Are Your Photographs Poetic? Part One.

In The Compelling Frame, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David39 Comments


Painter Robert Henri said, “Paint the flying spirit of the bird, rather than its feathers.” Similarly, Poet Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” One is a plea to painters, another to writers, but both beg the same thing: make me feel something. Don’t just tell me; don’t just show me. Make me feel it.

But how? The short (and only partial) answer is composition, the way we place elements in the frame relative to each other and to the frame itself, as well as the choice to include (or exclude) those elements. 

How we choose to compose can determine how well we tell the story we want to tell or how the image feels. It can give the image tremendous energy or rob the image of the same. It can bring balance or tension to an image, or it can make the same image feel imbalanced. Used well, it can help you make the photograph express what you want it to express. Used poorly (or not considered at all), the photograph can simply fall apart. Composition is tremendously important.

And yet (there’s always a “yet,” with me, isn’t there?), it would be a mistake to lean on composition alone, or more specifically, our knowledge of the principles of composition, to do the heavy lifting.

You can put the main subject on the leftmost third of the image and still have an image without heart. You can watch the edges of your frame and make sure your portrait subject is looking into (and not out of) the frame as you’ve been told to do. You can keep your horizons straight and get high marks at the camera club and still not have an image that feels the way you hoped it would. Why is that?

Because composition and all the principles that we need to understand to make our photographs do the million things we might ask them to do, these are only tools. It’s how we use them that matters.

In the past, I have likened these tools to the elements of language. If you want to speak a language, it would be foolish not to understand all the possibilities of how that language works. Photographically, composition is about how images work. When we ask ourselves where we might place the subject in our frame, the question is about composition, but what we’re really asking is, “What will work best here, given what I’m trying to accomplish?” It’s like deciding to use one word in a particular sequence in a sentence: put it in one place, or use a different word or sequence entirely, and the meaning of it and how others experienced it will change.

But there’s something else—and it was only this morning while typing out a reply to a frustrated student who says she’s been making photographs for a long time and wonders if she should just give up because her photographs don’t feel the way she wants them to—that I found a different way to think about this. I’m hoping that if I express it well, it’ll help you, too.

First, consider these two quotes:

“Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.”
~Edward Weston

“Those Dutchmen had hardly any imagination or fantasy, but their good taste and their scientific knowledge of composition were enormous.”
~ Vincent van Gogh

In their respective ways, each quote points to the importance of composition. They aren’t downplaying our understanding and use of the principles that make images stronger; they are asking for us to use them in service of something more. Both quotes point to the need for creativity, imagination, vision. I imagine (because I’ve read other quotes from both Weston and van Gogh and have a sense of what they were trying to achieve in their own work—that they are begging us for a little more heart, more risk, more play. To return to the metaphor of language, perhaps they would ask us to consider our compositions in service of a little more poetry.

This is what I told my frustrated friend:

When we learn a language, we learn a lot of things: new words and new ways of stringing them together so they make sense and are understood and accurate. We learn what works and what doesn’t. And in very real ways, we learn a different way of thinking. This takes a long time in any language, including the visual language of the photograph.

But learning to speak or write English or any other language is not the same thing as learning to write poetry in that same language. They are very different, and not to be confused. She who spends 15 years learning English should not be discouraged when her first efforts at a poem fall frustratingly short; she simply hasn’t learned to write poetry. It’s a whole different thing.

You don’t “consult the rules of composition” before writing a poem. But you do understand them. You know what works. And then you play with them: you dance with them. And learning the dance of poetry is another learning curve entirely. But it’s not a learning curve you can take on without first having a sense of what works—of what the possibilities can be. The poet needs more words, not fewer. She needs a greater understanding of which words sound well together, and which have different meanings. The poet needs to understand how we experience rhythm or symbolism. You could take English language courses for a lifetime and never have a conversation about that.

You could also take photography courses for 15 years and never have a conversation about the human experience of the photograph or, to channel Robert Henri, how to express the spirit of the bird in flight rather than showing its feathers.

What we do with our understanding of composition (and compositional devices like scale, contrast, balance, tension, depth, colour, repeated elements) gives us a greater possibility to make photographs that elevate the human experience of the photograph. Photographs with mood and mystery, photographs with rhythm and symbolism. It is how we use these devices (like a slow shutter to depict motion, among others) that makes us feel. It is in these, and the dance of putting them together in new ways, that the photograph becomes a visual poem and judged by very different (and much more human) criteria than what the camera club so often asks of us: images made by photographers, as van Gogh might have said, that have “good taste” and enormous “knowledge of composition” but “hardly any imagination or fantasy.” The former can be learned quickly; the latter can take a lifetime. 

The work of poetry is not merely in letters and words, though the poet can’t do without them. It’s in using those tools to create an emotional response in us—tools I’ve already mentioned like rhythm and symbol. Choosing words with certain sounds. Taking risks with spelling and pushing grammar and punctuation in new directions. It’s being willing to create mystery rather than perfect clarity, resonance rather than precision. The same is true of the photographer who wants to say more with his photograph: “look, the moon is shining” but wants to make me feel the glint of the moonlight on shards of glass.

It’s not about knowing composition, but it is about using it. Every poet in the English-speaking world has access to the same 26 characters, the same verbs and nouns, the same adjectives and adverbs. And every poet finds very different ways of using them, bending and twisting their use of them, some to the point of breaking all previous conventions. But they will all be different. The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (one of my favourites) will be different from the poems of Emily Dickinson. Or John Donne. Or e.e. cummings. They will make us feel different ways, paint different pictures in our imaginations, not because they know or consider the principles of composition (which they most certainly do), but because they wield them with such mastery and imagination, and they hope we will do more than just read the words on the page—that we feel them.

Never stop learning what makes the photograph work. Never stop studying the masters in search of what worked for them. Find photographs that make you feel something and figure out why you feel that way. It’s all there in the image to be learned. Never stop exploring new ways to use scale, tension, juxtaposition, or negative space, and all the other tools there to be played with. Add all the new vocabulary you can add to your language skills. But don’t get discouraged if these alone do not make you a better poet. For that, you need to think more about the experience of these things and ask yourself what they conjure in the human heart and mind. You need imagination. You need creativity. This is the dance of craft and vision.

This is the first article in this series; it’s just too big to cover in one post. In two weeks or so, I’ll post part two, and we’ll take a look at a couple of ways these compositional tools can be used to create images that create don’t just show us how things look but how they feel. Want to ask a question or leave a comment before then? The comment section below is there for exactly that

For the Love of the Photograph,
David

PS – If you’d like to get these articles by email, I’d be happy to package them up and send them with love, sometimes with extras like copies of my monographs. Just click this link and tell me where to send them!

Comments

  1. Thank you for this post, David. It “clicked” with me more strongly than any writings about the art of photography.

    I am an (amateur) photographer, but I have never thought of myself as an artist. I take photos, and I want and need them to be more than soulless records of “this thing was there”, but at the same time I can’t think of them as art.

    I also write – not poetry, but a personal blog. Still, it’s a creative endeavour and I often spend a lot of time and effort to find the right words and phrases to express myself.

    This blog post of yours brought the two together and made me think about them in relation to each other in a way I haven’t done before.

    I need to go think about this some more, and then blog about it. 😀

    1. Author

      Fantastic, Helen! When you do blog about it I would love to read what you write. I’m a big fan of words, can’t get enough of them. I’d love to read yours!

  2. David,
    I have Within The Frame, The Soul of the Camera, Start Ugly-just starting it, and The Problem with Muses. Everything you write stretches my soul, restructures my thinking and makes me yearn for that spark that will make people feel my photos. Just starting-only been at it 5 years or so. You are pushing me onward.

    Love this blog. Looking forward to Part 2.

    Thanks for leaning over, grabbing my hand and pulling me up to a new level of expectation.
    Bev

    1. You just made my day, Bev. Your words express exactly why I do what I do and it means the world to me to know I’m making a difference in some way. Thank you so much for taking a moment to say so! I’m thrilled to be part of your journey. 🙂

  3. Your thoughts are always appreciated, David. Someone once told me, you can either photograph something beautiful or make a beautiful photograph of something no matter what it is. The past year, my focus on strong composition has really slowed my photography down, in a good way. Along with composition, however, post-processing or the choice of film is half of the story. One cannot cannot rely on composition alone. The artistic decisions after the shot are crucial to be able to express what we need to say or the story we need to tell. A strong composition is just the beginning but by far the most difficult to master.

    Thank you for all that you do. The photography world needs more of these conversations.

    1. Author

      Thanks for that James. It’s amazing how much there is to a photograph, isn’t there? Composition, storytelling, post-production, and perhaps the most challenging: having something to say. I love that your focus on composition has slowed you down. I think we could all stand a little slowing down. 🙂

  4. Thanks David. I am so great full for this topic and appreciate your use of the metaphor of writing and language. I have always been attracted to the poetic side of photography and having only recently joined a photographic club, have had to really work at accepting some of the critique given (not only on my photos, but also that of others) re this issue. Fortunately not being a professional photographer I am able to express my self the way I feel and enjoy. And in that way find viewers gravitating to what I do. I look forward to your next blog.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Trix. Take any critique with a grain of salt. Or the whole salt-shaker. 🙂 Others don’t always know what you’re trying to do or to express, and when you pursue poetry, and they’re expecting it to be prose of a certain kind, any critique offered can be confusing, if not completely unhelpful. Consider the source and consider this permission to ignore those who aren’t creating work that you love. Learn what you can, but remember listening to critique is not the same thing as taking it to heart. 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks for that. Tom. That photograph has a lot of flying spirit. Always so good to see you here. You’re one of those that have been here since the beginning. Y’aren’t bored of me yet? LOL. I hope you’re well. 🙂

      1. Thanks David. Well, I don’t feel the need for instruction, per se, but I am into constantly learning. I don’t have quite as much angst as you about creating images, maybe because I have been working in the arts my whole life, but what keeps me coming back, is how fabulous your images are. You have an eye and a talent that are rare. Your images capture the world in wonderful, sensitive ways. I would love to meet in person sometime in the future, will have to wait and see. Please stay safe and well, and keep up your wonderful work, and inspiring new photographers, You do what you do so very well.

        1. Thank you for that, Tom. “You do what you do so very well.” – if I knew that were to be my epitaph I would be a happy man. 🙂 Be well.

  5. Hi David,
    I have been reading a chapter of The Heart of the Photograph everyday and trying hard to remind myself to pay attention to composition, etc., until hopefully it becomes second nature. But as a result I find that I am taking less pictures because I am trying hard to only pick up the camera when I have something to say… It almost feels like I am waiting for “inspiration “ which is a little frustrating . How do you suggest we navigate that period where we are trying to be more deliberate and intentional but still learning this new language?

    1. Author

      Hi Frederic!

      “But as a result I find that I am taking less pictures because I am trying hard to only pick up the camera when I have something to say… It almost feels like I am waiting for “inspiration “ which is a little frustrating.”

      Don’t wait! Pick up the camera! Inspiration needs to be discovered, and most of us do that with the camera to our eye, making photographs. Yes, sometimes we know what we want to say, we know what our vision is. But most of the time, and I am speaking for myself here, we discover what we want to say, and how, as we make the photographs. Sometimes the camera helps us express our vision, but more often I think it helps us (first) to explore our vision. Or to explore the world around us in an effort to find that vision. We are all still learning this new language. Keep photographing. Keep studying great photographs. And be patient with yourself. 🙂

  6. I’m looking forward to the next installment in this series. I’m fumbling my way along, I hope on the way to cleaning the window I see the world through. Every now and then the window clears enough to hint at what I’m feeling, or at least I think it does. Keep doing what you’re doing, David. I’m starting to understand why you call it Craft & Vision.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Charles. We can fumble along together. Thank God it’s such an enjoyable process with which to fumble. 🙂

  7. Great parallel: photography, creativity, mystery, poetry. I am excited to see the next article! but will patiently wait while I explore and dialogue with those photos that call my name.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Lisa. I won’t keep you waiting for too long. The next article comes out on December 13. Happy exploring!

      1. Hey David
        Thank you for your teaching on capturing the elemental spirit of the photograph- I am learning fast – every time I read your emails and guidance I get excited about taking photographs –
        If you ever happen to work in the wilds of Melbourne Australia or any other parts of down under count me in – a budding student and or simply being my guest to rest a while.
        Faith

        1. Author

          Thank you so much for that, Faith. And for that lovely invitation. We were in Melbourne a couple of years ago and loved it! We were only there a couple days, far too short, and didn’t have a proper adventure. When we’re all travelling again I’d love to see more of Australia. Keep well!

  8. Your comments about camera clubs resonate with me echoing my dissatisfaction with the prevailing ethos of camera clubs, their fixation on competitions and judgement bias of images – are they sharp, in focus and clinically acceptable without any primary concern for appreciating creative imagination, story telling and how it makes you feel. Rather will the image meet camera club standards, has the image impact, will it win competitions for the club. Fed up with camera club ethos: for the love of the photograph I want my images to evoke an emotional response, speak a message, tell a story, be appreciated for their communicative content – not judged as being no use to win high marks in a competition.

    1. Author

      This is a common frustration, Norry. My hope is that somehow the more of us that talk about the intangibles, the vision, the expression, the more the camera clubs will shift to at least acknowledging the poetic. And some do. But maybe the problem is in the name. Should we expect more from clubs that clearly tell us the focus is the “camera”? 🙂 In full disclosure, this is why I’ve never in 35 years belonged to a camera club. I’m holding out hope that there are some clubs that really do break the mold. Fortunately there are so many other ways to learn and remain inspired. 🙂

  9. This is a wonderful exploration of the magic that a great photo or painting expresses. The more we learn the basic principles of composition colour etc. , the more they become intuitive and allow the magic of the image to show. Thank you for such a great Sunday morning read.

  10. David, you are inspiring. Thank you, and stay well! I cannot wait for Part 2.

    Like most things we do, starting is the hardest part.

    Now I’ve started.

    Now what?

    I’m not feeling it!

    That’s OK. Just keep going. You don’t necessarily have to have a specific point of focus ( Jay Maisel . . . . .’going out empty’), but you do have to be open to the possibilities.

    Being in the moment, something photography forces us to do, allows us to discover what is present.

    Suddenly, it’s four hours later, and your brother is calling you, wanting to know if you’re still coming to dinner.

    That’s the magic. Allowing yourself to be in the present, so there is no time.

    But without starting, there can be no magic.

    1. Author

      Christopher – Man, you just summed up the creative process. There’s so much gold in what you just said, but being open to the possibilities? That’s the key, isn’t it? That’s where the magic is. I wrote a whole book on this (Start Ugly) and you summed it up in a handful of sentences. 🙂 Keep making magic, man.

  11. Great article, David, very inspiring!
    As it happens, I have my MFA in Poetry. I’ve published a book and have countless publications. More importantly, at age 70, I still write poetry every day.

    I also photograph every day.
    And journal.
    And meditate.
    And exercise.
    These are all elements of my spiritual practice.

    But I don’t do all this is a vacuum. I’m always responding to valuable input like your careful , practical, and inspirational writing.

    Again, you are on a roll. Thanks so much!

    Sandy Brown Jensen

    1. Author

      So inspiring, Sandy. My practice is very much like yours, but probably much more messy. 🙂 Where can we find your poetry?

  12. Thank you for this! You’ve managed to put in words what I’ve been trying to grasp as I slowly dragged myself out of the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block, where everything i seemed to produce was adequate but without heart! Only when I gave myself permission to play and to hell with the rules did I finally discover the joy again, and that’s not too different from what I’ve done before to get out of writer’s block… so a fantastic analogy, and I look forward to the next part!

    1. Author

      You’re welcome, Janika! Thanks for chiming in. We have rhythms, don’t we? Sometimes what we make comes easily and the heart just shows up in abundance and other times it’s slow in coming, if at all. What matters is that we put the camera, or the pen, in our hand and show up. Sometimes we guide the tools, sometimes it feels like they guide us. All part of the wonder, isn’t it? 🙂

  13. A wonderful and, need I say, poetic guide to the essence of poetry and what it means to be a poet (and poetic photographer). I think that what is most difficult for me, and I might suggest, all human beings, is the extent to which linearity is taught, practiced and prized. Of course there is value in linearity – it is what makes it possible to for us to share a dream. But what we often forget or fail to consider is that, in all likelihood, we didn’t actually dream the dream with a beginning, middle and end. I believe that dreams arise as a simultaneity – more like a tableau that a novel and, in that way, poetry is a way of making our capacity for dreaming manifest and shareable with others. But to dream lucidly when we’re awake is challenging, to say the least. What I am practicing most, as I embrace photography as poetic expression is getting out my own way. Such a simple concept, but so difficult to achieve. Still, in the same way as lucid dreaming is a possibility, so, lucid waking is also a possibility that, through commitment, dedication, patience and, dare I say, generosity is available to each and every one of us. I salute you, sir.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Kerry. As always, I’m so glad you’re part of this community.

      “What I am practicing most, as I embrace photography as poetic expression is getting out my own way.” Ha! Ain’t that the truth? 🙂 That sums up my everyday efforts. 🙂

  14. And there are moments, like I have experienced them, when you just can express what you see or feel, or what you want people to “get”. I’m bilingual and at there are moments in my life when I have concept I want to express but no matter what language I use, it’s just “not it”. I can sit and dwell on it and try to find ways how it could work in the future. Or I can let it go…
    Like I can’t even express how much your emails inspire me. In the last month I have unsubscribed from 95% of what was coming into my email. And yours are not on that list, das for sure 🙂

    1. Author

      Thank you, Ewa. That is the some of the highest praise someone like me can get. These days being kept around is a privilege. Thank you! It’s no secret I sometimes feel like a crazy man shouting into the void. Notes like this make me feel like I’m not quite so crazy and the void is not quite so empty. 🙂 Thank you.

      1. If you’re crazy, I’m crazy with you! So at least there are two of us in that void. But seeing all the engagement and reading all the amazing comments you always get, that void of yours is definitely not empty… You might be crazy… but at least you shouting into a void full of crazies, just like you! 😉

        1. Author

          Thanks, Ewa. I find that very encouraging, if not also terrifying. LOL. 🙂

  15. A very good Sunday morning to you David,

    An excellent first part to a thread I am looking forward to reading through its natural conclusion. As a polyglot with varying degrees of fluency in various languages, I can so relate to your poetic analogy. The language of photography is so vast that I, at times, have also felt overwhelmed to cogently express what attracted me to create that image and to express that feeling at the “moment of impulse”.

    There are times it flows organically with consummate ease; and, others where it is a struggle that is not always resolved. In some cases time is the salve to a solution. But, not always. And, that too, is good.

    Thank you for this very thoughtful thread. I look forward to following it.

    1. Author

      Hi Stephen –

      I love what you said about being overwhelmed by the effort to express. It tells me that expression is important to you, that you’ve got something to say, even if sometimes it’s only the effort to say it that makes it clear. Sometimes it comes out so easily, sometimes it’s a struggle, but man is it worth it! I’m honoured to share this journey with you. Thanks for reading.

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