Making the Visual Verbal

Many take the view that pictures should be seen and not heard. I did. After being called to comment on my work time and time again, I realized that learning to comment on my work not only made my work more effective but it also helped me understand my work better and solve certain creative challenges. In fact, I realized that there are many types of writing and many uses for writing. Writing is now an integral part of my creative process from start to finish. Making the Visual Verbal is a useful skill that can benefit everyone, including you. You don’t think you can write? Anyone can finish a sentence. Finishing it well just takes practice. And some kinds of writing don’t need finished sentences. While it’s true there’s only one Shakespeare, we can all write. After all, think of all the great writing (fiction and nonfiction) that’s been written since Shakespeare. Personally, I don’t want to receive love letters written by Shakespeare. I want love letters written to me by my wife.
Here’s a piece I wrote several years ago on
Tune in tomorrow for a new piece on – Developing Personal Projects.
Making the Visual Verbal
“Pictures should be seen and not heard.” “If we could communicate what we want to communicate with words, then we’d be writers not artists.” The words had rained down on me so many times that my mind had been saturated with the idea. While it reflects some truth, chiefly that a text (written or verbal) can never be a substitute for an image, it can also be misleading. Pictures have always been, continue to be, and will always be talked about-particularly by artists.
Growing up in an artistic family, the parade of visitors and people we visited included many types of artists from musicians to sculptors and most frequently photographers. The topics of conversation were far-reaching and colorful. Often there would be complaints about what had been written about their own work, sometimes about what had been written about each other’s work, or ……what had been written about other artist’s work. Then, if they existed, out would come quotes from an artist’s personal writings that were used to illuminate, reinforce or refute varied points of view (Artist’s letters, journals, interviews and statements have always held a special position in the history of art. They have forever shaped the commentary that surrounds work.) Inevitably, the very same artists, who claimed that artists should remain mute, would be lured into giving a lecture or an interview about their work. Artists approach the process of making the visual verbal with mixed feelings; part trepidation, part confirmation, part validation. To be sure, while there are many pitfalls to be avoided, there are many positive byproducts to making the visual verbal.
Writing can illuminate new avenues of inquiry for the viewer and in so doing enrich the entire viewing process, including the subsequent viewing process of future works by other artists. Writing is a process of revelation, It is a process of making thought visible. It is a matter of clarifying a process of thinking. By making what was intuitively sensed visible to the conscious mind, the familiar is clarified and the unfamiliar is brought to light.
Writing about images is inevitable. This kind of writing has always been there. It always will be. Someone, somewhere, sometime will write about your images. You have a great deal to contribute to the process. Along the way, you’re likely to find that writing about your work will be extremely revealing.
Many positive things happen when you engage writing. You will understand your work better. You will be able to communicate more clearly about your work. You will affirm the strengths of your work. You will be able to chart your own artistic development over time. You may even be able to uncover the seeds that will provide future growth in your work.
There are a variety of ways to make the visual verbal. There are artist’s journals, artist’s statements and writing exercises that can be used to get to the core of the inner life of work. There are ways to prepare for interviews; these days many interviews are conducted through writing over the Internet. There are lectures, and writing and rehearsing creates a solid structure for them. Writing can be a tremendous aid to any creative endeavor at any stage in the process …
Read the rest here on
Find more tips on writing here.
Read my artist’s statements here.
Read interviews I’ve given here.
Read my conversations with photographers here.
Learn more in my digital photography workshops.

Writing Artist’s Statements

It’s important to learn how to make the visual verbal, by crafting artist’s statements. Many artists feel that images are better seen and not heard. I understand their point of view. But, face it, things will be said and written about your images. If you don’t do it, someone else will. You might as well become involved in the process. After all, as the author, this is one arena where your words are definitive.

You don’t have to be a professional writer to write. Just write. Write like you speak. Write with your voice.

Like making images, writing is a process, a process of making thoughts and feelings clearer. Often, you don’t know what shape the final product will take, until you finish.

At first, I resisted writing about my images. Now, I find the process so valuable that I’ve made it a part of my artistic process. Every time a new body of work arises, I write. When I’m ready to release a book of the work, I write again. As a result of writing, I gain a better understanding of the work I did, the work I’m doing, and the work I’m going to do. So do the people who see my images, surprisingly, even if they don’t read what I write.

This is an excerpt from a longer essay Artists’ Statements.
Download it here.

Read my artist’s statements here.
Learn more in my Fine Art Digital Printing Workshops.

Take Inventory of Your Associations

Before you photograph, write. After you identify the things happening outside you, take a little time to explore what’s going on inside you. The events around us trigger many associations and emotions, sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic. Often, it’s the inner dimensions of ourselves that we bring to image-making that make our work truly moving to other people. We all bring something different to each and every moment. To really be there, you have to know who you are. Find out. What are you bringing to the picture? Did you show up?

Write spontaneously and unselfconsciously. Give yourself freely to the moment. Be thorough. Go deep. Write until you have nothing left to say. And when you feel you don’t have anything left to say, ask yourself if that’s really so. Don’t evaluate your results or yourself until after you finish. Tell yourself how you really feel. Later, you can decide what to share with the rest of the world and how you’d like to do it. This kind of personal research will help you gain a greater understanding of your world, your self, and your photography. As a result, all three will improve.

Explore the power of words in these related resources.
Learn more creative techniques in my Illuminating Creativity workshops.

How To Discover Qualities With Adjectives And Adverbs


This article is part of a series …

Take Inventory With Nouns.

Discover Qualities With Adjectives And Adverbs.

Identify Actions With Verbs.


Develop the habit of making lists and you’ll dramatically sharpen your powers of observation and retention. (We’re 72% more likely to remember and act on what we write down.)

After you identify the things (nouns) and actions (verbs) in your environment, identify the qualities of those things (adjectives). (Notice that if this was worded as a question, we’ve moved from “What is it?” or “What is happening?” to “How does it feel?”)

Savor your subjects with all of your senses; sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. Note all of those qualities. The things that are not seen but nevertheless sensed may be the very things that separate your images from another, they may even be what they are about (not of).

Go beyond observing the world outside you to include the world inside you. Your associations – memories, emotions, ideas, connections – are often the very things that make your images unique. Invest more of yourself in your images and make them more your own. There’s a dramatic difference between an angle of view and a point of view. An angle of view can be duplicated; a point of view can be shared but never truly copied.

You may not be able to duplicate these responses for viewers of your still images but you can allude to them and having identified them will make your experience richer and your perspective deeper. The difference will be felt by viewers of your images – and your images will bring back more memories for you.

You may be able to use all the words you gather in your lists for another purpose – crafting words. If you are called to speak or write about your images you’ll have a lot of raw material to work with.

Find more ways to boost your creativity using words.
Learn more creative techniques in my workshops.

How To Identify Actions With Verbs

This article is part of a series …

1.    Take Inventory With Nouns.

2.    Discover Qualities With Adjectives And Adverbs.

3.    Identify Actions With Verbs.

Develop the habit of making lists and you’ll dramatically sharpen your powers of observation and retention. (We’re 72% more likely to remember and act on what we write down.)

After you identify the things (nouns) in your environment, identify what’s going on or the actions taking place (verbs).

For photographs to transcend becoming simplistic visual inventories they need to tell a story. That means something has to happen in them. So you need verbs. However, actions come in many flavors. They can be dramatic or quiet, fast or slow, active (peak action) or passive (a frozen gesture). Often we don’t recognize all the things that are happening around us simultaneously and making a list of them all will help you be more observant.

Don’t let this practice get in the way of capturing peak action. If you see something significant about to happen get ready ahead of time. Not surprisingly, if you’ve been making your lists, you’ll be more prepared and practiced and so more likely to notice it before (not after) it happens.

Usually, there’s so much going on around us that we miss things. Periodically putting your camera down and just looking carefully will help you see more. And, if you become more mindful of the events around you and their interconnections, you’ll make more insightful images.

Is it enough to simply make mental lists? It’s a start, so do it. But if you always take this shortcut, you’ll be missing out on some of the long-term gains of developing this habit – wider, deeper, more memorable, with the ability to identify patterns either in your environment or in your ways of relating to subjects and your medium. Again, action speaks volumes and pays dividends.

Find more ways to boost your creativity using words.
Learn more creative techniques in my workshops.

How To Take Inventory With Nouns


This article is part of a series …

1.    Take Inventory With Nouns.

2.    Discover Qualities With Adjectives And Adverbs.

3.    Identify Actions With Verbs.


Try this. Before you photograph, write. When you first arrive at a new location you can quickly become overstimulated or even overwhelmed by all the new sights, sounds, smells, and events. You can make sense of it all and make sure you don’t miss anything by taking inventory. Make a list of all the things you see. You’ll find that in the process of writing things down you’ll notice more than you ordinarily do.

Push yourself a little. Give yourself a high quota. Set a minimum number of words; start with 50. And set a minimum amount of time – 3-5 minutes. This initial investment of time will pay big dividends. When you start making photographs, you will have already found more subjects and more details about them.

Don’t just do this once, keep it going. Practice this until it becomes a habit. You’ll find that as you develop this skill you’ll naturally start noticing more. In part, this is because you aren’t pre-selecting or what you notice. You filter impressions after not before you notice them.

After an initial burst, you’ll find that the number of new observations you make will slow down. Use this strategy to expand your list and notice more. Break things down into parts. For instance, after you write tree also write root, trunk, bark, branch, leaf, bud, flower, fruit. You can even note the parts of the new things on your list; for fruit list stem, skin, flesh, seed. See you started with one word and ended up with twelve and in the process, you might have been tempted to break open and sample the fruit.

The time to stop this flow of words is not the first time you get stuck and probably not the second or third either. But there is a time to stop this flow of words and just be purely visual while you make exposures. But anytime you see the flow of images slowing down or stopping altogether you can pick it back up. This is especially useful right after an extended session of making exposures. Consider it a review to consolidate everything you noticed. And when you come back to the same or a similar subject you already have a list, which you can continue building on. (I make my lists on my smartphone so they’re always with me.)

With so many possibilities, where do you start making images? Start with whatever is most interesting to you. Highlight those things on your list so that you can find them quickly when you look at them again.

Keep building your lists. Your lists will come in handy when you start repeating yourself. As a result, you’ll be able to make many more successful and related images. Given time and practice, you’ll notice patterns in your thinking, which can be the start of finding what’s truly authentic about the way you see.

Find more ways to boost your creativity using words.
Learn more creative techniques in my workshops.

Take Note of Your Process

It only takes something to write with to learn a lot about photography and yourself in a little time. It doesn’t matter whether you use pen and paper or PDA. It doesn’t matter whether you finish sentences, spell correctly, or write legibly. Just write. Don’t just talk, using audio recordings, unless you transcribe them later. You need to see relationships – in writing.
One of the assignments I often give my workshop participants on location is to note your process. “First I do this. Then I do this. Next I … etc.” Most don’t follow through. They quickly fall into old habits and return to photographing the way they usually do, without finishing the assignment, without learning. So, to finish the assignment, they have to fill in their lists after they photograph. Then they don’t piece things together in the same way. They miss some things. They forget other things. One of the benefits of noting your process is that things that you ordinarily take for granted or weren’t aware of suddenly become clearer to you.
I do the assignment with my students. (Yes, I do the exercises I assign too.) They’re always amazed at how full my pages of notes are and how many pages I create in a short time. This comes with practice. And it comes with sharing your notes with other people. When you hear each other’s lists, you’ll find other people notice things you don’t. Both the similarities and differences you share with others can be revealing.
I find I write the same things down time and time again. This has lead me to create a master process list, which I copy and modify (add to or subtract from) on location. There are always new things. Are there new things because I noticed more? Why? Are there new things because I’m in a new environment? Why? Are there new things because I decided to try something new? Why? These are important questions that can unlock a new ways of looking, thinking, and working, now and in the future. Keep asking them.
Because I write … I’m clearer about what works and what doesn’t. I’ve streamlined my systems. I have a better understanding of how and why I work. I have dozens of new ideas to try. This is a great thing to do when you first start making photographs after a break or in a new place.
There are many more benefits to noting your process. With practice you won’t need to take as many notes as you do when you first try this, you’ll simply keep a running dialog in your head and note only the most important things or the things that are different. Do make notes. Writing reveals. Writing brings more choices. Writing leads to clear thinking. Writing leads to clear seeing.
Find more online resources in my Creativity Lessons.
Learn more creative techniques in my Illuminating Creativity workshops.

Use Writing to Help Clarify Your Story

I’m getting ready for my White Sands workshop this coming weekend. Reviewing my sketches and writings from previous trips, I got more ideas. After many trips to White Sands, I thought I knew exactly what I needed to do but now I’m sure there’s more. So I’ll write and sketch more on the way there, while I’m there, and afterward.
If every pictures tells a Story
Writing can help clarify your story.
You can read 8 different types of statements on White Sands in my free PDF.
Find out more about my White Sands workshop here.
Stay tuned for live blog posts during the workshop!