Howdy readers --
This is an adaptation of an email I sent out to my most recent photo class, explaining my thoughts on the photo essay. If you read the previous two parts of this series (Part 1 on buying a camera and Part 2 on basic photo knowledge, then you're primed for this third part, which involves not just taking pictures -- which you'll get in my photo class -- but also organizing them into a narrative. If things are still fuzzy If that's still fuzzy, please go back to the Canon tutorial mentioned in my "Basic Photo Knowledge" post and review further. Now that this is all floating around in your head, it's the perfect time to do it.
As for photo essays, the important thing is choosing the right topic or theme, and think about the types of shots you're going to take in order to tell the story. The photo story works like any other kind of narrative, and anyone with exposure to modern media culture already knows the basic grammar of film language -- it's just that most people haven't thought about it. And often, rules are meant for breaking -- which is fine -- but it's just more proof to show you that there are indeed a set of rules, a kind of visual grammar, that we all pretty much know.
For the photo essay, you should think about different categories of shots, into which many kinds of pictures can fit depending on what your particular topic is. But generally, anything you're doing is going to be able to fall into one of the following categories. I'm going to use an example from some of my actual former photo students, because they did bangup jobs on a variety of hard subjects.
This one's easy -- it's the brief shot of the house during the sitcom or the wide-angle city scene during "The Dark Knight" that tells you where you are. If you're doing a photo essay on a particular figure, your establishing shot might not be of a place, but of the person, or perhaps even a thing that tells us who the person is or something about them. It is often a mixture of both, say as in an "environmental portrait" of a teacher standing in front of her class teaching, showing not only where we are, but who the main character is and what she does. A more abstract essay about "Chicago" or even "The City" might have a long-shutter shot showing the blurry hustle-and-bustle of a city street, a night shot of buildings and lights, etc. But no matter the case, you want to set the stage, show the characters, establish what's going on first. Or you might get tricky and keep us in mystery and do it a few shots in -- but remember that even in breaking the rule, you're still bound by it. The tension created by NOT showing us immediately (say you show a baby block, a diaper, and a rattle before letting us know that it's a story of a childbirth) comes from the fact that explanation is still expected at the beginning.
This is also easy -- good examples are the "getting to know you" montage sequences in romantic comedies when they walk on the beach, eat ice cream together, have a playful food fight, act silly at a hapless street vendor's expense, all to show you that now, the couple is a true couple, or the "get big and kick ass" sequence in the action movie when the hero gets knocked down at first, but then the audience goes off to the beach again to watch him run with his dog, kick the heavy bag, do rabbit punches on the little red bag, fail at getting to 100 pushups, do martial arts forms on the top of a mountain (with dog again), before finally succeeding in getting to that 100th pushup and then running to the top of the Philadephia courthouse steps to trumpet music. Ahem. I digress; but you get it, right?
These pics develop the story -- they're the meat. At the wedding, it's not so much the ceremony as the putting on makeup, bride straightening dad's tie, nervous groom being counseled by the best man, bride joking around with her bridesmaids, etc. In your essay on a group of people in the neighborhood, it may be a sequence of several portraits of the people themselves, perhaps closeup as a character study, perhaps all environmental portraits showing each person "doing" what defines them, e.g. the street food vendor lady smiling from behind her cart, a favorite restaurant owner from the neighborhood stirring something in the kitchen or standing proudly next to a plate of his dishes, and then a taxi driver leaning against his car in the morning before going to work. More often than not, though, it shows the development of a narrative through action -- a singer gets ready for a concert by getting made up in front of the beauty lights in the dressing room, putting on the special shiny clothes, doing a little prayer session before the curtain goes up, lighting up with a smile as the lights go up and things get started, a sweaty closeup shop of her hitting that super high note, reaction shot from the crowd, getting jiggy with the band, and then final bow. It depends on what you're shooting, what the concluding shot(s) will be. Where is the story arcing towards? It the concert the climax? Or perhaps the feeling of deep relief shown afterwards, when say the 12-year-old who was a nervous nellie beforehand feels the sweet satisfaction of success afterwards, which resolves the story about her nervousness, not just the simple story of before, during, and after the concert when the real story was about having fear and dread for this moment, actually doing it, then overcoming it. The development depends on the conclusion.
These are often the hardest to find in your photo essay. Although it's easy to establish who, what, and where, it's often hardest to conclude a story with a mere shot, or even two. A more narrative photo essay is often the easiest, though. Perhaps it's the messy aftermath of the concert, or the janitor mopping the floor after the wedding reception, or more conservatively, the formal wedding shot of the bride and groom, the moment of triumph in a contest, things of that nature. It can be all the characters in a photo essay posing together, the completion o a process (apprehending the suspect or booking him, for example, after being the subjecft of a long search). It could even be an object, as in a photo essay about Korean salsa dancers that ended with an interesting shot of their worn dancing shoes on a wall rack that sver, theneemed to convey the difficulty of their art with the cracks and crannies in the tough leather. In any case, this is something else to think about, and often the hardest to do -- the wrap shots to the story.
Time Magazine's "Life in the Googleplex"
As the name implies, it's the cigarette and moment of quiet contemplation after the climax. If the climax of your wedding coverage was the reception and all the folks in suits and dresses letting loose and having fun in celebration of having the wedding and stress be o the aftermath and folks cleaning up afterwards might be nice. Or it could also be a shot of the bride and groom doing something completely normal, outside of their wedding finery. It depends on the photographer and the topic, but it's basically the part of the movie that tells you what happened after all the action in the movie, just because you're curious -- not because it's really crucial to the story. Anyway, these shots are also arguably part of the conclusion of the story, so a huge and artificial distinction doesn't have to be made here; just know how your story begins, develops, and concludes -- getting a couple of post-climax shots (even if there might not exist a strict line between different kinds of concluding shots) is a very nice thing to think about and can make for a more "complete" ending. So do those things that most normal (i.e. non-photographers) don't do, such as stick around after an event closes, or take close shots of objects such as place cards or glasses, or wander around the behind-the-scenes areas such as the kitchen, backstage, or wherever. Your big camera will grant you a lot of authority, anyway.
Time Magazine's "Nip and Tuck"
A Few More Things...
If you have the time while planning an essay, a bit while shooting it, and a lot again while editing it, you might think about what I call "the three E's" -- are the pictures "expressive" or "evocative" or "explanative?" To borrow and adapt famed photographer and teacher Minor White, when I say a picture is "expressive" I mean that it is an expression of something coming from within the photographer more than it is meant to evoke something specific in the viewer, which would make it "evocative." In more concrete terms, an "expressive" picture might be harder to read because it is motivated and a reflection of something the photographer feels inside, and in that way, the signs and symbols, mood, etc. might not be conveyed to the person looking at the picture. If it is an "evocative" picture, the picture is taken more with the purpose of fitting into most people's understanding of what the meaning might be, a common understanding of the symbols, mood, framing, etc. in the picture. It is supposed to be understood in a certain way, and intended to bring about a certain response amongst most viewers. The final category, which I added to the previous two, is the "explanative" picture is that doesn't do much in the way of having artistic intent as much as simply record reality as it's perceived by the photographer. Newspaper photographers covering a riot or political rally might be looking to simply record what happened, and have little time or ability to even frame the picture, many shots are simply "hail Mary" ones made without even looking into the viewfinder in such cases. Of course, most pictures have an element of all three of these picture types, and these categories may not be so helpful at first when constructing the basic photo essay; but they can be useful things to consider at the editing stage especially, as well as when you are a more experienced photographer, or have a lot of time to compose your pictures.