with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Photography and Writing: It’s about what you don’t see

The ad for the NPR Wall Calendar caught my attention recently. NPR asked famous artists the question: “What does NPR look like to you?” The calendar features their artistic results.

Now, think about that. What DOES NPR look like?

NPR is sound coming across the radio. It doesn’t have a “look”. It has a “hear” not a “see”. Yet, while listening to the stories, news, music, and entertainment, you “see” with your mind. Your imagination is filled with the sights, smells, and even touch of what you hear.

As a photographer and writer, I’m constantly challenged to show my audience what I “see”. I struggle with photographic images, finding the right one for the right article, and with the words, trying to say the right thing to make my point.

Behind the camera, I control the camera equipment and techniques to capture the image I see in my mind as well as what I want seen as the end result. It isn’t about what I really see, but what I want my audience to see when I’m done. This interpretation of showing what is not seen sums up much of what photography and writing is all about.

Showing the Unseen in Photography

Field of wildflowers, Texas Hill Country, photograph by Brent VanFossenWhen you step behind the camera or the computer, you challenge yourself to show the unseen.

As I work with the camera, I am constantly asking myself, “What am I looking at? What do I want to show?” I make technical choices for focus, depth of field, positioning, and composition, and creative choices on what to include and exclude that will help create a successful resulting image. While the photograph might just be of a flower, I make the decisions on what parts of the flower and its surroundings will be seen in the final image.

Baby Blue Eyes flower, photograph by Brent VanFossenPhotographing a Baby Blue Eyes flower amid a field of flowers, we chose to “imply” the field with the out-of-focus flowers in the background that echo the single flower in focus. The mind fills in the missing flowers to see a field of flowers.

Whne looking at a field of flowers, we think “this is a field of flowers”. By isolating one from among the thousands of others, the thinking changes to “this is a flower in a field of flowers”. Basically the same story, but the information not provided is filled in by the imagination to supply the last point: “in a field of flowers”. Creating a photograph isn’t about “taking” the picture as much as “creating” the picture by what you include and exclude from the photograph, leaving the rest up to the viewer’s imagination.

Showing the Unseen in Writing

The art of storytelling and fiction writing is also about what you include and exclude to create your story. I recently became a fan of Terry Pratchett, author of the long running series “Discworld”. His art of storytelling is packed with dialog rather than long adjective-filled descriptions. You can “see” the characters and the scene by what is in the writing as well as what is left out.

In his description of Susan, Death’s granddaughter, in Thief of Time, Pratchett barely bothers with what she looks like as much as “how she looks” to describe the character.

It was in fact always very hard to disapprove of Miss Susan in her presence, because if you did she gave you a Look. It was not in any way a threatening look. It was cool and calm. You just didn’t want to see it again.

The Look worked in the classroom, too. Take homework, another Archaic Practice the headmistress was ineffectually Against. No dog ever ate the homework of one of Miss Susan’s students, because there was something about Miss Susan that went home with them; instead the dog brought them a pen and watched imploringly while they finished it. Miss Susan seemed to have an unerring instinct for spotting laziness and effort, too. Contrary to the headmistress’s instructions, Miss Susan did not let the children do what they liked. She let them do what she liked. It had turned out to be a lot more interesting for everyone.

We don’t know what Susan really looks like, though there is a hint of description in a previous sentence: “She was young, but with an indefinable air of age about her. She wore her hair, which was blond-white with one black streak, in a tight bun.” Yet, we know what she looks like because we are familiar with “The Look”, having faced it at many times in our lives. This is a facial expression that begs no argument, debate or discussion. We don’t need it described, so leaving out the description actually adds to the story as our imagination fills in the missing pieces.

Faced with a computer crash that destroyed weeks of research and work on an article a few years ago, and a looming editorial deadline, Brent and I worked for 36 hours without sleep to restore the article, edit, and prepare it for submission to one of our editors. With the deadline looming, an email from the editor brought everything to a screeching halt. The article stood at 4,500 words in its rough draft form and the email stated, “Oh, didn’t I tell you? I just need 2,000 words.”

The mad panic to restore and rewrite the words to put them all back together into the finished product now became a panic to slice and dice and cut the words to cram them through a 2,000 word funnel. We had to tell the story that needed telling but every word in the story now had weight and measure. Every word we could cut out brought the word count lower. And every phrase we could consolidate into one word brought that count even lower.

The decision over what to include and exclude took on new meaning, literally. What could be implied and what had to be explicit?

At one point, Brent looked up from the stack of double-spaced pages with red-rimmed eyes. “You know, in college when faced with those essays with word counts, I often wondered what it was like for a writer who had to come up with 1,000 words on this topic or that. Where do they find all those words?”

I laughed. “Now that you are a writer, what do you think?”

“The art of writing is not about finding the words but getting rid of them.”

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The Art of Writing and Photography

In our article, Telling Stories with Photography, we talk about the various ways to add photographic images to articles, whether they should tell the story or help the story be told. When you combine the visual with the textual, a balance must be struck on what part of the story is told by which element. Again, what is left out becomes even more important to the storytelling.

Sometimes the story is not about the images but the photographs help carry the story along. In our article about Keep Your Aperture Open, we showcase our photographs but the story is about the mindset for inspiring us to keep photographing against psychological obstacles. Sometimes the story is completely about the photographs, not how the photographs were actually made. In our Patterns in Nature series of articles, we feature articles about the colors and patterns in the photographs as part of recognizing patterns in nature. Other times, the story is about how the photographs were made, like most of the articles in our Learning Zone, and only you and your editor can make the distinction.

Grizzly Bear, photograph by Lorelle VanFossenWith one glance, you assume this a photograph of a growling and drooling grizzly bear. Your heart may start racing as you wonder at the threat this bear posed to me as I photographed it, and how fast I ran or played dead in order to avoid a crippling attack. The photograph tells an entire story without us adding the words.

The fact that I was sitting in my car at a drive-through animal safari not five feet from this grizzly bear, who was drooling over the piece of bread Brent was holding out isn’t important to the story, is it? The fact that this bear is raised by hand, well-trained, and used in movies, and would scarcely hurt anything, might be part of the story, but the reality is that we sell this image for drama not reality.

Wind blowing daisies, photograph by Brent VanFossenWhat is the story behind the photograph of these wind blown daisies? Is it that the field of daisies were so lovely we wanted the artistic blur of the flowers in motion, or admiring the power of nature through the wind moving through the flowers?

No, the story behind this photograph is that I was working in the car on a project and Brent came back all frustrated, unable to photograph the field of flowers because of the wind. I told him to get back out there, “and photograph the wind!”

Yes, sometimes what is not said about an image or a story is more important than what is said. It’s up to you to find the right balance between the words and the images and learn how to show the story of the unseen.

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