The Importance of the Story
Congratulations to the winner of last week’s contest, Rob Rice! Rob submitted images from his trip to Colombia and they were all beautifully documented pictures of the people and places in the country. Here is one of them:
Rob, make sure you contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know what Phlearn PRO you would like!
Conceptual Photography: The Importance of the Story
By: Angela Butler
As photographers, as artists, our minds are always racing it seems. Always trying to come up with new and original ideas for our own photos.
There’s a photoshoot coming up, you called up your friend Susan to model for you, you have a location picked out, and you feel as if you have everything set. So here it is, the day of the shoot. You’re on your way to the shoot with Susan, when she asks “So what’s the plan? What exactly are we doing?”. Which you simply respond by saying “I’m not sure, we’re just going to have fun. We’ll wing it! Let’s do some poses and we’ll see what happens. I’ll come up with ideas while we’re shooting.”
Don’t say you haven’t done it, because I know I have- more than once as well. Now, I’m not saying that if you do this you are not going to get any worthwhile photos, or your photos will be bad. I don’t mean this at all. But what I am saying is that most of the times when you are going into a shoot with no idea, with no story, you’re going to come out with the same thing. No idea, no story, and a pretty picture. Maybe that’s all you want though! Maybe all you want is a pretty picture. Which is totally fine but isn’t it great when you step out of the box and take it a step further? You venture out of your comfort zone and create something like you’ve never created before. You come up with a concept, with a story, even if it is a simple concept, and then you go out and do the same thing. You go to shoot at a location with Susan, but this time you have a concept, a story, a meaning. When you go home and edit, you suddenly have created a photograph that 100’s of people can relate to, take meaning from, all from your artistic vision.
But I understand. Coming up with that concept isn’t always easy. A lot of the times it’s really quite difficult. So what can you do to make this process easier- go by smoother? What can jog your brain in a way to pump those great ideas out? Lots of Red Bull and Vodka.
Okay, I’m kidding. Sometimes getting these ideas are easy, sometimes they are difficult and pressing. Here’s a list of some things that I have done that have helped me.
Purchase a sketchbook
Yeah you aren’t an artist, you’re a photographer. You can’t draw. I’ve heard it all before! From whom? Myself. I refused to get a sketchbook, I refused to do crappy sketches of what I had in store for a photo shoot. But once I started I felt like kicking myself for not doing so prior. No matter how bad of an artist you are (and trust me, I’m bad) this truly does help.
Write about it
My sketchbook is about half sketches, half writing. When I’m wanting to do a photoshoot – whether it’s a self portrait or with a model I always like to write about it. Write about why you want to do the photoshoot. Ask yourself what you and others are going to get from this. Write that down. What are you trying to portray? Write that down.
Looking at your ideas in writing can help yourself expand on them. Writing about them is thinking about them, when you spend more time thinking about a specific idea that you have your brain will respond accordingly. Something that is looked at as quite childish has definitely helped me as well in my notebook- and that’s making web diagrams. Really helps me quite a lot.
Something else that helps in my notebook is how all over the place it can be, I tend to trail off and write about things that I wasn’t necessarily planning on writing about. More than often this writing that has trailed off will help me in the long run. I will write something more interesting than I had initially even thought of. It helps me, maybe it will help you too.
So before writing and sketching about an idea I guess you have to come up with one. Maybe you’re like me and sometimes have trouble getting to point A. Getting to an idea to begin with. Here’s some ways you can find inspiration for your own ideas.
Look at work of other photographers, and artists
I feel this is something we preach at Phlearn. I’ll say it once, and I’ll say it again. Looking at other people’s work, and finding out why you like it (and why you don’t like it) can be extremely beneficial to one’s practice. You could even do an artist tribute photo to an artist you really admire.
Go on a walk or go on a drive
This sounds very simple, because well, it is! If you go on a walk, and try your best to empty your mind of the troubles that are usually there during our rushed walks and drives to and from places we go, we can really find inspiration from the most unexpected places. Just go on a walk and breathe, and look. Look around. Look at what’s around you. You could find the best location for a photoshoot you’ve ever seen. You could see some graffiti that strikes your eye. You could see an old couple who are walking together holding hands. You can find inspiration from almost anywhere. Just free your mind of your everyday troubles and just be. that’s when the great ideas will come.
What’s in the news?
Reading about what’s in the news can really spark something. Something in there has the potential to really strike a cord within your thoughts.
Listen to your favorite songs.
Take the time to listen to the lyrics of your favorite songs, you may find something to base a photo off of from there.
Besides these things there are many other things you can do to try and find inspiration. You can find inspiration within movies, tv shows, conversations with friends, your own personal thoughts, from almost anything.
The importance of the story is more than just something to back your photo up. When you have a concrete idea of what you are wanting to come across in a photograph, that idea is more likely to come through then when you are unsure of the idea.
Conceptual photography can often move and connect with the viewer in a deeper and more meaningful way than traditional photography, because it is more than just aesthetics. It’s a story. A story that is seeded in the photographers mind, their artistic vision. It can often become quite powerful in finalization. This power, is what makes all of that pre-visualization, planning and thinking worth it. For a great photograph that has more impact then just being aesthetically pleasing? Even if it just to one person? Sounds more than worth it to me.
For this week’s challenge I want to see your favorite conceptual photograph that you have taken and share them in the comments below. Tell us the meaning behind it, and how you got the idea for your photo. We’re going to do the same. Please have all contest submissions in by Wednesday, July 25th at 12 PM CST.
The amount of conceptual photographs I have taken is definitely in the triple digits. To pick my favorite is definitely a difficult task for me to do. So I decided to choose a photo that started my path to conceptual photography. I understand that I wrote a bit about this in the last challenge for the Photojournalism and Documentary article, but I have decided to choose a photo I took when I was sick.
This photo is titled The Bald Princess. When diagnosed with cancer in May of 2009 I took pictures of everything, everyone, all the time. My shutter never stopped clicking. I took pictures of myself in the hospital beds, the nurses, the doctors, the syringes, everything.
One night, like many nights that Summer, I couldn’t sleep. Part of the chemotherapy was steroids, and these steroids had side effects of insomnia. These steroids turned me into an insomniac for quite a large portion of the Summer. I thought this was great. I wasn’t tired, I all of a sudden had an extra 8 hours in my day to do whatever I wanted, and I used to always occupy myself. But there’s only so long you can watch reruns of Friends, browse the web, and make yourself a cup of tea. So I took out my camera, took out my tripod and started experimenting with self-portraits. First going off they were pretty boring, pretty normal. Just me, in front of the camera. But I liked taking photos so I continued with the boring self-portraits for a while.
During one sleepless evening, my thoughts were running wild throughout my head. I started thinking about things that certain people have said, and why I deserved for them to be said to me. I started to question things. We all do this. Where we think about an instance, and analyze every second of it… I was doing this. I was thinking about how someone I was with months prior had treated me while undergoing chemotherapy. I was kind of excited about being bald, I thought it was cool! It made showers quicker, and I could put on a wig whenever I wanted hair again (and I didn’t even need to style it!). But this guy didn’t agree. Whenever I walked around my house nothing on my head it would be “requested” that I put something on, if I could put on my wig or a hat because they “couldn’t stand looking at me like that”. You’re “just not as pretty as you were without hair”.
To deal with these remarks I came up with the concept of The Bald Princess. The girl who is just as beautiful as all of the other girls with long luscious hair, but since she isn’t as physically appealing as the others, she gets left in the dark.
Taking this photo was really such a therapeutic experience for me. Since I’ve taken this photo it’s been such a relief, such a lift off of my shoulders. This negativity brought onto me by this person has now been shifted to a positive light because of how I decided to look at it from the camera. From a conceptual and an artistic point of view. This to me is exactly what conceptual photography is about. This is the first conceptual photograph I ever took, and I think it will always remain the strongest- at least to me.
Conceptual photography isn’t something that I’ve always done. When I first started to photography, I didn’t do it to create stories, I did it to document stories that were already happening. I believed in raw emotion in photographs and capturing people simply being people. It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I really considered intergrading my personal experiences, concepts, and stories into my photography. Ever since then, I found photography to be more enjoyable. I felt like I had more control over what goes on in each image and I started to approach photography more creatively.
I decided to feature this image in today’s article because I believe that it was the start of my conceptual photography. At the time, I was coping with an unexpected death of one of my good friends at home while I was away at college. I turned to photography and my schoolwork to distract me and keep me busy during this time. If I didn’t keep myself busy I found that I was distracted and my mind wandered to places that I didn’t want it to be.
The idea behind this picture is that, while beautiful things can be destroyed, there will always be the creation of something new. I wanted this picture to be the complete opposite of what I was feeling at that time. Even though this image is simple, it made me fall in love with the concept of making the impossible possible though my photography and the technology of Photoshop. This image also helped push me and gave me a direction to go in with my photography. Basically, in the end I realized that this image is much more than meets the eye, there’s a whole story behind it.
When I heard that we are focusing on “conceptual photography”, it reminded me of high school, when I first heard this term. It confused me back then, and I must admit, it still does. Shouldn’t all photography have a good, solid concept behind it? Of course, I know that this is a term of art, and I should respect that, but I’m always taken aback when I hear it. The idea of labeling a photograph as “conceptual”, to me, is the same as calling a woman “more than just a pretty face”. Shouldn’t all photographs have a concept? Shouldn’t all women be more than just a pretty face?
While researching conceptual photography, I realized that a lot of artists creating “fine art” could also be categorized as “conceptual art”. While looking at conceptual artists, I realized that I was drawn towards more classical photographers such as Man Ray and Cindy Sherman. Man Ray’s body of work continues to amaze me, and I’ve been lucky enough to see a number of his pieces in person. It was interesting that his work was categorized as “conceptual”. He was a dadaist, a surrealist, a genius of his time who’s work revolutionized the art world. If you want to see some of his work, click here.
When my grandfather passed away, I was left with several old film cameras. For my photograph, I decided to use my own camera, as well as my grandfather’s. I set up my digital camera on a tripod, pointing down and peering into my grandfather’s camera. The photograph means a lot to me. While his camera is dirty and old, mine clean and new, I now prefer shooting with his camera. This photograph, while being a self-portrait, is through the lens that my grandfather used to look through. It’s almost as if he’s seeing me.