Decades ago, my friend Jeff Schewe asked me, “We both know how to do a lot of things to our images but how do you decide what to do to your images?” My response surprised him, “Talk with them.” Let me expand on that for you, as I did for him so many years ago.
We often deepen our relationship with other people by having a conversation with them. We can do the same with images. Even though they don’t speak, we can speak for them. There are many ways to do this.
Before I go into more detail, let me offer you a crucial piece of advice. Make sure you write this stuff down as you go. You won’t be able to remember everything you come up with and the act of writing will allow you to come back to it and pick up where you left off, help you find more insights, forge deeper connections, and increase the chances that you’ll act on it. All of these benefits happen more strongly when you write by hand but that’s slower and not as easily retrieved, so more often than not, I use the notes app on my phone, which can be accessed from any of my devices. I recommend you try many ways of taking notes to determine which ways work better for you.
Conversations start with questions. Ask a lot of questions. Then answer them as if you were the image. Write that down.
Conversations start with questions. Ask a lot of questions. Ask way more questions than you ever thought to ask. I usually set my goal at 100. Why? The goal of this exercise is to get beyond the obvious and the conventional. Sure, ask those questions too but go well beyond them. Ask the kinds of “crazy” questions kids ask. (What does this image eat?) Pretend you’re someone or something else and ask the questions he/she/they/it might ask. (If you’re the frame … Who put these things in me? And why did they put me here?) Imagine you are the work of art and ask the questions it would ask if it could. (What do I have to do to stay out of that closet?) The skill of asking more questions gets easier if you simply rephrase the same question in different ways to get different perspectives. Change the w word – who, what, when, why, where, how. (What is this about? How does it go about it? Who goes there?) Reverse questions; ask the opposite question. (Why is it lower? Why isn’t it lower? Why isn’t it higher?) Or, add not to any question. (Is it dark? Is it not dark?) Once you have your list of questions scan it for patterns. What kinds of questions did you ask? What did you ask questions about most frequently? What questions stand out as most interesting? Asking questions may be all you need to do to find useful insights. Answers are optional. I recommend hypothesizing what they are and to look for opportunities to answer a single question in more than one way. Remember, write it down. You can revisit your list later and you’ll most likely have a different perspective with different outcomes. You can also repurpose many of the questions in your list to use with other images. This is a skill that gets easier over time. Make asking a lot of questions a habit.
Imagine that you’re the image.
If I were you, what would I do?
If I were you, what would I feel?
If I were you, what would I want?
If I were you, what would I think?
(You can expand these questions by adding “about ___” at the end and filling in the blank.)
Walk a mile in your mind with your images. Just treating your images as if they are sentient creatures will instantly make you feel more connected to them, which will show in your final results, and people who see your images will be drawn closer to them because of that quality.
I recommend you do this more than once at different times. Your moods, influences, and perspectives are constantly shifting, sometimes only a little, sometimes a lot. In fact, practicing these internal conversations is one way of proactively influencing your internal flow. (And yes, we all have a mind-body connection.)
Let’s talk about you. When you look at an image …
What emotions do you feel? What’s the mix?
How does your body feel when you look at it? Where?
What memories does it bring up? What’s the connection?
What other images do you think are related to it? Why?
What other things does it remind you of?
What single words and phrases would you use to describe it?
Make a list of nouns. What is it of?
Make a list of verbs. What is it doing?
Make a list of adjectives. What qualities do the things and actions possess?
In these kinds of … call them exercises or studies or research sessions … it’s supremely important not to judge or censor yourself. This will stunt the growth of this process, your growth. Write it all down. Nothing is too ridiculous. In fact, if you don’t let a good dose of that irrational stuff out you won’t find as much magic. For the moment, stop making sense. Make sensitivity. Let your inner child out to play with wild abandon. You can clean up your room later.
Ask why five times.
If you’re tempted to ask, “What does it all mean?” Try the five whys. The five whys is a tried and true technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda of Toyota Motor Corporation. It was created for troubleshooting but has since been repurposed in many ways, including to help people find their true purpose. The exercise is designed to reveal root causes. It’s simple. Make a statement and then ask why, five times.
I’ll try it, hoping that my example will be helpful to you.
I photographed this desert landscape.
Because it reminds me of the ocean.
Because it flows.
Because it’s full of waves.
Because it is moving, over a very long period of time; depending on my perspective it’s still or it’s not.
Because it’s changing.
Because that’s life.
And so once again, I come back to my classic subjects (deserts and oceans), a motif that unites almost all of my art (waves or vibration), the theme I continually explore with it (eternal impermanence), and an internal attitude I approach all of nature with (It’s alive. Definitions of life, sentience, and consciousness are now open to endless but rewarding debate.) I know this pattern, because I’ve done this many times before, and I keep repeating it with many new variations. This gives my art both unity and variety. And after decades, I’m still not tired of it; I don’t think I ever will be. Call it obsession or purpose or whatever you like, but I hope you find yours too.
Have Many Different Kinds Of Conversations.
It helps to identify the kind of conversation you’re having or want to have.
What’s here? What’s happening?
Let’s talk about what’s in the frame, what’s happening, and what’s happening between the elements. Straight analytical description might seem obvious at first, so obvious it doesn’t need to be said, but if you take a little more time and care to be thorough, you’ll notice more. You can’t thin slice your way to depth.
What’s it really about?
The content told me the story but what does it mean? Let’s talk about themes. That isolated subject … Is that loneliness or solitude? The way you compose, process, and present the image will all give us clues as we try and figure out that mystery. This is part of being a master storyteller, we add a singularly personal touch to what otherwise might be a dry history.
How does it feel?
Maybe you’re feeling many emotions at once. What’s the balance? Is there a dominant note? How is that made more complex by all the others? Or is it drowned out? Is that the point? If not, how many ways could you change that?
People are motivated by emotion. How would you like to react to and so ask other people to react to your images? What devices can you use to achieve that?
What does it remind you of?
Make connections. Return to memory. Return to association. It’s like … (Keep going. Don’t stop. But I can’t do this for you, nobody can. This is you.) Even more than emotions, the comparisons and contrasts we make, and the metaphors we use, give us and our viewers the best windows into what is most authentic about our creations.
How does it look?
Does it emphasize one compositional element (point, line, shape, plane, volume, texture, color) or structure (leading lines, layers, figure-ground, frame within a frame, field, screen) more than others? Do these devices support the story, theme, and mood as strongly as they can? Sell it. Does the image omit some elements entirely? Sometimes what’s missing is just as significant as what’s there. Form informs content.
Try Them All, Keep Them Separate, See How They Relate
You may find that you tend to have certain kinds of conversations and not others. We tend to fall into habits and we need to ask ourselves, “Is my habit a groove or a rut?”
If you’re looking for something new and you keep doing the same thing … you can finish this sentence. You’re not crazy, you’re human. We all fall into routines. Sometimes our routines are efficient; other times, they’re limiting.
If we tend to have certain kinds of conversations repeatedly and avoid other kinds of conversations is that because we’re not skilled with the other kinds of conversations, yet? Developing these skills will add new dimensions and depth to your experiences and so in turn your art. Or do we return to certain things again and again because they are our core passions? It would be terrible to confuse one with the other. You’ve got to go with your gut and when you’re not sure try new things and see what happens. What’s gained? What’s lost? Does that feel better or worse? To who? You.
It’s easy to mix these different kinds of conversations and become confused about what’s doing what and why. Keep them separate at first. Making substantial statements, not just your first impression but many. Then finally, look at how they connect, compare, and contrast.
I recommend you practice all of these types of conversations, as well as identify the types of conversations you’re having with other people about images. In time, you’ll develop an intuitive understanding of what kind of conversation will be most useful at a particular time, given what you want to achieve. But isn’t that the grand question?
What do you want to achieve?
There’s no right or wrong here. There are only appropriate means. For the statement that’s being made is what’s been done appropriate (and compelling)? But that starts with the assumption that we know what we want to do, which we often don’t know until the end of the process. Making is figuring things out. These mind tools will help open new possibilities and guide your journey of discovery into more productive areas. Along the way, you’ll find your purpose. You can’t think your way out of this box; you’ve got to climb. You can’t fake it. You just have to make it. That is … Make one image and then make the next and the next. Reflect on what you’ve done. The undiscovered territory that is your life will reveal itself with care and attention. Having conversations can inform you every step of the way.
Review Your Answers
You can find revealing patterns within the words you’ve gathered when you review them. Sort them. Which ones rise up as being important to you? Highlight those with color. Group them by kind.
Expand important areas that are interesting to you. Take the one word or phrase you like and use a thesaurus to find as many other ways to say the same thing. Word choice matters. This may lead to other ideas and connections.
It can also help to identify what it’s not. It’s not x, y, or z. You can use a thesaurus here too. And you can even take words and phrases from your positive statements and again using a thesaurus collect antonyms.
These are quick ways to find many new perspectives.
What do you do with this information? Let me count the things you can do.
You can figure out how to enhance your images; what to emphasize or deemphasize.
You can explore what images go best with other images.
You can find ways to create more unity and variety within groups of your images.
You can identify what old images to find and what new images to make.
You can clarify your vision and strengthen your style.
Sound like mastery? This is a vital part of the path to it. It’s also a way to figure out what you want to master because you can’t master everything, you just want to master the things that matter most to you. What are those?
You can extend your conversation with your images by printing them. Prints persist. You can’t swipe left and make them disappear. This means you’ll look at them longer, sometimes carefully, sometimes casually, and sometimes with your peripheral vision.
Don’t worry about making perfect prints (unless you want to have a conversation about how to perfect it), just make the print that’s going to continue your conversation started and put it where it’s most likely to be continued. Don’t fear being judged by others while you’re having these conversations. Do have these conversations, they’ll keep getting richer and deeper.
You may even share your prints with other people to help draw out their impressions. You can guide their feedback into more productive places with questions similar to the ones that you’ve already asked yourself. Often, the questions we ask others give them permission to stop being polite and go deeper. Sometimes, we see ourselves in the kinds of questions we ask and the ways we ask them.
So once again, I recommend this. Have a heart-to-heart with your images and listen to what they have to say.