Jul 19, 2012

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:

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Rob, make sure you contact us at [email protected] to let us know what Phlearn PRO you would like!

Conceptual Photography: The Importance of the Story

By: Angela Butler

“The Lavender Princess” by Kirsty Mitchell

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.

Photo By August Bradley

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.

“By The shape of The Cloud” by Gintaras Kasperionis

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.

“I Don’t Fit In This World” by Julie de Waroquie

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.

The Challenge

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. 

Angela’s Results:

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.

Jenna’s Results:

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.

Text-align: left;”>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.

Kate’s Results:

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.

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    Yo Mama

    Fascinating to see so many different points of view and techniques

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    Rubén Chase

    This is my submission. All starts with a friend of mine, challenging me to do something with a “gore” mood. And then I do this serie of only two pictures. I did the first thinking on when you start on photography, you remove the “normal” vision of the world, and start to see it from other perspective. In the second image is the simple continuation of the photo, in a more clean way, and focusing on the “photographers view”

    Thank you very much guys, for this day of continue episodes!

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    Jeffrey Blaseg

    This is 1 part of a 6-part series I am currently working on titled ‘Prairie Gothic’. It is basically a story of a husband/wife, male/female, etc, relationship of two people living out in the middle of a very remote, solitary part of the countryside. This is the second to last part of the series where “Sam” the male has lost all grip on reality and is convinced that the Earth upon which he and his partner live is now poisoned and he is now giving up a part of his body, mainly his blood, to try to “repair what damage has been done”.

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    Billeh R.

    The concept/idea was mainly based on my emotions, and the things that I go through on a daily basis. In my opinion, this is possibly my most emotive photo up to date and really describes about myself in multiple ways. Plus, people might be able to relate when they’re in the same situation.

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    Rhiannon Brunett

    The concept for this photo was a simple one. How you can
    blow yourself away if you just let go. If you stop worrying that it won’t work,
    if you stop giving so much power to what other people think, if you just take
    your dream and let go.

    I got to the meaning of this photo because I wanted to show
    myself what it would feel like if I had no fear. I thought maybe if I saw an
    image that expressed this letting go, that I could actually do it. The umbrella
    represents all the ideas and drive that can take you somewhere, but also how
    you can let go of those ideas and drive and still be free, curious and alive.

    Thank you to Phlearn for the free fog brush and colorizing

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    maryanne gobble

    I hesitated to use flour.  But while driving by Walgreens and hearing Kanye West on a mix tape ” How could you be so cold? As the winter wind when it breeze yo”…  I just knew, yo.  It’s a self portrait and I made the dress from a torn curtain and tank top.  Also a black sheet in outdoor light, I hope my neighbors weren’t watching!

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    Sarah Allegra

    The will is the weakest particle of all because its charge is borrowed
    and drained so that we can have light when no one is there to observe

    I shot this photo after reading the quote above in the book Demons In The Age Of Light, by Whitney Robinson.  Which is FANTASTIC; I highly recommend it.  There were so many inspiring quotes in the book that I started a series based on them, which is still in progress.  This is one of my favorites from the set, and also features Brooke Shaden as the model, as a bonus 🙂

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    Brittany Juravich

    This is the first photo I planned out from start to finish and am proud of. I came up with the idea of “how the concept of home can change” when I went off to college and realized that the place I called “home” didn’t feel much like home anymore. Home felt more like school. Sometimes, I’m not even sure where “home” is. So I decided to make a little home in the woods with a sheet to emphasize how what you consider home is easily changeable.

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    Mark Jones

    This is a photo I called ‘The raven waited with me’. The Raven represents death, but it also is her company and sits close to her, like a friend, and they wait together. I wanted her to look directly into the camera to make the viewer almost feel like they’re intruding on the scene. Maybe she is waiting for someone who has died, or waiting for death herself, but she is not afraid. 

    The idea had been sitting in my mind for a while, but came together when I found the location on a rare trip home to Scotland, and this bench in the middle of nowhere. The raven was a composite, and I had originally mean’t to have three or four, but I felt like the image was more pure with one. 
    I’ll also link a before/after so you can see the photoshop work that went into it. Thank you Phlearn for the mountains of knowledge! Hope you like my entry. 🙂 

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    Lia Niobe

    The first picture (“that night we came back to say goodbye”) I got the idea while editing. I had shot another scene, but due to some complications on location I couldn’t use everything I needed, so I changed it 🙂
    The story is that two girls died and they came back as ghosts to the place they drowned and they say goodbye to this world.

    I got the idea for the second picture (“a haunted tea party”) from the great tea set my friend (in the picture) found at her grandmother’s. I just thought how I could use it and when I found this great spot near my house I could think of even more to add.

    I get a lot of ideas by going for a walk and finding great places to shoot in. I live in a little village with lots of nature, so for me it’s not so hard to find something 🙂
    I recently found some old clothes on our attic and got some ideas of how to use them or sometimes I just sit in my room with my sketchbook and let my thoughts wander. Or I listen to music, close my eyes and wait what I see.

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    chris collins

    The title is “fatherhood”.  You always hear how great having a son is.  People make it out to be all sunshine and roses.  Some parts of parenthood is like that, but not all the time.  This is how I feel after a 12 hour day at work with a 1:20 minute drive home.  My son can just talk, talk and talk.  I love him more than life itself, but sometimes you would like peace.
    My 7 year old son and I made this together.  He help set up the light stands and tripod.  He loves the tripod.  AND MY EAR STILL HURTS.

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    Katriena Emmanuel

    For me I love to inject a bit of conceptual into my fashion and beauty photography, not only to tell a story but to be inventive.  I executed last year February, a hair beauty editorial entitled “Sushairme” playing on the words hair and sushimi. The idea to create hairstyles inspired by sushi, and using the materials identifiable with sushi, such as rice, caviar, raw salmon, seaweed, chopsticks, bamboo mats all came to me the year before, when in 2010 I bought myself a sushi kit to make sushi at home. It was one night, while I was rolling up the sushi rolls, it was like I had a light bulb moment, I just started thinking of the materials that go into making sushi and how they can be translated into hairstyles as well as incorporated into the styling such as making chockers out of the bamboo mats used to roll the sushi, or a sea weed chocker, or a chocker made out of chopsticks and rice. So I set about sketching the ideas, the hairstyles that were inspired by sushi rolls, the colours, textures and jot down ideas for how to style each individual hairstyled look, then I contacted a hairstylist I knew was crazy enough to give this challenge a go and he went above and beyond my expectations in realising my vision.  I wanted to keep the photography lighting fairly flat and even, almost sterile looking and the makeup inspired by the Japanese theartre of Kabuki, as for me Japanese culture and art is very minimalistic looking with crisp lines and I wanted to convey that minimalism in the post processing and photography aspect of it as well. And well that’s my story of how I came up with making sushi into a beauty fashion editorial, just from the process of making sushi at home, the ideas came flooding in and I only finally executed it back in February 2011.

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    Christine Cody

    Angela you got me crying now but they are not all sad tears your truly an inspiration luv you xo

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    Natasha Root
    My concept for this piece came from the Tarot card Temperance and the idea of a shared or mutual version of it.Temperance is almost always depicted as a single person pouring liquid from one receptacle into another. Historically, this was a standard symbol of the virtue temperance, one of the cardinal virtues, representing the dilution of wine with water.
    Here I have two figures. One pouring liquid from her cup to the cup held by her companion, shown so overflowing that it is submerged… In sharing anything it is difficult to achieve the proper balance of giving & receiving.
    In many ways, this card is about the desire to find a unified field theory, a way of blending opposites, achieving synthesis. Remember that Temperance isn’t about surrendering either the water or the wine. It is about mixing things until you get exactly what you want, which is usually a perfect blend of the two.

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    ‘Uncovered Irony’…This is the concept of having so much accumulated knowledge yet being without the words to express the things one has accumulated. If only we could speak in vision.
    She is in a hole having been uncovered or dug up. ‘She’ being the idea that one could speak with visions instead of voice. She has eyes to see with but they are closed while her speaking eye is open…

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    Lauri Laukkanen

    This photo was my first real concept that had a story behind it. I really loved the storytelling process that we went through before doing the actual shoot. The idea was to create a poster for an imaginary TV-drama-series called “Trapped”. Here is a quick synopsis about the series: The young woman in this photo has lost her boyfriend in a car-accident, and has now become emotionally psychotic. She is trapped in her memories, and she believes she can communicate with the dead boyfriend through the television that is in this photo. 

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      Lauri Laukkanen

      Seems like I always do something wrong while trying to upload the photo… I’ll try again: “Yearning”
      (and just in case it doesn’t work, here is a link to the photo:

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    Beautiful post as usual, great the new featured session as well, thank you!

    This is actually the post #339 since you have two #337 🙂

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    This photo is inspired by the famous story of little red riding hood, in this shot I tried to capture the moment of when she finds out she is being followed by the wolf.The look on her face shows a little bit of craftiness, a cunning look on her face meaning she is going to take care of the matter in a non conventional way.
    A common thing that drives most of my shots is showing the strength in my female subjects in the most creative way possible.

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    Erika Edgerley

    This is probably the first “conceptual” photo I ever took, and it’s still one of my favorites. Before this point, I mainly took photos of stuff I saw that was pretty, or tried to imitate what I saw other photographers doing. For this one, however, for the first time, I sat down and really thought about what I wanted to say. I was in  bit of a darker stage of my life at the time; I have these phobias and fears that sort of vary in intensity throughout various stages of my life, and this was a time when they were flaring up. So I thought about the idea of facing my fears and how much the unknown is frightening to me, and this image just sort of came into my head. And, when I took the picture, it really came out almost exactly as I’d hoped, which, honestly, never happens.

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    Timmy Reynolds

    I actually started working on this image a day before the competition and I felt this is a great fit for it. I call this photo The Beginning because I think it tells a story about a beginning photographer, like me. I was a tad crazy while making this but i was always a pyromanic and i thought of a starting point for them that moment when they see the little flame that inspires them to do what they do while I watch it gives me warmth and light and I feel inspired to be me a photographer. And every time I take a picture I like another little flame appears making the fire bigger and bigger just like a pyromaniac, I know with a little help the flames of inspiration will lead me in the right direction.

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    This challenge would’ve been fun, but I can’t enter the contest because I don’t yet have the skills to be able to compete with the other amazing pictures. If only I knew how to do such work. :/

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      Rob Rice

      Post something! The best part about this site is you (and others) are able to see your progress as you learn and grow!

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    Fritz Philipp

    This is a series of three pictures with the title “Häuslichkeit” That`s German and I have no clue, if there is an equivalant expression in English. May be domestically or something like that. The pictures should show the urge of human beings to stay in their own four walls. If times are hard and economy is bad. the willingness to be domestically increases. So people make themselfes comfortable in public spaces. Furthermore I wanted to take a picture of a callbox, before there are no more callboxes on this planet. 

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    Jim Hunt

    The idea of this changed several times but ultimately I wanted the idea that she stole a planet from the stars.

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    Jacob DelaRosa I wanted to look back into the past to understand the progression of women’s rights as expressed through fashion. The roaring ’20’s were a landmark time period that saw great strides being made in the women’s suffrage movement and the clothing of the day reflected it. Clashing against the ultra conservative Victorian fashion, short dresses exposing ankles and (gasp!) calves and linear waistlines that de-emphasized the female form were all the rage. It was a great shoot and I think that everyone involved came away with a broader understanding of the time.

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    Ryan Weiss

    This is slightly late for submission, but I hope it’ll still be considered! The photo is meant to show how possessions can’t be taken with you for eternity. I got the idea while walking through a local cemetery, which had two headstones spaced evenly apart and I immediately thought of adding gates, which I made from multiple shots of my home’s stair railing. 

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    Vanessa DeCouto

    This is a conceptual self portrait I did a few months ago. There’s a lot of people who work really really hard to get back to nature and although I love the efforts as much as the next person, the results end up being a little comedic sometimes. This is my play at putting that idea (and making a little fun of it at the same time) into a photo. It’s titled “Back to Nature.”