (Martin Parr)

The quotation in the title exists in many forms, and dates at least as far back as Roman times. The rhetorician Quintilian (35 CE – 100 CE) said,  “The perfection of art is to conceal art.” Another quotation — unattributed, but probably contemporary — says, ars est celare artem (“True art is to conceal art.”) Centuries later, Oscar Wilde said, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”

The idea obviously has considerable durability. Why? What’s being said here that manages to resonate across different cultures and ages, and what does it have to do with us? Here’s my $.02 worth:

When you love your craft — whatever it may be, but let’s assume photography for now ’cause, well, that’s what we do here — at some point or another, you’ll find yourself wanting to move beyond “mere” craft to something that’s closer to art. You work your tail off finding or developing your style, maybe engage in a little self-promotion. However, if you’re going to make a photo that’s artistic — or done with artistic intent, let’s say — you shouldn’t call attention to the fact that you’re doing something artistic.* People who like your work are going to be drawn to its honesty (real or perceived) versus its artifice, generally speaking.

Let’s get specific about this and compare two photographers, chosen more or less at random. At one extreme, you have Magnum photographer Martin Parr. Parr’s built his reputation on street and documentary photography, catching people in their element (and often, one suspsects, completely unawares). There’s a simplicity and honesty about his work that works both as document and as art because it’s honest, and refreshingly free of artifice.  

Mary Kate Olsen by Terry Richardson

At the other extreme, you have someone like Terry Richardson, the photographer whose style has come to define Vice, and without whom American Apparel would no doubt have to find a much different aesthetic sense. Like Parr, he’s got an instantly recognizable style; unlike Parr, Richardson’s style is like a Fabrege egg: all surface, but totally empty if you try to look any deeper. Richardson’s schtick, essentially making every photo look like a prepubescent heroin addict’s mugshot, gets old quick. To me, he’s a great example of what happens when you draw attention to the act of photography, explicitly calling attention to the “art.” To extend the comparison between the two photographers, Parr’s photos are about their subjects, whereas Richardson’s photos are very much about Terry Richardson.**

My take on this, for what it’s worth: worrying about whether something is art is a bit like worrying about whether something is authentic. Similarly, trying to make something an art object is like trying to make it authentic. In both cases, you end up worrying about the concept so much that you end up losing sight of the thing itself, or overdoing it in order to make it something you think it ought to be rather than letting it simply be what it is, as it is. Focus on your craft, and on doing what you do to the peak of your abilities (making sure you’re always stretching your abilities to expand the boundaries of what’s possible). The art, at that point, will take care of itself. If you call attention to the art of it, you’ve just moved beyond art to artifice, which ensures that both the art and the authenticity about which you were worried go straight out the window.


*Unless you’re cranking it up to 11 as a commentary on the fact that you’re doing art, but even that gets tired after a while.

** I say this with the awareness that any photographer’s work is, of course, quite telling about the person who made it. Having said that, I think that each photo also says a lot about where the photographer’s placed their priorities. Some photographers make what’s going on behind the camera every bit as much a locus of attention as what’s going on in front of it, which makes the photographer’s role every bit as central as the subject’s. I’m also aware that this is a highly subjective judgment on my part, and your preference/mileage may vary.

Burn The Box

Reflected Flag

Whether you’ve been doing photography (or some other creative endeavor) for about five minutes, or for something closer to five decades, it helps to think about your craft, your approach to your subject matter, and eventually, even your thinking about your thinking. It’s easy to find yourself blocked from time to time, unsure of what (or even whether) to photograph next because it feels like the well’s run dry. It’s easier still sometimes to find yourself wanting to do something different just for the simple reason that you’ve been doing your “thing” for so long.

If this were a certain type of blog, and if I were a certain breed of blogger, I could tell you to just “think outside the box” and be done with it. End of post, end of story. Pat self on back, have beer, and think of the next blindingly obvious bit of pablum to foist upon my unsuspecting readers. There’s just one small issue: the problem with “Thinking Outside the Box” is that our “boxes” aren’t a bunch of discrete little things stacked on shelves. They tend to be more like those nesting Russian dolls, one box inside another inside another. We think we’re thinking outside the box, only to find that we’ve traded our usual box for a larger, or smaller, one.

Worse still, we might even find we’ve traded our box for someone else’s. We follow someone’s formula, or try to learn from their example, only to find that all of a sudden, we’re boxed in by a process of thought or creativity that doesn’t feel right because it isn’t ours. Individuality is just that — it’s as individual as you are, but it happens by default and not by effort. The easiest way to get out of a box or a rut is to be aware of your boxes – your processes, methods, ruts, even your prejudices – especially when they box you in, but don’t obsess over them. Acknowledge them, play with them, but don’t allow them to become an impediment to doing, or being, what you really want.

Sometimes, just casting light on our process is the thing that allows us to change it or trade it for another. This isn’t something passive; you’re going to have to be aware at the various stages of your creative process, breaking down each step, and being aware of the what, how, and especially why of each one. When you start to unpack all of those steps — both as you’re taking the photo, and when you’re evaluating your finished results — you can begin to identify the ways you might be boxing yourself in, and perhaps even gain some insight as to why you’re doing it. Having done that, you can start taking the necessary steps to change what you feel needs changing.

Postscript: Tell me: What do you do when you find your work’s beginning to get stale? How do you change your thinking or your practice to refresh what you’re doing, and how well has it worked for you?

Rule 20: Try to View Your Work Objectively


Be honest, now. How good are your photos, really?

It can be hard to be objective about your own work. We’ve already discussed what happens at one extreme, where we can be our own worst critics, refusing to acknowledge when we’ve done some of our best work. It’s easy to be so focused on how far we’ve yet to go that it’s just as easy to be blind to how far we’ve already come. At the other extreme, there are a number of circumstances in which our work isn’t at its best, and we can be just as slow to acknowledge that.

Not least of these is subjects about which we’re passionate. Especially if your subject is something that’s already inherently photogenic (kids or pets, for instance), it’s easy to get caught up in that and overlook otherwise glaring flaws in your photos. In my case, having an abiding interest in history and architecture, a photo like the one above of the Statue of Liberty is a no-brainer. Of course, when you’re dealing with a subject as frequently photographed as Lady Liberty, there’s a challenge in getting some new angle or shot that nobody’s gotten or thought of previously; suffice to say, this photo doesn’t really fit either of those criteria. It’s not incompetent, but it doesn’t have anything about it that’d make someone sit up and take notice, either.

Yauco, Puerto Rico

Another challenge arises when a subject has strong memories, or a compelling story, attached to it. This is especially true of older photos you may have taken. Take a gander at the picture at the left, taken in 2009. It was taken on my honeymoon while we were passing through Yauco, in Puerto Rico.* We passed by those colorful, cheery-looking houses several times, and that scene would probably be burned in my memory with or without the photo. Does it have a sentimental value to me? Sure does. Would someone else buy it if I framed and matted it? Don’t bet on it.

If you have the time to explain the story, the image can still work on some level. But if you’re showing your 2,354 vacation photos to your in-laws, they’re not going to have the patience — or, probably, enough caffiene — to sit through the lot if you’ve got to explain each photo because you’ve come to realize it doesn’t stand well on its own. That goes double if you had in mind to turn those vacation snaps into cash. Some images work because, by themselves, they have an undeniable sense of place about them; others may work even if there’s nothing that immediately identifies them as being from somewhere in particular just because the image itself is compelling. In either instance, if you find yourself having to speak for your photos, they’re not working as well as you think no matter how much fun you had in Podunk.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that we sometimes need to bring some objectivity to our own work. Try to view your own work the same as you would anyone else’s, not necessarily looking at it not through the lens of its (or your) history or backstory, but rather through the criteria of what makes a good photo regardless of who was behind the camera. Is the subject compelling? How about the composition? Is it technically proficient? With that, I’d add a simple caveat: don’t be so cold or clinical about your own work that you get rid of something that has a sentimental attachment for you. Just realize that once you’ve decided to set your photography loose on the world, those feelings and meanings may not be as readily apparent to someone else.

*If memory serves, we were waiting para la policia after a minor fender bender.

Rule 19: Delete

Hiding in Plain Sight

There’s nothing like space limitations to impose a little discipline. Your camera’s memory card, your computer’s hard drive, and even an external hard drive are each capable of storing quite a number of photos, but in each case, the amount of storage available to you is finite. What that means, of course, is that sooner or later, you’re going to reach the upper limits of your device’s capacity.

There’s an initial temptation to find workarounds. If your memory card only holds 275 photos in JPG Fine, for instance, you may be tempted to shoot in a high-compression/high-loss format for the sake of saving space. Yes, you might be able to fit 1,000 photos on the card by shooting in JPG Low, but try going back to edit, or God forbid crop, some of those images later; the quality suffers considerably. So you spring for a larger memory card or three… your shot discipline suffers a bit, plus you’ve lost a lot more images if a 16GB card fails than if a 4GB card fails. Backing up your images means going through a lot of DVD’s (if you’re using 4GB cards, each time you fill one, you’re also filling a DVD) or ending up with a choke of images on your computer’s hard drive that slows your system (and can vanish in the blink of an eye if something goes wrong with your system). Even a decent-sized external drive can fill up faster than you’d think.

There’s an easy solution to this. Stop saving so much. Be honest about your work, and develop some kind of workflow around sorting and storing your images. It helps your sanity, but also makes it a lot easier to manage the tremendous pile of photos you’re going to accumulate before you even realize how many you’ve got.

This can be done in a few stages. You can even start in the camera. If you’re photographing a subject that isn’t going to change too much or too quickly, check your images at regular intervals. The purpose of this is twofold. On one hand, if there’s something you’re doing wrong with your settings (you’ve set your exposure compensation without realizing it, you’re shooting at ISO 3200 on a sunny day), you’ve a much better chance of catching it. On the other, it’s a good chance to cull some of the shots that don’t work. While I’ll be the first to admit that viewing your photos on a 3″ LCD isn’t the same as viewing them on a 17″ monitor, think of it this way: if you can tell it doesn’t work by seeing something on that tiny screen, it probably isn’t going to work on a larger one, either.

Next, you can further winnow down your images before doing editing. Some programs, like Lightroom and even Google’s Picasa, offer a number of options for rating and tagging photos. Come up with a system that works for you (five stars for your best work, four for stuff that might need small tweaks, three for something that might work with serious intervention, and two for everything else, for instance) and stick to it. If it doesn’t fall into one of the first three categories, you could probably get rid of it; if you’re unsure, get another pair of eyes on your work, or set them aside to be viewed another time. Sometimes, taking some time away from something is a great chance to see it a bit more objectively when you come back to it again after a time.

Finally, back up your images. This is a best practice for two big reasons. First, storage systems fail. It doesn’t happen often, but it only takes once. Second, this can be another good time to further narrow your files. If you’re backing up on DVD’s, that might mean having 5GB of images when only 4GB will fit on the disc. See if you can cull a gigabyte’s worth before backing up.

It’s been said that the difference between an amateur and a professional is that a professional won’t let you see their mistakes. Our mistakes are numerous no matter what our level of experience is, but as long as you’re learning from those mistakes, there’s no need to hang onto them, and to keep reminding yourself of them. Unless you have a really compelling reason for hanging onto something, consider lightening your — and your computer’s — load.

The Habit of Seeing: Inside the Frame

Figure 1

So after last week, you’re paying much closer attention to what’s outside the viewfinder and outside the frame, right? All well and good, but since we’re dealing with photography here, at some point you’re going to have to, or want to, raise the finder to your eye and actually make a photo. You didn’t think all this seeing business was done just ‘cause you’d figured out what you wanted to photograph, didja?

Okay, so you’re looking through your viewfinder, and there’s your subject, large as life. You’d think you’d be all set at this point. Not quite yet. The same “rules” apply once you’re looking through the finder that applied before you decided on your subject; you still have to apply the same critical process to what’s going on in your finder that you did to what was going on in the larger world outside it.

Figure 2

Consider Figure 1. When I took this shot, I was paying closer attention to the performance artist, capturing her movements and facial expression. It wasn’t ‘til after the shot was made that I took notice of the rest of what was in the frame. Luckily, the apparatus on which she was performing – picture a carbon fiber monopod-cum-stilts thingy, which had her, and the other two women performing with her, tracing long, graceful arcs through the air – was going to bring her back to the area in another swing or two, so I changed my perspective a little, recomposed my shot, waited for it… and ended up with what you see in Figure 2.

There are other things to look for, some of which can be codified into rules (like the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Mean, both of which we’ll stop to consider another time) and others of which have more to do with simple esthetics and personal taste. Sometimes, as with the acrobats shown in the first shots, there’s no getting around the visual distractions, like power lines, traffic lights, and buildings. Among the considerations here weren’t just the crowds, but also the fact that a sizeable area around the performers was cordoned off, for both their and the audience’s safety, so certain shots and angles were off limits. Other circumstances (like shooting on a boat or in a moving car) present similar challenges, since moving in one direction or another can mean the difference between being safe or not.

Figure 3

When that’s the case, you can either look for a different angle, or even for a different subject. Bear in mind that while those background elements can be maddening sometimes – nobody wants a telephone pole sticking out of their head, no matter how good you’ve made the rest of them look – they can also be useful, if used right. You can give a sense of context, or even add touches to your photo that can be a bit disorienting (and therefore compelling in their own right).

Developing a habit of seeing as a part of cultivating your vision means broadening your vision. As we saw last week, we can’t afford to neglect what’s going on outside the frame or the finder; similarly, we can’t ignore what’s going on inside the frame when the decisive moment comes… otherwise, we’re left with a decisively bad photo.

Rule 17: Shoot Where You Are

Missing Pieces (San Juan, Puerto Rico)

I have to admit, I experience travel envy. It’s the season for street fairs, which invariably means photographers showcasing their work.* Some shoot scenes with which I’m already well-acquainted (in and around Manhattan, for instance, or various locales on the Jersey shore), but some also have gorgeous shots made in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere, and that’s where the envy sets in.

Gimme a ticket to Barcelona, or Buenos Aires… hell, even Boston, I think to myself, and then I snap back to reality. In photography, as with so much else, you’re always where you’re supposed to be, even if you’re not always immediately sure why that is. And that’s part of the problem, in a way; it all starts with the why. Figure out your why, and the other questions start to fall into place (what goes in the viewfinder? How do I frame it?), but without it, your why might as well be, “Why take this photo?”

I understand the restlessness, believe me. I photograph quite a bit on foot (and there are reasons for this, which I’ll take up later), but when you’re photographing within walking distance – whether it’s a walk from your home or from your car – the grass is always greener, the scenery or the people that much more interesting, somewhere just out of reach. Cut that out, because if you keep doing that, you’re not going to be present in the moment, or present to your surroundings. Your eye’s in the viewfinder, but your mind… well, it’s wandered off somewhere else, and at some point, your photos are going to reflect that. Being an absent-minded photographer can be bad enough (I speak from experience), but taking absent-minded photos isn’t helping you either.

This, for me, is the bottom line: the things that make a good photo are completely independent of geography. The fundamentals of exposure, lighting, composition and the like all apply whether you’re in Peoria or Paris. Yes, if you plunk a good photographer down in Salvador during Carnival, s/he’s going to get some breathtaking shots. But that same photographer could also, in all likelihood, walk out their front or back door and capture something that you’d want to frame and put on your wall. If, on the other hand, you take a bad or mediocre photographer, it doesn’t matter whether you give them a round-trip ticket to Venice or Venice Beach, they’re just going to come back with dull photos of exotic locations.

Try making the most of where you are. It can be challenging (or even trying, depending on how often you see the same stuff day in and day out), but that challenge can also be a part of what aids the growth of your craft. Besides, it doesn’t have to be exactly the same spot every time; if you can learn to appreciate, and find the photos in, your everyday surroundings, it becomes much easier when you’re in a fresh environment to find something that’s unique, or a unique way to approach the same stuff that we’ve all seen.

*It also invariably means at least one tent with some Peruvian guy playing Abba songs on a Pan flute, band accompaniment optional.

The Habit of Seeing: Outside the Frame


Only those who stand outside the frame are capable of seeing the whole picture. – Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Quick question for you: when does composition begin? If you’re only starting to look, or truly see, once you’ve got the viewfinder to your eye, you’re a bit too late. Getting your best photos relies on learning to see all of what’s in front of you, in order to find a worthy shot in what can sometimes be a great big mess of clutter (or, alternately, sheer boredom).

There are, of course, a few reasons to pay close attention. For one thing, what we think of as our subject – the first thing that catches our eye – might be obscuring, or drawing our attention away from another, more compelling subject. I’ve had this happen more than once in my own photos; I’ll get the shot, and when I get home and view it on my monitor, I realize that there was something else going on there that I’d totally missed the first time I looked. Sometimes that “something else” made, or would have made, for a more interesting photo if I’d been paying closer attention.

Similarly, sometimes it’s not just a single subject that makes the photo work. Sometimes it’s a pair, or group, of related things that reinforce each other. Other times, the juxtaposition of unlike or seemingly disparate things give you a different meaning than either of them would on their own. If we’re not paying attention, we’re missing those relationships, and the little things that can turn a competent shot into a great one.

Then there are times that you see something, or someone, that just makes you say, “Huh?” Things that at a glance, blend into a scene, but which, if you take the extra second to take notice of them and really think about them, end up being the visual equivalent of a pebble in your sneakers – they jab at you a bit because there’s something just a little bit “off” about them. Neglect the area outside the frame, and what’s inside it just might suffer for it.

The photo accompanying this post is an example of one of the times I got it right. I’ve shot that gargoyle (and the other three that accompany him) many times, often at different times of day. This time, I noticed birds flying around the gargoyles, and waited to see what they’d do (using my zoom as a spotting scope). One little guy flew right into the gargoyle’s mouth, but had that look about him that birds get when they’re not going to stay in one spot for very long. I waited, and this is what I got. I could’ve simply gotten the gargoyle and gone home – which is exactly what I’ve done in times past, and which makes me wonder how much else I’ve missed because I wasn’t paying attention.

When we think about our ways of seeing, it’s helpful to remind ourselves every now and again that the fraction of a second that comprises a photo is only a small part of the picture, after all. If you want what’s in the frame to be an accurate representation of, or even a means of condensing, a bigger picture, or to be able to tell a larger story, you need to be attuned to what’s going on beyond the viewfinder, and also beyond yourself. Often as not, something that drew your eye did so for a reason; there was something about its color, shape, relationship to its surroundings, or some mental association it triggered in you, that made you take notice (and take photos). If it captures your imagination, capture it in turn. Just don’t stop at that obvious photo; be willing to look around, and beyond, it to other things that might be less obvious.

Rule 16: No Manifestos!

Sometimes a bug is just a bug.

A little while back, I thought about entering a photo contest, but then thought better of it. I’d never heard of the people running it, the terms were disagreeable, and there was a high fee for entering, which is a priori ridiculous, because if you’re reputable, you’ve already got sponsors to front the money for prizes and that sort of thing.

Not too long after, I went back to the site and saw the winning entry. Immediately, my brain hurt, which tends to happen when I’m confronted by things that make absolutely no sense, and this… Well, listen. There was a writeup of the photographer, their motivation, what they and their photos were about. Those things aren’t somehow bad in and of themselves. If I like someone’s work, after all, I generally want to know more about them. What got them to that point? Who and what influenced them, and what might I learn from them? And what additional context might all of this provide for their great work?

These photos were something else again. Freed of the text, they fell flat. I felt nothing looking at them, and didn’t even get anything out of them on the intellectual level that you’d get from something you understand, and even appreciate, but don’t necessarily like. They had no substance; visually speaking, it was all empty calories, kinda like eating vegetable shortening from the can with a spoon.

I ought not to need an explanation, dissertation or manifesto telling me why the photo works, what I should think of it, or how I should feel about it. If your photo relies on any of those things for its impact, you have failed. For example, consider some of Cindy Sherman or Diane Arbus’s work.* As photographers, they’re as talented as they are polarizing. Neither of them is my cup of tea, but you can tell at a glance what they’re on about, and in some cases their work has an almost visceral impact. Both have also written very perceptively about their art – the what, how and why of what they do – but you could skip the writings and still understand the work.

What this means for us, rather simply, is that it helps to know what you’re doing, and to be able to communicate that clearly in your images. There’s always a place for ambiguity; I’d argue that for some works, it’s the key to their longevity and appeal, with the Mona Lisa being just one of a multitude of examples. However, you ought not to be ambiguous to yourself. If you’re not sure of the how or why of your work, what you intended to say, or at least some of the possible meanings you’d like someone to take away from it, you can’t expect it to be readily apparent to someone else. Consider your audience, their knowledge, frames of reference, and ways of seeing, and then if you find yourself having to explain your work, whether it’s to people who know you, or that you feel really should understand what you’re getting at, then it might be time to reconsider your approach.

*Both sites have images that are NSFW, just so’s you know.

Rule 15: Strip.


What I’m referring to is simple. If you find yourself in a rut, whether it’s generally speaking, or just with a single subject/shot, there’s an easy way out. Take your photography back to basics. No pole or pasties required.

Usually when we think of composition, we’re taking into account several different things simultaneously: subject, light, texture, color, geometry, and any number of other factors. Sometimes when we’re looking at something, we can be overwhelmed (or, conversely, completely underwhelmed, wondering just what it is we should be seeing) by everything within and outside the frame. Suddenly, we’re stuck.

When this happens, one solution is to look for one simple thing that draws our eye, or to change our viewpoint altogether. In other words, rather than trying to take all of these things into account, simply choose one thing that grabs your eye, and zero in on that. Sometimes this will mean choosing different subject matter, but other times it can also mean finding new (and hopefully fresh) ways of approaching your favorite things. A few things to try:

• Texture: Flat surfaces, in some cases, can mean flat photos. Sometimes, however, getting in close enough to something that you can see it in detail can mean seeing details you would otherwise have missed, and make you realize that there’s more to your subject than was apparent at a first look. Sometimes, texture can be compelling enough to be its own subject.
• Line: How does this thing you’re photographing fit together, whether it’s a building or a body? What do its lines, and its geometry, suggest to you? Where do they lead your eyes? And how might you use them to, in turn, lead your viewer’s eye?
• Color: Like your subjects themselves, colors can provoke strong responses in people. The presence of color (or a telling absence when we’re expecting it) can give a sense of richness and depth to your photos, and sometimes pure color-based abstraction can be a fun outlet by itself.
• Light: This doesn’t only influence, and determine, your exposure. The right light can mute colors or saturate them, flatten textures or reveal them, and do all sorts of things for your dynamic range, composition, and so much else.
• Patterns: Sometimes it’s a matter of seeing more than one of something; other times, it’s finding a surprising sense of order, or a story within the arrangement of, things that otherwise would have no relation to one another. If you see patterns, what kind of story do they tell you, or what story can you use them to tell?
• Contrast: Contrast is a great way to add inflection to a photo. You know the old Gershwin tune, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”? Picture singing that in a monotone, and you’d start to wonder what all the fuss is over potatoes and potatoes. A photo with insufficient contrast can also be like that.* Conversely, effective use of contrast can be just the thing to draw attention to something in your photo (or to make that something a red herring, if you’d like something else to sneak up on the viewer and only reveal itself later).
• Subject: For many of us, this can present the biggest challenge, but also the biggest rewards if we’re willing to take the risk (and it’s a small one, let’s admit it). Photography has existed for long enough that by this point, most subjects have a visual syntax associated with them. We expect sports photos to look a certain way, or expect certain things when we see a photo of a car, building, or person. The more fluent, and comfortable, we get with that subject and the visual vocabulary that goes with it, we may paradoxically find ourselves struggling to do not only what others haven’t done already, but also to avoid repeating ourselves. A change of pace (and of subject) can be just what the doctor ordered, since we learn new bits of “grammar,” as it were, that can be imported into our usual subject matter.

Something to keep in mind is that it’s okay to “cheat” here. Each of these things has ways of seeping into the others, because in photography as with so much else, it’s all interdependent. Sometimes you can’t bring out the texture without the right lighting, for instance, or you may find that the color is precisely what’s emphasizing a sense of pattern in something. If you find that happening, flow with it rather than fighting it; those connections are a great reminder to us of how all of this stuff works, and can build mental cues that we can use going forward. If, for example, you notice the connection between light and geometry (which influences shadow, texture, and geometry), you can learn to use these things consciously. You may start out paying more attention to the light, but that can, in turn, remind you to take a closer look at what the light is doing.

This has another use as well. I think that most of us will, at one point or another, get a good feel for a subject or element that we’re “good at,” and whether we do it consciously or not, we start to specialize in that. This can lead to its own kind of rut, especially if we’re looking through our photos and seeing certain themes or stylistic elements repeated over and over again. When that happens, forcing yourself to find a new area of focus ensures that you’re taking into consideration other elements that you might be neglecting. If you’re giving color short shrift, try concentrating on texture; if your photos tend to be a bit flat dimensionally speaking, experiment with geometry or shadow. It’s good exercise for the eyes, and can break up some of the monotony for your audience as well.

*Conversely, the overuse of something, whether it’s contrast, infrared, or your favorite Photoshop effect, can be like someone affecting a fake English accent for a whole evening. It gets old fast.