Clouds roll in.
The sky clears.
Sequence can enhance images and may even change the stories they tell.
How you present your images can be as important as which ones you select. It’s the art of sequencing (and it is an art), which involves specific techniques that you can learn. What are some of the guiding principles involved? Here are a few.
Start strong. Finish strong. Make getting there interesting. Whether a symphony, a novel, or an exhibit, it’s good advice for arranging any creative project.
Identifying your strongest image is essential. It sets the highest level of quality, against which all others will be measured. It alone may help you create an appropriate structure for the rest of your work. This singular image is often used to lead a body of work (in the announcement of your project and possibly as the first images seen in the sequence), becoming the most frequently viewed image.
While you may want to arrange your images from strongest to weakest for your own information, you certainly don’t want to present them to other people this way. Instead, you want to tease out your strongest images along the way, sustaining attention toward a strong finish.
While not every image you include in a project needs to be equally strong, a majority of images included should be representative of your best work. The rest should be almost as good. Use lesser images only when they help illustrate essential points that would otherwise be overlooked or add complexity and dimension.
No amount of arranging will make up for the lack of high-quality work. It may be easier to build mass into a project by including lesser amid stronger works; this is rarely an effective strategy. Quality makes the primary impact. Volume is secondary. Even if taken to an extreme, a large dose of average work is far less impressive than a small dose of high-quality work.
To sequence a project, you can use the metaphor of building a fence. The strongest pieces can be thought of as posts. The less strong pieces can be thought of as rails. You want to start and end with the very strongest pieces to create a strong structure. You want to periodically reinforce runs of less strong units with one or more stronger units. You don’t want long runs of rails without posts, or the structure may fail. A fence made only of posts becomes something else entirely, a wall with no variation or grace. The number of strong pieces you include determines how long your fence can be before it gets weak or falls apart.
It’s helpful to identify the story you’re telling. This will impact not only your selection of images but also your presentation of them. Think of each individual picture as a chapter in a book. Simple phrases and sentences can help you. You can logline the entire story, and you can also logline single images (if not every image, then key images that mark transitions) to better understand the function they serve.
“Have you noticed how all photographers have favourite stories that tell of being in a certain place at a certain time and making a photograph that really excited them? People love to hear these stories.”
Recently I had a wide-ranging conversation with Peter Eastway, a great Australian photographer and the publisher of Better Photography magazine. We talked about visualization, the creative process, and how words can be useful for photographers.
Here’s an excerpt …
Words Can Help
John suggests that writing is far better at describing intangibles than photography. Sure, we can make photographs that represent love or freedom, but the language we’re using can be ambiguous. Not every viewer will pick up on what we’re doing. Many will have their own interpretations, so perhaps our own use of words in association with our photographs can make things clearer. “I think it depends on the kind of journey you want to create for your viewers. I was just looking at Eliot Porter’s Antarctica book, and I was surprised by how heavy the captions were and how dense the text that separated different sections in the book was. It’s not right or wrong; it’s just one kind of experience. However, a problem with words is that they can limit the viewers’ experience by not leaving enough room for the viewer. But words that are open, generative, and don’t close things down can be very engaging. “I think a lot of artists are uncomfortable with words because it’s not a skill they’ve developed. But good words have helped me understand art much better. They didn’t destroy the mystery; they enhanced it.”
Think of an artist giving a talk at an exhibition or presenting a slide show of images. Would you expect the artist to just sit there and say nothing? Or would you want to hear what’s going on inside the artist’s mind, inside their heart? John has a slide show about Antarctica on his website, and his voice-over provides an added dimension to the presentation. With the words, I felt I knew a lot more about John, his personality, and his approach to photography. There was a synergy.
But if you have never written about anything in your life, how do you start to write about something that can be as personal as photography? It can already be challenging enough to show our photographs to others; now we’re supposed to write about them as well? John has some practical suggestions, beginning with telling a story. “Have you noticed how all photographers have favourite stories that tell of being in a certain place at a certain time and making a photograph that really excited them? People love to hear these stories. What it was like to be there? What were you thinking? What were you feeling? What did you learn? You don’t have to say or write big fancy words or even have it all perfectly composed. You can keep your language really simple, just like you talk. One of the things you can try is to imagine you’re having a conversation with a mate and tell them the story. Transcribe what you say and maybe clean up the ‘umms’ and the ‘ahhs,’ but it doesn’t have to be fancy language. In fact, simple direct language will communicate with other people better. Most people get turned off by ‘art speak’, and most people do not want to read a 3000-word essay. But we love short stories. In fact, the human brain is hooked on them. So, telling one of your stories is a great starting point, and having hung out with some of the ‘greats’ of photography, you don’t need a lot of them. They were constantly telling the same stories. Dad had half a dozen stories he’d tell time and time again. How many celebrities did Arnold Newman photograph, yet he generally used the same small number of stories.” A short story can be used as a caption or an introduction. It allows you to position the viewer closer to you so they better understand what your photograph is about, but, as John emphasises, without making things so tight, there isn’t room for your viewers to use their own imagination.
Stuck? Experiment! How? Try this.
List all of the rules of photography. Then break them.
Doing this will offer two profound benefits.
One, you'll develop a better understanding of and versatility with the medium.
Two, you’ll deepen your understanding of your personal goals and voice (vision and style).
If an experiment fails to produce interesting results, you’ll have proven confirmation that what you’re doing is working for you. If an experiment succeeds by producing results that are exciting to you, you’ll develop a new relationship with the medium and maybe even find a personal breakthrough.
Often you’ll need to try an experiment more than once. Try each experiment long enough to see whether they’re working or not; many of these things won’t feel natural at first.
I recommend making this kind of experimentation a lifelong practice. No matter how accomplished you are, discoveries await you.
Here’s a list to get you started …
Day / Night
Looking for something new? Do the opposite of what you normally do. Use the power of reversal; it’s a powerful strategy used by countless creatives.
The principle of reversal is similar to the photographers’ 180-degree rule. You shoot in one direction. You’re so focused on one thing you don’t see all the other possibilities around you. You force yourself also to look 180 degrees in the opposite direction. You discover new vistas. It’s a good habit. Extend this. Identify the ways of seeing you typically engage. Now list other ways of looking and try them. You’ll quickly discover new ways of seeing that will reenergize you and make your work more vital.
Our minds are conditioned to think in terms of opposites, so ideas for reversal come easily to us.
On – Off
Dark – Light
Day – Night
Vertical – Horizontal
Up – Down
In – Out
Active – Passive
Moving – Still
Dynamic – Stable
Whole – Incomplete
Repaired – Broken
Full – Empty
Some – None
Many – One
Altered – Unaltered
Full / Empty
Try putting a prefix of un or anti on any word (even if the results are not in the dictionary), and you’ll instantly find a different perspective. Then reverse that perspective. Inverting twice doesn’t always return you to the same point. New things can be gained in translation.
The possibilities are so limitless they can be overwhelming.
Break the challenge down into useful chunks.
You can make reversals in your physical process.
Visual stories can be simple or complex, quiet or dramatic, short or long ... the possibilities are endless.
Even in abstract images things happen, at the very least formal elements interact.
Sometimes stories are told with images through their relationships with other images.
Every picture tells a story. Every picture? Every picture!
Even abstract images tell stories. The stories they tell are not about their subjects. By definition, they don’t have subjects. Or do they? They have themselves. So they tell stories about themselves. They tell stories about the things that make them – color, line, texture, shape, proportion, etc. How all of those things relate is a drama of form.
How many kinds of stories are there? There are scientific stories that tell us what things are and how they work. There are historical stories that tell us how things were, how they changed, and what they’ve become today – some even speculate about how things will be tomorrow. There are emotional stories that tell us how people respond emotionally to things. There may be more kinds of stories, but these are the big ones. When it comes to images, the stories they tell are usually only about a few kinds of things. The images themselves. The things images contain. The processes things go through. The feelings people have in response to things and processes. The concepts created through interpretation. Things: Nouns. Processes: Verbs. Feelings: Adjectives and Adverbs. Concepts: Abstract Ideas.
So if every picture tells a story, one way to determine the strength of an image is to ask, “How strong is the story?” Put another way, one way to improve your images is to tell stronger stories. A story doesn’t have to be big or dramatic to be strong; it just has to be told well. Tell stories strongly. Tell them with stronger form; tell them by more clearly delineating actions; tell them by disclosing emotional responses more passionately; tell them by inspiring us to find the bigger picture beyond each picture or group of pictures.
Zoomorphism animates and connects these images.
Photographs can often be well-crafted transcriptions of their subjects and nothing more. It’s usually that elusive ‘something more’ that makes great photographs, elevating them beyond craft to art. How can you bring more to your images? One way is to use a guiding metaphor.
What is a metaphor? In language, spoken or written, a simile implies a shared quality (This is like that.), while a metaphor states that two things are the same (This is that.). When a metaphor is used, it’s understood that poetic license is being taken. A metaphor isn’t used to create misinformation and confusion, it’s used to emphathetically draw attention to shared qualities.
1 Realistic images emphasize content.
2 Graphic images emphasize form.
3 Expressionistic images emphasize feeling.
4 Impressionistic images may evoke content, form, and/or feeling.
Making verbal statements about visual images can be challenging. But, it’s also very useful. Learning to make useful statements about images can help you clarify the type of work you’re looking at or making. It can help you identify an artist’s intentions, including your own. It can help give you direction. It can help you improve your images. It can help you develop projects and predict outcomes. It can help you more effectively communicate with others. When it comes to appreciating and making images, words can be very useful. You don’t need to have a degree or be a professional writer to use words well. Sometimes, a few simple words can end up being the most useful – especially if they’re the right words.
One useful way to comment on images is to discuss three important and related aspects of images - content, form, and feeling. While all images have these dimensions, you can describe the kind of image a work of art is based on how it weights these three concerns.
Here are several types of images that weigh these concerns differently.
W Scott Olsen made this podcast for FRAMES deep, rich, and fun! We talked about origins, the creative process, connecting with nature, and so much more. Clear, flowing, heartfelt … I’m really pleased with this one.
Recently I had a wide-ranging conversation with Richard Bernabe for his Beyond The Lens podcast. I shared stories about being raised in a family of artists and how making art has helped me deepen my connections with the natural world and sustain me during these challenging times. I hope you find inspiration and fuel for your creative life when you listen to it.