the photoshooter's journey from taking to making



THE POET WILLIAM BLAKE MAY WELL HAVE BEEN SPEAKING of the selective vision of photo composition when he described “the power to see a world in a grain of sand, and a Heaven in a wild flower” in his poem Auguries Of Innocence. Indeed, even though we hunger after the capture, in our photographs, of everything, everywhere, it is often in the images in which we show the least that we best describe the most. That constant balance between the shown and the unshown is what separates pictures that are mere recordings from ones that speak the kind of visual poetry even Blake might admire.
Creating an image that expresses a lot while revealing just a little is much like conveying a literary idea in the simplest effective language. Better to leave something unsaid with fifty words than to worry an idea to death with a thousand. We all learned in grade school that the first speaker at the dedication of the newly completed cemetery at Gettysburg, a renowned orator named Edward Everett, spoke for two hours, followed on the platform by one Abraham Lincoln, who, it can be safely said, shook the world in less than two minutes. Both men spoke of noble motives. Both celebrated big ideas. But while one was consigned to the fog of history, the other became history itself.
The simplest way for me to attempt this kind of minimalism in a photograph is to practice with something that has been, in my phrase, “seen to death”….captured by so many in its full aspect that the act of abstracting it, that is, using just selective parts of it, can often “sell” the entire idea, albeit with less visual information. But is it “less”? In the detail from a bird’s tail seen here, I don’t actually need to depict the entire bird to express the idea of a peacock. In fact, up close, what appears from a distance to be an unbroken weave of color and texture commands fresh attention for the astounding mosaic of interlocking feathers that it is; a marvelous product of eons of evolution, a pattern no textile mill on earth could rival.
The same simple compositional paring-away of excess can be achieved with almost any familiar subject. Instead of trying to frame a picture of the entire Eiffel Tower, for instance, ask yourself how little of the structure you could show and still get the idea of the thing fully across? And, once having reached that point, can the remainder of the tower be seen as filler, even clutter?
The devil, goes the old adage, is in the details, but, for photographers, the angel is the part of the details that we can often fly over without proper notice. We are used to framing our pictures comprehensively, as if we were shooting from 25,000 feet overhead. Sometimes, however, we find out that all those geographic squares are actually farms, towns, buildings, countries teeming with people and their respective stories. And we begin to seek out Blake’s “grain of sand”, knowing that it may well hold the world within it.

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