Let’s have a show of hands: How many of you have been advised at some point in the course of your photographic journey to “tell a story with your images”? Okay, now how many of you actually know what that means? That’s what I thought. As good as the “tell a story” advice is (it is indeed), many photographers, with the best of intentions, parrot the advice simply because it sounded good when they heard it. But when pressed for details, are unable to elaborate.
Telling a story with a photo is probably easier when photographers can physically stage subjects and light to suit their objective (an art in itself), or in journalistic photography intended to distill the the essence of an instant by connecting it to an easily inferred chronology: a homeless man feeding his dog, dead fish floating in the shadow of belching smokestacks, or a wide-receiver spiking a football in the end zone.
This isn’t to say that we landscape photographers can’t tell stories with our images, or that we shouldn’t try. Nor does it mean that any one photographic form is inherently more or less creative than another. It just means that the rules, objectives, advantages, and limitations differ from form to form. Nevertheless, simply advising a landscape photographer to tell a story with her images is kind of like a baseball coach telling a pitcher to throw strikes, or a teacher instructing a student to spell better. Okay, fine—now what?
Finding the narrative
First, let’s agree on a definition of “story.” A quick dictionary check reveals that a story is “a narrative, either true or fictitious … designed to interest, amuse, or instruct….” Okay, that works.
The narrative part is motion. Your pictures need it. Narrative motion starts with a connection that grabs a viewers, pulling them into the frame, then compelling them to stay with visual motion that moves their eyes through the frame, providing a path to follow and/or a place to land. Put simply, the viewer needs to know what they’re supposed to do in the image.
While narrative motion happens organically in media consumed over time, such as a novel (in the mind’s eye), movie, or video, it can only be implied in a still photograph. And unlike the staged or journalistic photography mentioned above, landscape photographers are tasked with reproducing the world as we find it, in a static medium—another straitjacket on our narrative options. But without some form of narrative motion, we’re at a dead end story-wise. What’s a photographer to do?
Photography as art
Every art form succeeds more for what happens in its consumer’s mind than for what it delivers to the consumer’s senses. Again: Every art form succeeds more for what happens in its consumer’s mind than for what it delivers to the consumer’s senses. A song that doesn’t evoke emotion, or a novel that doesn’t paint mental pictures, may entertain but is soon forgotten.
Just as readers of fiction unconsciously fill-in the visual blanks with a mental visualization of a scene on the page, viewers of a landscape image will fill-in the narrative blanks with the personal stories the image inspires. In other words, an image should offer a place for the viewer’s own story to unfold.
Of course the story we’re creating isn’t a literal, “Once upon a time” or (with all due respect to Snoopy) “It was a dark and stormy night” story. Instead, the image we make must connect with our viewers’ stories to touch an aspect of their world: revive a fond memory, provide fresh insight into a familiar subject, inspire vicarious travel, to name just a few possible connections. If we offer images that tap these connections, we’ve given our image’s viewers a reason to enter, a reason to stay, and a reason to return. And most important, we’ve given them a catalyst for their internal narrative. Bingo.
Shoot what you love (not what you think your audience will love)
Think about your favorite novels. While they might be quite different, I suspect one common denominator is a protagonist with whom you relate. I’m not suggesting that immediately upon finishing that book you hopped on a raft down the Mississippi River, or ran downtown to have a dragon tattooed on your back, but in some way you likely found some personal connection to Huck Finn or Lisbeth Salander that kept you engaged. And the better that connection, the faster the pages turned.
And so it is with photography: Our viewers are looking for a connection, a sense that there’s a piece of the photographer in the frame. Because we can’t possibly know what personal strings our images might tug in others, and because those strings will vary from viewer to viewer, our best opportunity for igniting their story comes when we share our own relationship with a scene and let viewers find their own connection.
What? Didn’t I just say that it’s the viewer’s story we’re after? Well, yes—but really what needs to happen is the viewers’ sense of connection between our story and theirs. If you focus on photographing the scenes that most move you, those scenes (large or small) that might prompt you to nudge a loved-one and say, “Oooh, look at that!,” the more you’ll see and the greater your chance of establishing each viewer’s feeling of connection. Whether you’re moved by towering mountains, crashing surf, delicate wildflowers, or prickly cactus, that’s where you’ll find your best images.
Where did you get those shoes?
The cool thing is that your viewer doesn’t need to understand your story; she just needs to be confident that there is indeed a story. That’s usually accomplished by avoiding cliché and offering something fresh (I know, easier said than done).
For some reason this makes me think of Steely Dan lyrics, which rarely make sense to me, but were always fresh and I never for a second doubted that they did indeed (somehow) make sense to Donald Fagen. In other words, rather than becoming a distraction, Steely Dan’s lyrics were a source of intrigue that pulled me in and held me. So when I hear:
I stepped up on the platform
The man gave me the news
He said, You must be joking son
Where did you get those shoes?
I’m not bewildered, I’m intrigued.
These lyrics aren’t trying to tap my truth, they simply reflect Donald Fagen’s and Walter Becker’s truth (whatever that might be).
Even though I usually have no idea what Steely Dan is talking about, the vivid mental picture their lyrics conjure (which may be entirely different, though no more or less valid, than your or their mental picture) allows me to feel a connection. You, on the other hand, may feel absolutely nothing listening to “Pretzel Logic,” while “I Want To Put On My My My My My Boogie Shoes” gives you goosebumps for KC and the Sunshine Band. Different strokes….
Returning from the abstract to put all this into photographic terms, the more your images are true to the world as it resonates with you, and the less you pander to what you think others want to see, the greater the chance your viewer’s story will connect with yours.
About this image
One of the things I’ve tried to do during the pandemic is make my workshop groups a little smaller, dropping down from 12 participants plus me and the photographer assisting me, to more like 8-10 participants plus me and my second photographer. Not great for my bottom line, but safer and easier to manage in this time of social distancing.
In my Yosemite Fall Color and Reflections photo workshop that wrapped up a little more than a week ago, not only did I enroll fewer students, I also had a couple of last minute cancellations that I chose not to fill after my assistant photographer had to bail too. The result was a group of 6 photographers plus me, exactly half my normal group size.
One big advantage of this downsized group was that I was able to take them to some views that I think are too small for a normal-size group—I show them where these spots are so they can go on their own, but that means I don’t get to visit.
One of these locations is the view of El Capitan in today’s image. I’ve always liked this spot for the way the Merced River guides the eye right to El Capitan, and for the trees that frame the scene. The result is a clear path for the viewer’s eye to follow, and an obvious destination for they eye to land.
This scene is nice in any season, but I find it especially nice in autumn, when the nearby dogwood flashes its extreme red, and splashes of yellow accent the towering evergreens upstream. We hit the jackpot on this visit, with the dogwood at its crimson best, and the late afternoon light warming the granite and reflecting gold in the river.
The view here is elevated about 15 (very) vertical feet above the river. Armed with my Sony a7RIV and 24-105 G lens, I planted my tripod right on the edge to eliminate a few foreground distractions, and used the dogwood to frame the right side of my scene, moving as far to the right as I could with merging the red leaves with El Capitan. Though the rich blue sky nicely complemented the sunlit granite, and I was grateful for a few wisps of clouds, I wasn’t particularly excited about the sky and decided to put the top of my frame just a little above El Capitan.
With my composition set up, I shot several frames, some with my polarizer oriented for maximum reflection, some for minimum reflections. When it was time to review and process my images from this shoot, I chose this one with the reflection dialed down because the fall color is more vivid (less affected by glare), and the subdued El Capitan reflection was bright enough, and stood out better against the polarizer-blackened water.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Beautiful photograph and instructive narrative. It’s true that it’s hard to grasp,the meaning of telling a story with a photograph.
Thanks for reading, Alessandra. Yeah, I think the most important thing is to allow room for the viewers to fold in their own story.
As always, you’ve given us good food for thought. Thank you.