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The Essential Landscape:
Every Story Tells an Image

Text and photography copyright © Guy Tal. All rights reserved.

I recently got myself into some hot water after suggesting that many viewers don’t really care about the “hero stories” that often accompany nature images. I was, in fact, referring specifically to the artistic merit of nature images and the impressions of viewers other than photographers. While these anecdotes certainly provide entertainment value, my contention is that they do little for the acceptance of nature photography as a fine art and for the reputation of the photographer. There is a reason why art galleries and museum exhibits promote themselves very differently from extreme skateboarding events or monster truck rallies. Undoubtedly, both finesse and entertainment have their place and are useful in their own way, but each of us should think very carefully about the stories we tell about our work, how we present ourselves, whom we wish to impress, and in what ways.

Stories play a vital role in our work and lives. Our images tell stories and our stories are reflected in our images. In my teachings I place great emphasis on articulating, in actual words, the story behind each image, as a way of forming a closer connection with the subjects and scenes we photograph and as a method of reviving memories and emotions when processing and presenting the finished work.

In order to be successful, a work of art must be multi-dimensional. When we view a photograph or a painting, or even when we listen to a piece of music, we experience more than just the stimulus of one sense. Our minds complete the story, filling in other sensory and emotional information for a holistic experience that transcends the literal elements within the frame. It is therefore vital for a creative artist to understand how their stories will unfold in the minds of the audience. A slight variation in color or tone, deliberate inclusion or exclusion of specific elements, and even the choice of framing will all play a part in how our work inspires beyond merely being visually attractive. In my book Creative Landscape Photography, I describe the importance of such knowledge in the development of a personal style:

“The most important thing your work will communicate to the world is not that you happened to be in a certain place at a certain time to see certain things. Rather, it is the way these things impacted you, how they made you feel, and how they shaped your perception of them, of the moment, and of yourself.”

In order for your narrative, whether verbal or visual, to be interesting and compelling, think about the different stories involved in your work: there are the stories you tell about the image, the stories you tell within the image, and the stories you use for yourself in the creation of the image. Each can be told in any number of ways: they can be adventurous, emotional, real or contrived; they can be factual or symbolic; detailed or abstract. Before sharing them with the world, consider whether they will read like a novel, poem, news story or legal brief. Don’t let your epic drama read like a phone book by making it strictly about tools and technique. Don’t cheapen the viewer’s impression of a quiet and subtle scene by distracting them with trivia about the discomforts and athletic feats required to produce it. Art should transcend life and only stands to lose from being overloaded with the mundane. This sentiment was perhaps best summed by painter Henri Matisse when he said: “I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me.”

Ansel Adams is famous for saying that there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer. The same is true for stories. What may be of utmost importance to the photographer or even to fellow photographers may be decidedly uninteresting or even detrimental to the impressions of others. The successful fine-art photographer must consider both before deciding on the context one wishes to present one’s work in. Once out of the bag, some stories are difficult to rescind and may end up plaguing the work and the photographer’s reputation for the rest of their respective lives.

In many ways, works of art take on lives of their own, independent of their creators. Like good parents, we should be sensitive to the way we introduce them to the world and any “baggage” they may carry on with them as a result. An image presented as a manifestation of hubris or self-indulgence might never grace the walls of a serious art establishment, no matter how aesthetically pleasing.

Does your story speak of humility or vanity, gratitude or hubris, love or narcissism? In your presentations, are you seeking to share and inspire or brag? Are you more concerned with the pursuit of celebrity or importance (and yes, they are often mutually exclusive)? Put yourself in your viewer’s position and make sure you understand what experience and impression they may take away from how you present your work and yourself.

Comments on NPN nature photography articles? Send them to the editor. NPN members may also log in and leave their comments below.

Guy Tal is a professional photographer and author residing in the state of Utah, in the heart of a unique and scenic desert region known as the Colorado Plateau. Guy teaches and writes about the artistic and creative aspects of photography and guides private workshops and individuals seeking the beauty and solitude of the canyon country. More of his works and writings can be found on his web site and blog at guytal.com. You may also follow Guy on Facebook or Twitter.



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Comment posted by Pramod Viswanath on 06/06/11 at 11:35 am     

Tender and inspirational! Fantastic write up Guy. You are the master of words. Loved every word of your write up and am sure I will come back to this post many times in future.

Pramod Viswanath ( NPN 4275 )
Bangalore, India.
Frames from wild | Landscape Wizards
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Registered on 12/04/08, 60 Posts, 697 Comments   Personal Website    Member Blog
Comment posted by Bill Chambers on 06/06/11 at 4:08 pm     

Great write up Guy, one of your best IMO.  Never thought about it in quite those terms, but it makes a lot of sense.

   Bill Chambers
Gulf Breeze, Florida
Please visit Enchanted Light Photography
Landscape & Man and Nature Co-Moderator

“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” - Ansel Adams

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Comment posted by Sam Chrysanthou on 06/06/11 at 10:16 pm     

Hear! Hear!  I'm always put off when the photographer 'bookends' his (or her) image with hero stories.  It can be difficult to get past the constraints the photographer's story can impose on an image.  I think, as artists, a certain amount of humility should accompany presentation of a photograph.  We are, after all, asking for people's attention and time which are precious.

   NPN Contributing Editor
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Comment posted by Mohammad Hosseini on 06/19/11 at 05:00 am     

That is interesting and very good points. Well written Guy.

   Mohammad Hosseini
Perth, Australia

Registered on 05/16/11, 15 Posts, 301 Comments   Personal Website   
Comment posted by Mark Metternich on 06/20/11 at 7:28 pm     

Interesting article. On a forum like this I assume (and maybe wrongly so) that most here are photographers. I have always loved the stories behind the shots. Some years ago, I remember hanging out with Ken Duncan (AU) in his home as he was working on another landscape photography coffee table book and I told him how I LOVED his stories behind the shots, when they were published in the book next to the image. He said something to the extent of "most don't." I was very surprised, but then realized most people who buy his books are not photographers. So, I agree that the market is often much less interested. There is also the issue that, these days, a lot of photographers are going to much more extremes to get good work (as the competition keeps rising for great work). Because of these very real extremes, sometimes people can easily misconstrue the stories as bragging. It can easily be a fine double edge sword. I'm sure everyone has their preferences, and I see value in simply putting a photo out their with little to no commentary. But as an avid adventurer I have always much preferred the stories especially when the photographer has really gone through something unusual, funny or very challenging during the quest for the image.

   Mark Metternich leads Photo Workshops throughout the Pacific Northwest, the SW, Patagonia, Glacier National Park, Hawaii, the Canadian Rockies... He is also a Digital Imaging Specialist who produces a wide variety of Post Production Instructional Videos, teaches Post Processing online via Skype, as well as does post production for fine art photographers.

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Comment posted by Jim Erhardt on 06/21/11 at 06:14 am     

The art of great story telling is as challenging as the art of great photography.  Everyone loves a good story and if done with a humble approach, can avoid the bragging tag.  Those who can do both the story telling and photography really well are few and far between, making it a great combination of skills worth developing.

   Jim Erhardt
NPN 1
Bedford, NH

Registered on 11/01/03, 243 Posts, 2413 Comments   Personal Website    NPN Member
Comment posted by Brad Mangas on 06/22/11 at 10:17 am     

I enjoyed your insight to this Guy. I have longed for sometime to be able to properly articulate an image to others, be it adventurous, emotional, real or contrived; they can be factual or symbolic; detailed or abstract as you have mentioned. I realize this can be a slow process of education and much work.

Some months back I signed up for your online creative writing course but was informed that it had been postponed. I am still interested in the course. Could you give some information if it is still available and dates?

   Brad Mangas
Kansas
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Comment posted by Kah Kit Yoong on 06/22/11 at 11:15 am     

Great essay Guy. If I wanted to read hero stories I would buy a novel.

   Man & Nature Gallery Moderator
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Comment posted by John Fan on 06/22/11 at 1:25 pm     

Your writing is just as inspiring as your photography.

 

   John Fan
Chicago, IL
http://johnfanphotography.com
http://4aperture.com
Your feedback is sincerely appreciated.

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Comment posted by David Moynahan on 06/22/11 at 2:16 pm     

Thanks so much, Guy.  This is a great reminder.  An excerpt from your article is now posted at the top of my monitor to help me be in the right frame of mind when I start a blog entry.

Registered on 12/11/10, 11 Posts, 77 Comments   Personal Website    Member Blog
Comment posted by Morris McClung on 06/24/11 at 6:29 pm     

I am so happy that you addressed this very valid point. I always enjoy your ruminations on our craft as a legitimate fine art. And how it might be lessened by "hero stories." Of course, as a person incabable of achieving a personal "hero story" due to age and health issues, I would naturally agree with you. 

 I  do agree with Mark that on this site a background story of the difficulty in creating the image is entertaining and at times appropriate. As long as it adds to the image and not detract from it's merit as an artistic effort. Some background stories are most assuredly taken to extremes as to seem to try to elevate the photographer above his offering.  In this I would agree with Kah Kit that if I want a hero story, I will buy a novel.

And I would whole heartedly agree with you that we should be striving to convey the emotional impact of our experience through the image.

Please don't ever stop in your effort to accentuate the fine art aspect of our pursuit.

I will revisit this article from time to time to remind me that I should work to express humility, gratitude, and love.

Thanks Guy!

   Morris McClung
Parker, Colorado

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