Kinesics & Linguistics
The Visual Window
A camera can't compose a picture. Only your eye can. Seeing and recording with a camera is a special process that has its own language - a visual language. As with any language, you start by building vocabulary. Visual vocabulary is made up of moments that happen right before your eyes. Most of these subtle markers of time go unnoticed. Day-to-day living does not require you to be so attentive to visual details. You have to learn to identify them - to train your eye to separate out these visual nuggets, just as your ear learns to differentiate the words of a language before you can speak it. Your visual vocabulary must become as automatic as your spoken one before you can begin to compose strong images.
Visual vocabulary is defined first by elements of behavior - human behavior and the behavior of other natural things. Second there is light, which by its very nature is ever-changing. Then there are form and space and the variations that give them dimension: shade or color, texture, pattern and rhythm. Form and space are the positive and negative elements in a photograph. To summarize, visual vocabulary is made up of behavior, light, form and space.
Corners in Time
Stand on a crowded street corner, and you will witness a multitude of behaviors in a very short time. Once you start to pay attention, you'll be amazed at how many subtle changes in behavior you actually observe every day of your life. The idea is to get to the point where you instinctively recognize when behavior alters. It is at these moments of transition that you are given a glimpse into the nature of a moment. I call those critical junctures corners in time. They occur when a person retires one persona and begins to take on another, almost like changing clothes.
Drama often reveals itself in these crucial moments of change.
Time of Day
Light is the second component necessary for visual understanding. Think of it as your energizer. Its presence activates everything it touches. A few years into my career after I had worked for Look, Tim, and Newsweek, I went to see John Sarkowski, photographer and then-curator of the Museum of Modern Art's photography collection. I had always thought I had been attentive to light and that I understood it. After selecting a couple of my images for the museum's collection, Mr. Sarkowski suddenly said, "I don't see the time of day in your photographs. Show me the time of day. "
Time of day, I realized then, is defined by light. I had already become proficient shooting into light and using it to enhance drama, but something was missing. And Mr. Sarkowski identified it. Where the sun is, the angle of its rays, shadows, even streetlights all reveal time of day. After my encounter with Mr. Sarkowski, I set out to train my eye to recognize and register the subtleties of light, and, where appropriate, record them in my photographs.
Sunrise and sunset differentiate the beginning and end of a day. Less obvious examples are the slanted rays of the sun suggesting early morning or late afternoon, and long shadows and short ones of high noon. I particularly like shooting outdoors in what I call 30 degree light. It is the time after sunrise and before sunset. There is about an hour and a half window as the sun is coming up and going down when the rays slant from 0 to about 30 degrees; shadows become quite long and dramatic then. There is something exceptional about the light quality. In the morning it can be fresh and bright; and at night it often becomes rich and moody.
Now we come to form and space, two more ingredients in visual vocabulary. They are the positive and negative aspects in a photograph. Sometimes the space is more important than the forms. Then the space informs. Take for example, two people talking. Since photography is a visual medium, body language is more important than spoken words.
I personally enjoy showing the space between and around people, created by their body language, to illustrate behavior. It can be very revealing. When the space is harmonious, I call it emotional spooning. Lovers and good friends are comfortable with this intimate kind of spacing. However, some relationships are forks and knives. You know immediately by the unpeaceful space between persons that there is anger, jealousy, frustration, defiance, irritation, or some other painful emotion being felt.
How Much Do You See?
To fully appreciate form and space, it is necessary to examine the shades or colors, patterns, textures and rhythm that are all around us. Walk into an unfamiliar room. Spend a few minutes looking around. Exit and then see how much detail you can recall. Were there pictures on the wall? How many? How were they arranged? What was the pattern on the rug or floor? Was there wallpaper, paint, paneling on the walls? What color? Were there chairs? Did the seats have texture? Were they caned? Upholstered? How many windows? Did they have curtains? Shades or blinds? Were they open or closed? Was there a fireplace? Any lamps? What shape? Were there books or magazines laying around? Bookcases? Any vases of flowers? Any plants?
Doing this exercise makes one aware of how much detail you miss daily. This activity can be completed with a camera, but I suggest running through it first without your camera.
All the elements in a visual vocabulary work together. The more you study each one, the more you will realize that they are all interconnected. As with the words in your spoken vocabulary, they work together and are sometimes indistinguishable.
The Three C's
Now that your eye is becoming attuned to the subtleties of behavior, light, form and space, you're ready to begin composing pictures. But first I want to introduce three more concepts that will help you structure coherent images and communicate your personal vision. I call these the three C's: Content, Composition and Context. A thorough understanding of these is just as important as building your visual vocabulary.
As you familiarize yourself with these three concepts remember that all art is a personal statement, and you are the one making it.
People or Places?
We'll start with content, which is about the subject or what's in a photograph. The best way to get comfortable with content is to look at the works of other photographers who make pictures of the subject matter that most interests you. Are you drawn to people or the environment? Shoot whatever you are drawn to at the moment. It's the rare person who knows immediately what he or she wants to shoot and the even rarer person who doesn't either change and/or enlarge or narrow that passion throughout a lifetime. There is no law against changing your mind, especially on the road to growth and clarity.
The second concept important for structuring strong images is composition. Good composition causes your eye to linger. You are compelled to pay attention when visual elements are organized into a strong, coherent composition. There are many ways to show a tree - straight on, a leaf, the trunk, some roots, the line of the branches against the sky, a knot, and on and on. Choosing any one of these approaches says nothing about composition. But how you structure what you decide to photograph makes all the difference.