Austin Kleon has this project website called ‘Newspaper Blackout‘. It’s all about taking things away from a presentation to create something new. “Creativity is Subtraction” goes one of the representative, and self-referential, works. The idea is simple: remove what doesn’t belong. How does this work in photography? Like the quote often attributed to Michaelangelo about how he created such marvelous sculptures (start with a slab of marble, and take away everything that doesn’t look like David), Kleon treats newspapers as raw material for discovered art. It’s an interesting exercise; start with a block of text from a newspaper article, and take away everything that doesn’t convey the message. Whatever that message may be…Creativity is Subtraction
There’s a lot to be said about what this means as an artist. I suppose that depends on who you are and what your goals are. As photographers, many of us have been taught (or picked up along the way) that photographs should tell a story. In the case of blocking out newsprint, you could either take the approach of starting with an idea and marking out what doesn’t fit, or you could remove filler words a little at a time until the message reveals itself. Or some combination.
In any event, the end result is probably something meaningful to you. You’ve left behind some idea, a little piece of what was on your mind.
Building Up the Story
Many photographers look around for ideas and stories to tell. Social comments are all over the place, and the shooter’s job is to fit that into a frame of some kind. The photographer should actively choose what to include, and what to leave out. By and large, we look for context to our stories, so we typically try to frame in such a way as to include important elements. That is generally a good approach, but can pollute the story with distracting elements.
Let’s imagine a scene we want to photograph: a man with flaming torches, adeptly keeping them aloft in a complex repeating pattern of throws and catches. But the advertising material shows exactly the image we think we want to capture. The lighting, a slightly long shutter, lighting exactly on the performer that draws focus on the spectacle. Well, that’s been done, so we look around for something that will demonstrate how we feel about what we see. There’s a little girl watching from the side, amongst faces of adults that appear rapt with the show. But she seems to be waiting for the next thing, whatever that is. This would be a good dynamic for a photo.
In order to get the emotional variety, we widen up the lens a bit, getting just enough of the adults to contrast the little girl. We have necessarily added content to the scene, but we have indeed told the story we want.
Leaving Out What’s Not the Story
How can you take a subtractive approach here? It’s not like you can just run out and cover up a waiter or sign that doesn’t contribute to the story.
There are mechanical methods, to be sure. You could zoom in on your subject, set a shallow depth of field, or change your point of view. All of these are very useful, and any competent shooter uses them in combination.
But all of these methods risk losing context and balance. Getting rid of that distracting sign with a crop could mean you lose the expression on the girl watching the subject, or the number of people that don’t share her ennui. Then the challenge becomes interpreting the real story; is it the guy juggling fire, or the little girl being bored with the show? Worse, by simply cropping in, you could ruin the negative space in the image and destroy your composition and your story.
Of course, you can also do some digital trickery in Photoshop, but the point here is to do your story telling up front, in the camera itself. And I don’t really have a solution that’s different from what I described above. This defines, if you will, some of the limitations of photography. Really, all you can do is take a small slice of what you see and show that slice to the world.
Back to our example, what if we could make the man with the fire smaller somehow? Perhaps there’s a reflection somewhere that would get him into the scene. That’s an interesting idea, and it emphasizes the story of the girl’s boredom by shrinking the spectacle. It’s simply not impressive enough to take up much visual room. Another alternative would be to frame only enough of the fire to let the viewer know something is going on, but it’s not really important. We’ve found yet another way to refine the story.
Of course, there may be other factors to consider, but the idea should be clear: how much do you really need in the frame?
In an upcoming article, I’ll show you some examples of applying this technique as I explore it myself. I’ll also talk about some Photoshop tricks (of course) that can help when the real world just doesn’t cooperate 😉
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I saw the angel and carved until I set him free. –Michealangelo