This one for Outdoor Photography has a good rake around in that midden containing notions of vision, distinctiveness and personal expression. © Niall Benvie 2009.
I’ve noticed an encouraging trend in some recent “how-to books” to include discussion of “vision” as well as the nuts-and-bolts of putting a fine picture together. This is a term I’ve found myself using over the years in my own books and articles without, frankly, being crystal-clear in my mind exactly what “vision” means in this context.
To understand what it is and why it matters in our work, consider this parallel in language: “Inscrutable languid serendipity crepuscular ephemera voluptuous lugubrious pallid senescence mellifluous ineluctable sombre.” Here is a phrase composed of some of the most beautiful words in the English language but without verbs, pronouns and conjunctions it is meaningless. The words themselves represent stunning images but it is only with the addition of other simpler words that they acquire coherence and meaning. It’s those additional words that equate to a photographer’s “vision”.
Photography without vision, without those binding, informing words, is a pretty vapid affair. I suspect it is why, over the years, a number of photographers I have known have given up: the creation of more and better work is sustained not merely through diligent application and trend-following but because we have a world view we feel compelled to share. And without that drive and the means to transform those ideas and feelings into photographs, it’s hard to keep going.
For a long time, nature photographers have got away with simply photographing what is in front of us. I’d hate for that to sound like a criticism since nature photography’s relative objectivity has always been one of its most admirable qualities: mostly, the photographs are first and foremost about the subject rather than the photographer. But we shouldn’t allow that deference to the subject to disallow the possibility that a picture might actually begin in the mind of its creator: that he or she will be the cook rather than a simple diner at Mother Nature’s feast. I’m talking about something more complex than pre-visualisation – where you figure out in advance that if you go to “x” location at “y” time of day and “z” bird stands in the right place you will have a nice picture. Instead, this is about a more subjective approach where your own feelings about a subject are to the fore or where the subject serves as a vehicle for a bigger idea.
Henbane, for example, is a highly toxic plant I’ve always been a bit wary of so when I came to photograph it in France this year, I let these suspicions inform my approach. A simple celebratory composition in soft light against a highly diffused background would have been way too objective. Instead, I waited until there was a menacing sky, selected a low viewpoint to make the plant look taller then, as an ironic twist, lit it with mellow diffused flash: it is only a plant after all.
I have made a number of images over the years that feature signs satirising our weird relationship with wild nature. In these photos the landscape – in this case Finland’s Riisitunturi National Park- plays a supporting, rather than starring role.
It is not possible (without being disingenuous) to ascribe meaning – to claim a narrative – to a photograph that wasn’t there at its conception: every picture stems from one of two diverging intentions and each demands a distinctive approach and mindset in its creation from the outset.
An expressive image is all about the photographer’s emotional response to a scene and the techniques and compositional devices chosen are those that best convey these feelings to the viewer. So, in the case of the huskies show here,
I was interested in sharing the sensation of running alongside the dogs, camera in hand, of their concentrated power and purpose. All the decisions about how I would make the picture were informed by my wish to show these aspects of “husky”. As a portrait of the breed, or a source of reference about their cultural importance, this sort of picture is useless. But that doesn’t matter: that wasn’t the intention.
In contrast, the narrative image is less visceral in its appeal, instead inviting to viewer to “read” it. The choice of lens, shutter speed and composition were all made to give the viewer maximum information about what a husky is, what it does, where to find it and, as a sub plot, to invite speculation about what is going on between the two dogs in the middle. Sometimes the photographer may be fortunate and create a powerful narrative image with deep aesthetic appeal too, but that is a bonus rather than the real point of the picture.
It seems then that vision is in part about having something to say – for your work to be about something. But don’t get that mixed up with developing a new look. With a fresh personal perspective, familiar locations and species can take on a new lease of life. In his book, “Wild Sweden” (2007, Norstedts) photo-journalist Staffan Widstrand revisits many heavily photographed locations and species in his home country but does it in the context of a book about the joy of eco-tourism. He feels strongly that eco-tourism is a win-win activity for people and nature and that is evident in the positive images throughout the book go beyond descriptions of the places and animals he visits. In contrast, very few landscape workers seem willing to represent the Scottish Highlands in anything but a celebratory way, even though its wildness has been greatly diminished by cultural activity over hundreds of years. Informed and troubled by that knowledge, a photographer would produce a very different body of work from the norm.
A “new look” to your images is useful if you have something new to say simply because it is eye-catching, but don’t mistake technique for vision. Perhaps then, rather than talking about having a great eye for picture, we should think instead about having a great heart.