Friday, October 18, 2013

Meaning and Technique

I have blathered on about how technical whatnots and style thisandthat should support the ideas and meaning of the picture. But how?

Many photographers have pretty consistently exhibited a nearly transparent style. Walker Evans looks like Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson looks like Cartier-Bresson, but there's not a lot of radical technique applied to support their ideas. One could argue that their style choices were deliberate transparency, to support and underline the idea of the reality, the truth, of what is in the frame. Also, a picture can stand a lot of manipulation before it becomes obvious, of course, so there may be a lot of burning and dodging that's clarifying these things.

Adams, as surely everyone knows, made a lot of stylistic and technical choices to support his compositions and ideas. Loads of tonal range and local contrast create visual drama, and virtually all of Adams well known pictures are about drama and the sublime, and his technique directly and obviously supports that idea.

Capa's "Falling Soldier" is generally trotted out as the picture that would be nothing without the blur. Still, this carries over to anything that wants to show speed or a sense of motion. The blur of a pan may be integral to the meaning. Even more generally, shallow depth of field is a common technique in modern portraiture, which uses selective blurring to tell us what we're supposed to look at. If it's not supporting meaning and idea, it is at any rate pointing out the subject to us.

I'm going to think this through a bit more, in the form of a process one might follow. This isn't a recommendation, this is not prescriptive in the slightest. Think of it, perhaps, as a framework for understanding. How might one apply ideas like style and technique to support an idea or some notion of meaning in a picture? Let's assume that we start with an idea, some meaning, an emotion, whatever it is that we wish to convey. Consider how one makes a picture:

  • Find the right place to stand
  • Choose time, or light, to suit
  • Choose exposure parameters (shutter, aperture, ISO)
  • Post process, contrast, tonal placement, effects

Each of these choices affects how the picture will look, of course, and each may support or not whatever the meaning or idea is. While you may or may not be pre-visualizing the final picture, some notion of the affect of each choice will certainly help the result. If you can visualize the effect of, say, shallow depth of field caused by a wide aperture, then you can simply ask yourself if your picture looks more like the picture you want to make with shallow depth of field, or deep. If you have a clear idea of what you're trying to convey, this should be obvious. If there isn't an obvious answer, then perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps you will elect to use similar depth of field across a portfolio as part of the portfolio's style, visually connecting the work together without adding or taking away from whatever meaning you have in mind.

Some choices you may make in advance, the same way for many pictures. Perhaps you make them because you like that look, or because you have a larger idea for a portfolio. This is "style" supporting, ideally, something bigger. Perhaps the central look of your body of work, perhaps the main idea of a portfolio. Other choices get made frame by frame, to emphasize this element or that, to support the idea or meaning of the single frame.

Of course we might well find the idea after we shoot, we might allow chance to make choices, we might deliberately make choices that contradict and undermine the idea. This is just a framework for understanding, not a process you must follow.

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