What kind of photographer are you: literal, emotional or graphic?

Photography isn’t just about taking pictures of things. Very often you’re trying to capture something deeper, like a metaphor or an emotion or simply a graphically satisfying image. The trouble is that what you see isn’t necessarily what other people see.

That shouldn’t stop you taking pictures that are meaningful, but it may help you understand why other people just might not ‘get it’, whether you should even worry about that, and what you can do about it.

The literal photograph

This is a picture of a car. It shows what it is and what it looks like, and that’s it. It’s a perfectly literal, perfectly valid photograph of this car. Photo by Mathieu Renier on Unsplash

We’ve all had this experience. We create a photograph laden with meaning, depth and emotional resonance and then someone says “why did you take a picture of that?” They can only see the literal object in your picture, which to you is probably the least important thing in the image as far as you’re concerned. You see a complex and powerful metaphor for a throwaway consumer society; they see a photograph of a trash can. You see a metaphor for urban alienation; they want to know who the woman in the cafe window is and how you know her.

Some people do not or cannot attach any deeper meanings to photographs. There’s not much you can do here beyond accepting that not everyone will understand your work. You can try to find a better audience, or you can attach captions or descriptions to explain your intention. That might sound like cheating, but none of us are born with the ability to decipher metaphors, and if your audience is receptive, a single sentence can make your picture’s meaning a whole lot clearer. Pictures don’t have to do all the work on their own, and often can’t.

The emotional dimension

This is a another picture of car, but this one has a strong emotional element. It’s not just about the car any more, but feelings of warmth, nostalgia, freedom and more. Photo by Jasper Geys on Unsplash

Very often we take pictures to make people feel something. It could be happiness, love, anger, injustice – it’s a long list, but for many photographers this is why they take pictures. Photography isn’t just record-keeping or the inert capture of a scene or subject. Obviously, it is if you are a museum curator or a forensic photographer, but for most of us photography is something more than this.

How you add emotion to an image depends on how you light it, the angle you choose, the colours, the arrangement of objects, people’s expressions, gestures, the direction of their gaze – the list is endless. This is where the skill of the photographer comes to the fore. Photographing objects literally is a technical exercise that any technician can learn; adding emotion is a complex human skill. Not every viewer will respond to the emotion in a photograph or interpret it the way you intended, but you can either accept that your audience is limited or give some thought to how to make the emotion more obvious or more easily interpreted. Captions can help!

The graphic layer

This is a very different photograph of a car. It’s partly literal, hardly emotional at all but has strong graphic appeal. Like all three car pictures in this article, it has its own purpose and its own value. Photo by Дмитрий Хрусталев-Григорьев on Unsplash

These days, the word ‘graphic’ is often associated with violent or shocking images. It’s used here in its much broader sense, to describe the overall ‘look’ of the lines, shapes, tones and textures in the image and the way they interact. In photography and art, you might call this ‘composition’, though it’s a much broader, richer field than simplistic rules like the ‘Rule of Thirds’ would have us believe. (IMHO the ‘rules of composition’ in photography may help novice photographers take their first steps, but can also inhibit brilliant and inventive photographers from creating unique work.)

Graphic compositions can draw viewers into the picture, hold their interest and exude a kind of power or force, without the viewer (or sometimes the photographer) quite understanding why. In the world of art, it’s like the difference between Constable and Kandinsky. One produces strongly literal and emotional work with an element of graphic design; the other is almost all graphic force, with almost no literal content and not much emotion. Both are deeply satisfying for completely different reasons.

So what kind of photographer are you?

Are you literal, emotional or graphic? It’s not a test, there is no right or wrong, and one is not better than the other. But by looking at photographs in these three different ways, it’s easier to understand and accept the reactions of some audiences, understand your own photography a little more clearly and perhaps accept what you do and see and photograph as being important, even if it sometimes seems like no-one else does.

For the record, I (your author) am a very ‘graphical’ photographer. I see things as shapes and balance, lines and force. I do also take ‘literal’ pictures (don’t we all?). I am not, however, an ‘emotional’ photographer. That’s not a reflection of my personality, it’s just that the way I see, capture and enjoy photographic images is as graphical compositions. It’s the way my photographic eye is wired.

Then how do you reach an audience?

Some very ‘literal’ people just can’t be reached and as photographers we probably just have to accept that. They wouldn’t know a metaphor from a stampeding mammoth, and their emotions are very much their own business. They might respond to graphical compositions but not know why, and will think you are being pretentious if you try to explain them.

But there will be plenty of people who are ready and willing to ‘get’ your message, and if a simple caption or description can help them on their way, then what’s the harm? There is a belief amongst some that a picture must be completely self-explanatory and self-contained or it has failed. Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture that hasn’t benefitted from some context or explanation. Of course, photographs can work without explanation, but the viewers’ enjoyment or understanding will often be enhanced with just a few words of context.

While you’re learning about photography it can be useful to follow rules and copy other photographers’ techniques in order to understand how certain things work and why. If you want to make a living as a commercial photographer, you probably do need to develop a broadly accessible visual style. But if you want to take photographs as an artist, or for your own personal development or enjoyment, you have to feel your way towards what makes you happy. Rules won’t help you here, but an understanding of the literal, emotional and graphic elements in your pictures may help you understand who you are and what you see.

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