Childlike Wonder: Part One
“A return to storytelling”.
If you’re familiar with photography, its members, its tools, and its many diverse publications then this sentence, this title, may seem like some sort of out of place or out of touch wording. Everywhere we look people are talking about “storytelling” - storytelling in images, how to tell your story in pictures, the art of storytelling, and on and on and on they go. I find the deep irony here is that the more I see this word being used, the more I see people who still aren’t grasping what it means, and I think fundamentally it’s because they don’t have an accurate idea of what a story is in itself. It’s fine to talk about being a digital storyteller, but what if you don’t know what makes a story? To take that idea even further, what if you don’t know what makes a GOOD story?
Ever since I was able to, I've been fascinated with stories,the myths, books, epics, adventures, and the characters in them. I'm passionate about stories, and this idea has permeated and shaped the way I approach social situations, hobbies, and monetary positions.
From people watching out in public, to watching the interactions of close friends, the story is unspoken - but as loud as any chorus of authors could ever be.
The “story” is more how I view the structure of photography. It's storytelling in frames, but it's not a law of photography that we should get caught up on. I think this is important to keep in mind. Storytelling is more like a metaphor or underlying tone for proper photography fundamentals: if your composition leads me to your subject, focus draws my eyes to the right area, exposure is pleasing and dramatic... those are storytelling elements. If I wrote a picture as a book, I'd want the book to be composed in a way that led me to a narrative: leading lines of dialogue or detail (the leading lines of photography composition), drama (like great lighting or colors and tones), a clear focus on a particular subject - and then I'd get lost in the book or image. It's an intermingled term for me. I could tell you that your composition is off, sure, but it makes more sense for me to explain that the image isn't telling the story you wanted to present to us (the viewer).
I think that what I’m saying is that storytelling is the why: why composition is correct or not, why exposure is correct or not, and why the focus is correct or not.
Childlike Wonder: Using Imagination to Fuel the Narrative
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”- Albert Einstein
Diving into this, the first questions we have to answer are:
“What is imagination?”
“Why is it important?”
“What does it look like in photography?”
Imagination: “The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” (Oxford Pocket English Dictionary, 2019)
Imagination is the cornerstone to storytelling in images. It’s the idea that we can fabricate an entire reality in our minds, and then, through the tools of our trade, we can will that reality into existence via our chosen mediums. The more detailed the reality we create in our heads, the more convincing and obvious it becomes when made into a physical reality.
The top ten best selling books of all time also shed some light on this when you consider they are all fiction, primarily considered fantasy fiction. This implies that people want to believe in these mythical, beautiful, unknown or unknowable stories, that they want to be lost in the unreal. People want to be wowed by images that seem to be larger than life, unexpected, or unexplainable.
From the quirky opening line of J. K. Rowling's “Harry Potter”
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, J.K. Rowling, 1999)
To the detail oriented and whimsical opening lines to J. R. R. Tolkien's “The Hobbit”
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” (The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937)
The introduction to a story means everything: the imagination is being primed for an adventure, setting the scene for something beautiful to happen, and giving us a taste of the vocabulary that’s to be seen in the following lines. To my knowledge, this is best represented In J. R. R. Tolkien's opening line from Lord Of The Rings:
“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” (Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien, 1954)
Here we are introduced to the idea that to continue, we will need to suspend some of our pretentiousness, our analytical thoughts, doubts, and to go with the flow as a word - eleventy-first - is formed before our very eyes.
This is a small detail, but one that softens the blow as we find ourselves, as the readers, engulfed in tails of orcs, elves, and mystical lands. Everything about these introductions is slightly and slowly, bit by bit, disarming our reservations.
A good image, or series of images, will have this same effect. With an introduction, we are shown into a realm of photography that projects a world better than the natural. This world is open to levitating objects and people, mythical creatures and fairytale endings, and even horrors and beasts that only exist in the most disturbing of nightmares.
Artists like Christopher McKenney sculpt these stories into existence playing on psychological fears and doubts.
Unnaturally tall beings, robed figures shrouded in darkness, and flaming corpses and children all unfold before our eyes as we find ourselves anxious, our hearts seized with dread… all without harming a single person in the realm of reality.
On the opposite side of this storytelling coin, photographer Kristen Booth leads us into the fairytale with her warm and inviting imagery, misty forests, lush colors, and parchment-like branding where we fall in love with the romance to be found in an image.
What both of these photographers have in common, however, is imagination and attention to the details. Not what you may think are the obvious details, but the important details. McKenney’s work looks cold, gray, and lifeless. His imagery presents a mood of despair and loneliness. If you look long enough you might find yourself wondering about the mental state of the creator of these images, to have imagined and constructed such a grisly scene.
Your images should start in your mind, as reflections of ideas that you’ve created. They can then come alive when presented in pictorial form. This imagination and use of intentional creativity will help you to keep your work alive and interesting and also will keep you from feeling burnt out or disinterested in your craft and the long pursuit of it.
If you’re sitting back thinking to yourself, “This sucks, I don’t have a good imagination,” or “I’m just not an imaginative person,” fret not, this is something you can absolutely learn. If you’re more of an analytical thinker rather than someone easily swept off into the realms of whimsy, then immerse yourself in lore.
Go ahead, pick up a fantasy novel or head to the newest superhero movie. You can immerse yourself in fantasies, analyze them, break them down, and discover why people are drawn towards myth over reality, towards the surreal and absurd, and reproduce that element in your images.
The idea of childlike wonder goes further than this. A child can see a simple scene, and a stray beam of light hitting just the right point will send them off into daydreams of another world. It’s about curiosity, looking to see what you can get into, what new boundaries you can push, what that button does when pressed, yes, that button.
Don’t press that button? Don’t venture over there? Don’t push into unexplored areas? Children don’t know those boundaries until they’re told. They don’t need an introduction to sign the waiver from their disbelief. Fantasy is the default and boundaries are the myth. Be that child in your craft. Don’t just forge new paths into places people say you shouldn’t go, forget the ideas from people who told you that you shouldn’t go there.
Now some of you may also be sitting here thinking “man, this is a waste of time, I photograph products,” or “there isn’t any fantasy in these landscape shots,” or even better yet, “I don’t want to get caught up in the light and airy, whimsical, elven-glitter parade.” (Although, let’s be honest, on shock value alone that may be a great marketing ploy to pull.) That’s okay, too - this idea goes beyond just editing a unicorn into your next high-top shoe product session. Imagination is knowing that the perfect glint of light reflecting off the stone in a jeweled ring makes the shot, or that each landscape, when presented with a great composition, will pull the viewer in. Their minds will take them the rest of the way onto the journey, and, as always, we’re chasing that perfect lighting.
This is all to say that imagination can present itself naturally, without the fairy dust. An act as simple as documenting a wedding accurately while not making attempts to add frills becomes a large source of this imagination. The process of capturing frames that are compelling because of the thought that went into them, such as the groom getting ready while you capture that one particular frame where he is shaving. With his comb in one hand and razor in the other he frantically pulls himself together for the day ahead and imagination compels you to look at the details of the scene. What objects are important to this scene? What posturing, facial expressions, and lighting need to be made apparent to promote this moment of hectic preparedness and how significant this day is?
“Imagination presents itself in different ways as well.”
I’m a big advocate of utilizing a bit of research before making grand purchases on solely the advice of others. When many newcomers initially get into photography they tend to place a lot of reliance on information (or misinformation) that they’ve picked up along the way. Then they combine this with the rhetoric that people in the industry have ingrained into themselves through repetition. As such, generalizations like “everyone should have a 50mm” or “you have to shoot full frame” are born with no context as to where they came from.
These same people like to think that following these generalizations, cheat sheets, or industry “norms,” is somehow helpful, even beneficial, but I’d suggest quite the opposite. The quickest way to a point is a straight line, meaning precision, accuracy, and a nuanced thought process will help you grow more efficiently into becoming a “good photographer” faster than any “50mm lens.”
Imagination is understanding that your on-camera flash doesn’t just “suck” or that you should always “use a speedlight.” Imagination is innovation, creativity, and precision. Imagination is using a cell phone as a mirror for some interesting perspectives or knowing that a lens isn’t just about corner to corner sharpness. Imagination is understanding that the on-camera flash is too direct, that the lighting produced by it will flatten out facial features and make the subject look broad. This information, applied with a little innovation, and now you’ve rigged up a homemade diffuser to your camera in order to cut the flash into something manageable, or made a small bounce card to direct the light to do your bidding.
Have the creativity of a child who hasn’t been told by the “much more mature grownups” that the idea they have is dumb or that it won’t work.
Buy the off-brand film-era “Porst” 50mm f1.2 you found on eBay with an adapter for that significantly cheaper price point into fast aperture glass. Learn skills, like manual focus, and find cheap and efficient ways to make photography something fun for yourself.
With that said, imagination is heavily intertwined with the idea that you should love this craft. Photography should be enjoyable for you. When it is, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment not in just nailing a shot, but in the creativity you used to pull it off.
If you practice photography for any portion of time you’re bound to hear of the lens trinity: the focal lengths from 16mm-200mm. Typically this consists of the 16-35mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm, respectively. These three lenses are considered to be the must-haves for their optics, glass quality, fast apertures, and encompassing lengths. But what if you challenged yourself to only use two lenses? Say, a 35mm focal length and a 100mm focal length? What then? Sometimes the limits we self-impose are not the hindrances we make them out to be. Conversely, they can be the ladder rungs we build to venture further into our creativity, and understanding of the craft.
The greatest gift of imagination out of all of this however, is its ability to create wonder within an image. The unspoken mood and emotion in an image, the composition that makes us want to stop and explore this frame, to marinate in it. When your image hits that perfect note of wonder, your image becomes more than just a picture: it becomes captured magic. Magic draws people in, makes them stop scrolling through the endless feed of Instagram. Magic makes them want to do more than just hit the like button on Facebook. The magic of wonder makes people feel something. Fortunately for photographers, according to Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, 55% of communication is nonverbal. This means that with photography, you can tell the stories that people are trained to understand anyway. Using gestures and expressions within the scene, setting the mood with the details of a frame and tying the creative bow over the full package with your edit, the tale is woven together.
As children we pick up on on creative habits early on, that are then taught out of us under the guise of maturity, and eventually, if we’re truly fortunate, we teach back into ourselves as we grow.
If you have children, particularly young children, ask them to take crayons, paint, pencils, the medium of their choosing, and draw an image of “family.” Now, take care to not define this idea as “your family,” but just “family.” Away they go, scribbling, brushing, sketching, until an image is presented to you. Now, depending on where you’ve aligned your imagination this image may be totally unrecognizable, or clearly identifiable by you. We certainly wouldn’t say this crayon, stick-figure filled image is “art,” or even necessarily “accurate.” So maybe down the line your child becomes an architect, they refine their lines, conform to mathematical standards and lengths, and draw up an accurate depiction of a home. This is the second stage where we “mature,” but in order to create art, you have to take the whimsy, and imagination of the crayons, mixed with the accuracy of an architect, to create something original, something with feelings, a story, actual art.