Humanity performs any number of creative acts. Everything from oil paintings, to writing assembly instructions for a bicycle. Writing software, writing a novel. They all contain the same three underlying actions: imagination, execution, and reading.
To begin there is, at least normally, some sort of act of imagination. A will to make something, with some certain properties. There might or might not be some visualized form here. There might only be an idea to make something, anything, that tells how to put the bike together. Next, the creative human does some things. Ink is applied to paper, marble is removed with a chisel, paint is applied to a surface. Sometimes, a button is pressed at what seems to be the right moment. Finally, the result is examined, it is "read." This might be a potential final result, to be culled or kept. It might be an intermediate result, perhaps merely the same painting after one stroke of new paint has been applied.
In photography, the execution part is severely attenuated. I have described it as not even a "making" but rather a "selection" and I stand by that, but I realize that it is a quibble. Moving on.
If you're making Art, your purpose is something pretty specific. You're not trying (usually) to communicate information about a procedure like assembling a bicycle, for instance. You're probably trying for something more abstract, some sort of Art-like experience (he said, tautologically).
In all cases, though, the reading is vital. You draw a diagram, and then you lean back and ask does that really illustrate the way to attach the kickstand to the frame in the best way? You place yourself in the shoes of the owner of the new, diassembled, bicycle, and ask does that read?
As you paint your painting of a teapot, you apply a bit of paint and ask does that look more like a teapot? does it look like an empty teapot? does it read?
And so with the photograph. You begin with an act of imagination. I often have clearly in mind a picture. It feels detailed, complete. There is a field, and in the field in the distance, there is a dog, tongue lolling out. Oddly enough, if you ask me what color the dog is, or whether the dog is frame-left or frame-right, I probably don't know. The picture only feels detailed and complete, in reality it isn't. What is clear and detailed is the imagination of the picture.
I, and perhaps also you, need to actually take the picture to see what it ought to look like. I probably have to take a bunch of pictures, with the dog here, the dog there. I select this view, and that view. Or, if you prefer, I make the picture by moving myself, and pointing, and pressing the button. Later, I select (maybe) one frame of many as representing the picture I had in mind.
All of this work is informed by continuously reading what I see through the finder, what I see on the screen. I ask myself, consciously or subconsciously, is this the one? is this the one I imagined, and does it do what I imagined it would do? does it read?
This process of reading back out is essential in any creative endeavor, whether writing instructions, or taking photographs.
An editor working on a novel knows the job: it is to ensure that other people can read the book, and get from it that which was intended by the author (more or less). The photographer, and the photoeditor, needs to wear the same hat.
Photographers have a tendency to focus not on does this read? but rather more on have I done thing things which I have been taught to do which make a photo good?
In a sense, photographers operate as if they have learned a series of things to do — things which are in making — that they believe will produce a photo that reads. If you clone out the distracting thing, adjust the color balance, and observe the rule of thirds, the picture out to be good, right? It ought to read.
It's not just simple things like this. There are endless guides on how to light men, how to pose women, endless do's and don't, endless manuals filled with endless procedures. The grammar and syntax of "correct" photography is boundless, and yet at the same time nobody suggests simply stepping back and asking does it read?
No serious editor of words cares much about grammar and syntax. These are only a baseline. The question is always whether it reads. Does the voice come through, do the words sing when they need to sing, pulse when they should pulse, and flow when they ought to flow? Grammar plays a role mainly in avoiding pointless dissonances, the key word here being pointless.
Photographers, all too often, can only ever find instruction on grammar and syntax. There is no manual of song, no primer of rhythm, and photographers do love manuals.
You must learn to read photographs, to see the rhythm, the melody, the harmony, and yes the dissonances, those purposeful dissonances. We can take a lesson from language. How does one learn to write words that sing? One reads an enormous number of words with voices raised in song. There is no law here, no rulebook. This is all cultural construct, without any particular logic, no stone with Hammurabi carved into it. You simply have to soak in it, and try it, and fail, and fail, and fail.
It probably would not hurt you to stop paying attention to the grammarians after a while. They have things to teach you, but they cannot teach you the important things.
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