Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Good Photography Speaks Through Silence

I'd love to take credit for today's title. The truth is, it's a quote-- An anonymous quote but a quote nonetheless.

"Good photography speaks through silence."

If the blind Master Po were a photo-Master, this is something he might have said to a young Kwai Chang Caine. For any of you who don't *get* the analogy, there was this TV show called, Kung Fu.

There's more than one way to interpret this quote. It says a lot about photography from a number of perspectives. If I were writing my own, personal, Tao of Photography, I'd probably include these words within it.

Since the earliest days of cinema, when nearly every public exhibition of a movie included a pianist who played an accompanying score, moviemakers have relied on sound to underscore and enhance the dramatic moments in a flick; in fact, to enhance nearly all the moments in a flick. Steven Spielberg, speaking about feature films, once said, "Sound is half the experience. If you don't buy into the truth in Mr. Spielberg's axiom, try watching the most dramatic and suspenseful moments of his film, "Jaws," without the sound turned on and "see" how terrifying that shark suddenly does NOT become.

As photographers, our images must speak through silence. To be effective, a good photograph -- whether it's of a pretty girl or a beautiful landscape -- must say something to its viewers without the use of audible communications. It's not enough for an image to be technically perfect. A good image transcends the technical and silently speaks, sometimes with subtlety and sometimes quite loudly, to its viewers.

So how do photographers silently communicate? Obviously, with light, with color and/or shades of gray, with the emotions the subject itself projects, with stylistic approaches, with composition, and more. What makes this so cool is that a photograph -- a still, silent image -- can communicate just as effectively and as powerfully as the images in motion pictures which have the added benefit of sound effects, dialog, and a musical score.

Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." That's another quote that can be dissected in many ways. The advent of digital photography certainly heralded a new message for all of us. And its afforded many photographers new and exciting ways to communicate an almost infinite variety of messages.

Advertising people have long understood the power of silently speaking with photography. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a really good picture is worth even more. A really good advertising picture doesn't just tell a story, it tells the exact story its creators want to tell. And it tells it without sound, music, or audible words.

Too many photographers, in my opinion, rely solely and wholly on technical skills to produce their images. Many of them do this with the help of the best and most expensive gear. Often, photographers (both those who are new to photography as well as those who have been pursuing it for years) lament their lack of ability to produce good pictures by blaming it on their gear or their lack of gear. I'm sometimes guilty of this myself: "If I only had that lens or that lighting instrument."

I'm certainly not intending to downplay technical skills or good gear. Technical skills and gear are important. But they're not enough. They're only half the journey to a good image. They might be the foundation of that good image but, in the end, a really good image speaks through silent emotions and silent story telling. If the image is of a beautiful model, it's chiefly the photographer's and the model's job to silently convey whatever emotions, attitudes, and stories they intend to convey. Sure, other peoples' contributions come into play, MUAs, stylists, art directors and more, but at that critical and tell-all moment of capture, it's the shooter and the model who mostly tell it all. And they must do this within the confines of one, static image, i.e., one frozen moment in time, without the help of any other human senses, beyond sight, to accomplish it.

Sorry if I'm going off on a photo-philosophy tangent today. Just some stuff to think about after a long, holiday weekend. After all, what's the good of a medium or a message without some philosophy to guide it?

The eye-candy at the top is Aurora, snapped about a month ago with a Canon 5D and an 85mm prime. Aurora's message in this image is fairly obvious and, for most guys, it's one we like to "see."


Anonymous said...

Dude, McLuhan actually said “the medium is the massage”. Think about the sense that makes overall. It has been misquoted so often that it is almost the real quote.

jimmyd said...

McLuhan actually said “the medium is the massage”.

you're right. but he's also OFFICIALLY credited with coining the term, "the media is the message." So i guess he get two quote-credits for the price of one.

and btw, according to strunk & white punctuation marks always go inside quotation mark. :-)

Lin said...

Jimmy, You should seriously think about submitting some of these excellent photography articles to professional photography magazines for publication.
You're a fantastic writer - you have a fine alternative career ahead of you in the literary side of photo-journalism

jimmyd said...

Jimmy, You should seriously think about submitting some of these excellent photography articles to professional photography magazines for publication.

Thanks, Lin. Yeah, I've thought about that. When I first began writing the blog, I had been thinking about a book about glamour shooting. But I knew I wouldn't be disciplined enough to sit down and write it. But then I thought: "I can blog!" And blogging is like writing a book (or, at least, the bare-bones of a book) one blog entry at a time. That I can do! So, I'm still thinking maybe a book or maybe submissions to some publications. Also, we're planning a DVD so a lot of what's in the blog is helping with the "script."