Don’t Tell Everything

Holland Park

Don’t Tell Everything

A dear friend told me, “Not everything has to be said.” The context wasn’t photography, but the advice was sound. And relevant. Photography encourages us all to show too much, to tell too much, because the default, before you start exercising your imagination, isn’t a blank sheet of paper or a blank canvas. It’s a fully-formed image that shows everything. It may have no merit as an interesting image but the entire scene will be there. That’s why generations of photographers have worked on their skills at showing as much as possible, or at least as clearly as possible, to communicate. To avoid ambiguity.

What my friend meant (I think) was that some things are better left unsaid, because we quietly know them. Or at least, quietly ought to know them if we’re being smart and thoughtful. It’s not a great leap from this small home truth to the principles of good narrative, which you can see at work every day in novels, short stories, television dramas and the movies. Narrative becomes interesting when the audience is invited to join in and guess, or be puzzled and intrigued. Leaving things out of the narrative that are essential to the plot but not yet revealed is the basis of entertainment. Twists, flashbacks, flash forwards and surprise endings are all to do with not telling — yet. You engage an audience by leaving gaps that it can puzzle over.

This is where it starts to become interesting in photography. To pick up the thread from last month, photography has issues with narrative, because it’s a still medium, not linear. To really do narrative, you need a sequence of images, as in a book or a slideshow. So where does that leave the single image? Many photographers still insist, without explaining how, that they do storytelling in single images, and I’ve every sympathy with the attempt. Really, though, it’s something other than narrative. It’s suggestion, and it invites the viewer’s participation. The French photographer Robert Doisneau wrote, “I don’t usually give out advice or recipes, but you must let the person looking at the photograph go some of the way to finishing it. You should offer them a seed that will grow and open up their minds.”

Action Unexplained

One way of doing this is to conceal or avoid or in some way miss out key parts of the action. Of course, it has to be something unexplained that you actually want to know about. The American fine art photographer Geoffrey Crewdson does this by shooting scenes that could be stills from a movie. His preferred subject is American suburbia, and his productions are worthy of Hollywood in size and lighting. As the White Cube gallery catalogue describes them, these are “everyday scenes with charged, surreal moods that hint at the longings and malaise of suburban America. These pictures are like incomplete sentences, with little reference to prior events or what may follow.” Crewdson himself talks about the “limitations of a photograph in terms of narrative capacity to have an image that is frozen in time, (where) there’s no before or after.” Here’s an interview plus images:

Apart from fictional scenes created for the camera, street photography can occasionally throw up unexplained action. I have no idea why this man was holding this towel over his head as he stood by a newspaper rack, and I watched him for a few minutes. There never will be explanations for such odd moments in life. You can only imagine.

Newspaper rack, Puente Chambacu, Centro, Cartagena, Colombia

Newspaper rack, Cartagena, Colombia

 Visual Uncertainty

Another approach, probably more comfortable for most people, is to hold things back in a purely visual way, such as by shooting through a de-focused foreground that obscures (see the banner picture), or by introducing motion blur (as does Magnum photographer Antoine d’Agata, to go to one extreme), or by shadows and darkness.

Dutch photographer Awoiska van der Molen takes very personal landscapes in black and white, on film, and spends a long time working on the prints, again traditional, silver gelatin. Her relationship with the places she photographs is quiet and solitary, in order, she says, to “gain access to the stoic nature of the landscape.”

One of the notable things about her images is the rôle of shadows and darkness. She explains, “the image on the cover of Sequester [her 2014 book] has a black space in the middle. In this blackness, there is lots to discover. It’s not really inviting you to step in, but its mystery is certainly tempting.”

Another example. In 2011 I was photographing in Yosemite in California, and an overwhelming feeling was just how many photographs over so many years have been made here, beginning with Ansel Adams. The star personalities of the national park, like El Capitan (see Apple’s latest operating system, for example), Half Dome, Sentinel and Yosemite Falls are endlessly photographed by an endless stream of tourists, and I admit I found it off-putting. Yet it would have been perverse to ignore them. On the first afternoon I visited Bridalveil Falls, high on the list of Yosemite clichés, and I was not, to be frank, feeling very optimistic. As we were making a video about photography, I took a sequence of shots, in the hope that they would improve. Fortunately they did, as you can see below, but the answer lay partly in the processing. Having switched to black and white film, I went through a sequence of versions, and found that each time I came back to the image I wanted to darken it and raise the contrast. This was my solution to the cliché, and in the end I was happy with it.

Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite, California

If you have to work a bit as a viewer in order to see what’s going on, there’s potentially more interest than when everything is laid out in open view. What I noticed here was that as the image was burned in more and more, and became darker, the natural attention shifts from what is nominally the subject — the falls — to the shadows. In effect, they take over the rôle of subject. I’ll finish by quoting the Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki (not for the first time). In his essay In Praise of Shadows he rails against “excessive lighting”, and writing about the alcove in a traditional Japanese room he says “that by cutting off the light from this empty space they [the builders] imparted to the world of shadows that formed there a quality of mystery and depth…” That says it very well, I think.