One of the things I do is write. Not only blog writing like this, but short story and creative non-fiction writing. An essential part of writing is reading and as every creative writing student knows, an essential part of reading is learning how to give feedback.
For every novice student a dreaded ordeal is the writing workshop where your work is critiqued by peers. After a couple hundred times the ordeal becomes less so and the learning value becomes apparent. The value of work-shopping is for both the writer and the reviewers.
I’ve never thought much about the similarity between writing and photography. In my mind they were totally different things. Writing, particularly fiction writing was about making stuff up. Photography, particularly street was about capturing real life images on the fly.
I recently attended a Street Photography workshop with Hubby. We’d registered months before, it was a sold out session but I seriously hadn’t been in the mood. We’d just come off a ten day trip where we’d spent our time shouldering through the 1.2 billion crowds in China. Given a choice, I would have really preferred to retreat from humanity and hide out in my cave.
Instead, bright and early on a Saturday morning I was in a room filled with amp’ed up men strung out on coffee and DSLRs. They strutted about pointing their cameras at each other, talking in that f-stop-shutter-speed babble-speak that photographers like so much. The session was in a Leica store and I walked around looking at sleek new cameras housed in artfully lit glass boxes. Cameras so expensive that they didn’t have price tags, just discreet cards advertising savings ‘starting at $1800.’ A dull roar of excitement announced the arrival of our workshop leader Eric Kim.
Eric was an electrifying, high-energy, enthusiastic guy. He talked fast and short, in a voice pitched slightly above normal. With his close cropped hair, bright round eyes and frenetic smile he reminded me of a manic Asian Tintin. I didn’t know it at the time but Eric was a famous street photographer. I just thought of him as a kid, young enough to be my son and way too peppy for 10AM in the morning.
I won’t go into how the day progressed. It was good. I took pictures. Learned some stuff. Talked with the DSLR men, they weren’t so bad. Waited for Eric to calm down.
My big revelation came in the feedback session when we each shared our Three Best photos and critiqued them as a group. While work-shopping I suddenly realized that there were many parallels between writing and photography.
Both are created realities, encapsulated in word or form. The best pieces are those that tell or hint at a back-story. Both have complexities of layers – the ones we see and the ones hidden below the surface. The best works are those that invite the viewer to look around, to think about what happened before, what will happen next. Good stories make an emotional connection. Good pictures do, too.
One of Eric’s nuggets of advice was “Do not take pictures, make them.”
That’s what creativity is all about – making stuff up.
The other thing I learned was that I had a photographic style. Much like a writers voice, photographers have an individualistic way of capturing scenes and people. It shows in the way they tell their stories and take pictures. Without attention that style is unconscious, intuitive and raw. With attention, it can evolve.
When Eric projected my Three Best he asked the room what they thought when they viewed them as a whole.
“Secrets,” someone said.
“Strange,” I thought. I wouldn’t have described them that way. But when I looked again I saw what he meant.
I also understood why I had selected the ‘Girl’ shot. Of the three, it had been my favorite but I couldn’t have explained why. With that single comment, I knew.
It was an ordinary shot about an ordinary girl who had a little bit of mystery. The half space background, leading lines and rain slicked pavement gave a sense of loneliness. The turned away figure to the left emphasized her isolation. The light and shadows on her face were pensive but her slight smile showed hope.
De-constructed, these were the elements that provided the first impression or initial read, of the photo. The second were the questions. What happened to the girl before this? What was she thinking? What were her secrets?
In creative writing we’re encouraged to show and not tell our stories. In photography, we tell our stories in what we show and what we don’t.
So in that single comment I had a personal epiphany. Suddenly I had insight into the types of pictures I faved and those that I made. I also saw what I didn’t make. In reviewing other peoples’ shots, I analyzed what I liked and more importantly, why liked them. I saw techniques that I could use or at least try. I saw compositions around the edges that took me out of the frame but added to the image. I saw accidents of light that worked and wondered how to make them deliberate. Suddenly, by being conscious of my own style, I recognized all the things that I had not been doing. Techniques that I could adopt, adapt and evolve into my own.
So that’s the value in work shopping. It’s something that I’ve appreciated in my creative writing group and something that I’ve come to appreciate in photography.
Singapore. November 2016