Different Ways to Point

In Photographically Speaking, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David11 Comments

Hokkaido, Japan. 2013. David duChemin.We had an interesting conversation in Hokkaido one evening, and it stands out because when you put 15 photographers together for a meal, and there’s no shortage of drink, conversation tends to end up with everyone telling lies about how long they can hand-hold their long lens, or how Ansel Adams was a total hack. This time it was about the potential for photographers to tell better stories, which I believe we have. But I mis-communicated on a point when I emphasized the story-telling to the exclusion of other ways of pointing.

What I mean by that is this: Anne Lamott says that “art, to be art, must point at something.” I think she’s being descriptive here, and not saying what art must or must not be, but I think she’s right. I want my photography to point to the world I see, and in which I find great delight, and say, Look at this! I want my art to move the imagination and heart. And I believe stories, and the implied stories we can make with our photographs, are powerful. But stories are not the only way to move the human heart or mind.

Sometimes someone asks, David, what’s the story you’re trying to tell here? I stare at them blankly, because I’ve got no answer. It’s the wrong question. The question, for me, is What are you pointing at? Sometimes I’ll use elements of story. And sometimes I won’t. Words can be used to write narrative, but they can also be used to write poetry. Photographs, likewise, can be abstract or impressionist. They can be, simply, about line, shape, harmony, balance, tension, or colour. The image at the top of this post is not about story to me. Sure, I could make something up, but to me this photograph is more poetry than prose. It doesn’t make it weaker.

If you choose to use story, in your photograph, to point to something, it can be truly compelling. The human race has relied on story and the power of myth to give and communicate meaning, for thousands of years. But we point in many ways and there are things a story can not do. Don’t burden your work with the need to tell stories. Burden it, if it’s a burden at all, with the task of moving hearts and minds. The rest is a matter of how.


  1. Dear David,
    I wanted to thank you so much for beeing a great inspiration for me, as I chose to make the step towards this lovely business. Your Book: VisionMongers (in German: Biete Visionen…) is written so straightforward, its exhilarant!

    Thanks for sharing so much of your worthy knowledge. I´m greatfull.

    Take care!

    sincerely, Benjamin

    1. Author

      Hi Benjamin – You’re welcome. Nothing I’d rather hear than that what I wrote helped someone in some way. Good luck!

  2. What an incredible post. Thank you, so much. This concept takes the pressure off, because sometimes it is, solely, about line, shape, and form. The core of what we strive for with every form of art we create.

  3. Thank you for this David.

    I’ve struggled with the concept of trying to tell stories. Somehow I always feel a bit contrived when I go out shooting with that in mind. After reading your thoughts, I think I’m more of a “poetical photographer” by nature and that sit quite well with me.

  4. Thank you for saying that. Storytelling, while important, isn’t the end all be all.

  5. A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words. – Ansel Adams

    I feel I have failed if I need to “explain” an image I have created. We work in a “visual” medium, so everything necessary should be contained in the image, at least to my way of thinking. I too love stories, but my hope is that every person will find something of their own in my images.

    “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? … Picasso

  6. Could not agree more!
    Always love your insights David, thanks for sharing!

    I love the image you posted, for me, that image conveys a juxtaposition of serenity and tension…the colors, softness, and circular pattern of the rocks I find to be quite calming…the two rocks on the left that have no visual separation between I find to have an incredible amount of tension between them and the rest of the image…I can actually feel the tension in my gut…whew…strong image indeed 😉

  7. I think I see my images as pictorial, but you are challenging me to view photography in another way. Thank you for that, it’s good to be challenged!

  8. Thank you so much for making explicit the distinction between visual poetry and visual prose and arguing for the validity of either. I quite like the prose-poetry analogy. So often I’ll frame an image in response to the sheer wonder and beauty of what’s before me. Color. Shape. Texture. Pattern. Flow. The quality of light itself. No story. Just awe and wonder. Works for me.

  9. David,
    You make an excellent point here. Many forms of creative art are expressions of form, symmetry, color and emotion. I would hesitate to ask a fashion designer, “What story are you trying to convey?” I am not trying to downplay the fact that many images do communicate a story, be it a feeling or a point, but many images capture our eye and we see something that pleases us or moves us inside and we want to capture that moment and maybe even share it with others. Thank you for sharing your insights and images with us.

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