In the beginning . . .
When I first started organising events for the Berlin Photography Meetup group, it was mainly because I just enjoyed going out with the camera and capturing whatever took my fancy, and how better to do it than in the company of some like minded others?
But it soon became apparent, that although many of the attendees certainly had the right equipment, usually in the form of a very expensive camera, and that they also had the enthusiasm and desire to take good photographs, they quite often struggled with it, blaming their ineptitude on their lack of technical knowledge concerning the camera settings.
They had bought the best they could afford, but the camera they had been sold was so complicated, that they just weren’t in any position to use it, particularly as they believed that they should only ever use the manual settings, and therefore to use it in automatic mode was a sign of failure.
I quickly realised that they were lacking my four years training at art-school, which had taught me that good photography doesn’t start with technical prowess, but with composition, the rules of which can be learnt, and it’s a lot more fun to practice than sweating the evenings away with a migraine inducing user-manual.
My motto: put the camera in automatic mode, and let’s go out and have some fun with it – for the more you use the camera, the better you’ll get at using it anyway.
And so I introduced a series of events called “Photography Skills Practice”, whereby week for week we would go out somewhere in Berlin and practice the rules of composition, and I’m pleased to say, that the quality of the attendees photography started to improve almost immediately.
But that was a year ago now, and ever the one for self-improvement I now wish to up the ante and go to the next level, and rather than continue to indiscriminately take photos of anything and everything, I wish to bring more purpose to my photography, to give it more context.
Photo-Essay: an account of something told predominantly through photographs, with some accompanying text.
I realise that some people may find the concept of the photo-essay more than a little daunting, and so as an example I’m going to revisit a series of photographs I took at a recent event on 02/09/2017 “Teufelsberg, the Devil’s mountain”, and see what I can make of them with this fresh approach – could I have presented them any better?
The original series as published to Meetup can be viewed here.
On the day in question I took a total of 130 photos, 112 at the Teufelsberg itself of which I published 6 in black and white, and 18 at the Drachenberg a short walk away, of which I published a further 2 in colour.
There was no particular reason why I took any them, I just liked the image I saw through the viewfinder at the time, and the the only reasoning behind publishing these final 8 photos was that I felt that they were the best 8 individual photos I had taken that day.
I didn’t even publish them in any particular oder, I left everything to chance.
And if I were in the business of selling postcards to tourists, perhaps this method would be absolutely perfect, but I’m actually trying to develop my skills as a photographer on a deeper level, and those skills are no longer only technical, creative and compositional, but also storytelling skills too.
Unless it’s totally abstract an individual photo can always tell a story, it should engage with the viewer on an emotional level, but the single photograph out of context can often feel like watching a single scene from a film, and although certain movie scenes can stand on there own, like sketches, the vast majority don’t, they need to be seen in the context of the whole narrative, they can’t exist in a vacuum, because they then have very little meaning.
And so it is with photography too.
Even a title or some background information is always important.
For example, would “Earthrise” have been such a human-collective-consciousness altering image had it not had this title?
What would its impact have been were it not known, that it was taken from the surface of the moon?
It’s this very information that lends this photo it’s enormous impact, because it was the first time humanity saw the rock we all live on in the context of its surroundings – extraordinarily beautiful, but extremely isolated, it’s the only one we’ve got.
And seeing is believing: for although it’s been generally accepted since the time of Copernicus that the Earth orbits the Sun, here at last was proof.
But as already mentioned, such individual images are very few and far between, and just as a film or play needs to be watched in it’s entirety if the viewer is to journey through the full emotional arc of the story on offer, so it is also with still images, they need to be presented well, and that usually means with some form of text, however minimal, and in the correct order.
This order is already very well defined and for this reason every film or play is often broken up into three acts, whereby the first act is the exposition, establishing the main characters and the relationships between them, the second act typically depicts the rising tension, and the third act offers the resolution.
Even the humble PowerPoint presentation usually follows the same rules, as does most advertising: introduction of problem, establishing facts, solution.
It’s always the same emotionally-driven journey.
Photography to be at its most effective exists in synergy with text, they both support and compliment each other, whereby the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
And so back to my collection of images taken at the Teufelsberg.
What was the story I seemed to be telling?
Did I tell it well?
Would the audience want to come back for more?
Hardly, because almost everything I could have done wrong, I did.
Could I have rearranged them into a more satisfying order?
Almost certainly, and so I’ll start by removing the 2 colour photos taken on the Drachenberg from the collection. they are not only stylistically completely at odds with the others, but don’t complement to the story in the slightest.
I’m now left with 6 monochrome to which I’ll add one from the 106 images I didn’t use, because I feel it needs a better foundation shot, something to set the scene and act as an introduction.
Looking at the final 7 images I sense a story of isolation, of abandonment and decay, an afterlife of this once imposing structure as a reborn off-grid center for creative urban art.
After having written a short text, I’ve placed them into a new order, given them all a sequence number with a descriptive title and published it afresh as a photo-essay.
- The photos in their original order can be viewed here.
- Re-ordered they can be viewed here.
- Given descriptive captions they can be viewed here.
- In the form of a photo-essay they can be viewed here.
In my opinion there’s a huge difference between the first rather haphazard grouping, as I originally published on Meetup, and the second in the form of a photo-essay, because although they mainly exactly the same images, the perceived quality and message of the second is much higher – it’s all a question of presentation.
This has just been an exercise in re-presenting old work, but had I gone to theTeufelsberg with the intension of creating a photo-essay, I’m sure I would have taken completely different photos, and that it would have been all the better for it.
And as with everything, the more often you do something, the better at it you get, so although writing an accompanying text may be outside many people’s comfort zone, short titles and a more thoughtful order for the images must surely be inside it.
© Andrew James Kirkwood – 2017