"The real voyage of discovery consists
not in seeking new landscapes
but in having new eyes." Marcel Proust
I am a victim of photographing at the Grand Canyon where the scene was epic. Where you have to work at taking bad photographs. Where photography and nature form a conspiracy to keep you hooked on firing the shutter like a deeply immersive video game. This "epicness" of the Grand Canyon was so intense that when I returned home and looked for photographic opportunities, I saw nothing of interest.
We can't help but compare, in our case, photographic situations. It's a common trap. Of course the Grand Canyon is more photogenic than my Connecticut back yard - it's much bigger, much deeper and more colorful (not that I want a canyon for a back yard...or maybe). But this is comparing physical attributes, which isn't all there is to the story.
A photographer strives to not only see the physical attributes of a scene, but also the possibilities to isolate features within the scene by which to tell a story that is embedded within the scene. A story that is normally masked by the details of the scene. A story that isn't obvious, but still can be told. Or an obvious story that begs to be told differently. At any rate, a story that is interesting enough to be worth both telling and hearing.
I once had a friend who was a decent photographer. We went on photo shoots together periodically. I learned a lot from his understanding of the principles of photography. He would demonstrate for me depth-of-field techniques and exposure principles. Those were valuable learning days. Once he showed me a developed film print a few weeks after one of our outings. It was a good photo. I asked him "what's the story", referring to the photo. Surprisingly, he had no answer other than it's a photo of a tree. My Goodness, even in my apprenticeship period I was able to understand the value of a story. I gave him another crack at the question with a response that was pretty much an echo of the first. His inability to answer my question instilled in me the importance of story telling with photography. I fail at it quite often, but always keep moving toward developing my story telling ability with photography.
Unlike epic scenes like the Grand Canyon, many stories in a scene are not obvious. This, I believe, is due to several reasons. First, we have trained ourselves to not look for stories, and as such, we don't see story opportunities unless we work at it. Another reason is because the scene is familiar to us, so it becomes more like background scenery, never really looked at. Another reason is that we tend to be more interested in the larger picture than the details, perhaps because we typically view scenes from a distance, seldom very close up. The reason for not recognizing stories are well entrenched in us, so as photographers we have to work at identifying a story for our photographs. It's easy, and natural, to take a photograph of a tree, for instance, and call it a day. It's easy to rely on the viewer of our photographs to fabricate a story that works for them. "Story-less" photos are easy to make and sometimes we strike gold. The idea is to train ourselves to recognize stories to tell and then utilize our photography skills to encapsulate the intended story in the image.
Now, before you ask for my qualifications, let me tell you that I haven't mastered story telling with my photography. If that concerns you, you are free to close this article and move on to material from more qualified photographers. Still here? Good, we can learn together.
Take my friend's tree photo as an example. What's could have been the story? Could the story have been about age, strength, survival, beauty, growth, structure? Could the story have been about the tree's isolation or its role in a population of trees. Maybe the tree's role in the ecosystem under, on and in the tree? Do you want to convey a sense of happiness about the tree or loneliness and isolation? Do any of the physical attributes of the tree resonate with you? What aspect of the tree do you most identify with? All of this is story material - you just need to identify the story you want to tell and then work on telling that story with a photograph. We can't tell a story with our photography if we don't first know what story we want to tell.
When at epic scenes like the Grand Canyon, we can often get away without telling a story because the Grand Canyon, in this case, is the story - we can rely on the viewer determining a story from such photos for themselves. This phenomenon is perhaps why epic landscapes, human portraits, journalistic photos and the like often succeed - because the viewer determines the story for themselves based on associations the viewer has already formed in their own mind. But what happens when we're in our own back yard and we take a shot? Now, the image contains everyday stuff that viewers have either seen many times before or that aren't interesting enough to spend time contemplating with the aid of our photographs. It's another ho-hum photo slideshow from our Wally World vacation....even though it may all be fascinating to ourselves.
Now, I don't intend to teach story telling here in this article. Indeed, I'm in school myself. What I would like to accomplish is to encourage you to seek out stories in your photography. Practice taking a common element of an non-epic scene, deriving a story worth telling from that element and capture that story in a single still image. That's often hard to do. Try this. With camera in tow, hike to and park yourself in a lake or wooded area, any season. Leaving the camera powered off, study the scene around you and test how many stories you can conjure up. For this exercise, the stories don't have to be interesting, just identifiable. What is it about the light and shadows that make or influence a story? What is interesting about the fog? What does the dancing of sunlight on the water suggest? How about the active ecosystems? What evidence is there of people having passed by? Are the trees old-growth or new-growth? What evidence of damage is there to the area, either caused by humans or nature? If you look, you'll find stories.
Your next challenge is to capture that story in a photograph. Where you position yourself in relation to the subject element will help tell your story. Your chosen angle of view will aid story telling. Your choices of camera settings will impact your exposure which in turn impacts story telling. Your aperture can be controlled to capture of sense of depth. Your shutter can be controlled to suggest motion, or no motion. Your zoom lens can draw the viewer into the scene, or give the viewer a sense of separation from the scene. It's entirely up to you how you tell the story. The really cool thing about photography is that you have many choices for how you tell stories with your photographs, and they are all your choices.
If I leave you with nothing other than an appreciation that what you photograph need not be epic as long as you can tell stories with your photography, then we have both used our time well. With story telling we can bring interest to the most common scene. We can give the most common subject new found meaning. We can help our image viewers see something in a new way or feel a way not before felt about the subject. But, if we ourselves don't see the story, we won't be able to use our photography skills to tell a story. In that case, any success we have in storytelling with photography will come mostly by accident. Photography accidents are fine. I like photography accidents. It's just that they are not very repeatable on demand.
The Grand Canyon caused me to ask why such story richness is not in everything I photograph. The answer, it turns out, is that is was never that scenes lack story opportunities, it was me not seeing the stories. I'm working to change that.