To quote master travel photographer Nevada Wier, “Everything in the photo should matter.” So, what exactly does “Everything” mean to you? From a layman’s perspective, everything simply means only including elements in the photo that will add, while eliminating elements that detract; that nothing in the photo should be an afterthought; that everything has a purpose. But if we dive deeper, we soon realize that this is not a static concept that can easily be defined or quantified, but rather an evolving and fluid one as unique as our own personality.
From my perspective, “Everything” is anything that factors into making your image what it was when you first envisioned, framed and later shot the picture—implied or otherwise; how it develops once you refine your photo through post processing; and lastly and probably most importantly, how it will ultimately be perceived by your viewers.
Those who have evolved photographically understand that “Everything” is not a one dimensional concept, nor can its true worth be measured simply on the merits of the individual parts, but rather on the interconnected holistic combination of all the elements working together into a harmonious radiant whole.
So in essence, “Everything that matters” is simply YOUR strongest way of seeing. And hopefully as you gain more insight into your own photography, this seeing will deepen and become more intuitive—and the concept of “Everything” will expand for you. I emphasize the word “YOUR” because there can never be one universally correct way of seeing, but rather your own personal way of seeing—as unique and individual as you are.
Probably the thing that comes closest to one universal way of seeing is the cliché—because there is a sort of predictability about expressing one’s photographic ideas in a way that viewers have come to expect from certain formulaic interpretations. At one point, it may have been a novel or meaningful metaphoric expression of one’s feelings, but it has now morphed into an emotional stereotype. In my blog, “The Zen of Photographic Seeing,” I talked about the cliché of the lone tree. Cliché’s like this have become so pervasive, that websites like Flickr.com now have moderated groups dedicated to this singular concept.
But let’s not confuse this with a photographers ability to tap into a universal emotion—into the cultural collective if you will. A photographer can still express their ideas in an original and fresh way, while resonating emotionally among many. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. These are the photographers who have become our iconic master storytellers and communicators, because they have a rare talent for being able to empathetically and creatively communicate exactly how they feel about a subject or scene in a personal way that is at the same time, universally understood and relatable to many, but still unique to their own vision and style.
So, exactly how are these master storytellers like Nevada Wier able to use the concept of “Everything” to shape their own photos? While I don’t have the room to try and define everything about “Everything,” I will attempt to identify some of the major thought processes that probably play into their conscious and unconscious thinking.
When we say, “Everything in the photo should matter,” what we are really talking about is (I have presented these in poetic freestyle form, as ideas more than complete thoughts):
The Subject Should Matter: If you don’t know who or what your subject is, it’s probably not worth taking; If you don’t feel connected to your subject, neither will your viewers; What does the subject mean to you, personally?; How are you going to make them stand out?; What is it about them that makes them quintessentially who they are?; Have you captured their essence, soul and character?; What have we learned about them? What have we learned about ourselves?; Are we letting the subject generate its own photograph?; Understanding how to harness the power of gesture; Capturing the expressive-evocative; Grace and dignity; It’s all in the eyes.
You Should Matter: Understanding how you feel about the subject and interpreting the scene to communicate this emotion; Knowing who you are and using your photography as a conduit to express your deepest desires, wishes and dreams; Revealing yourself in others; Empathy; Intent; Removing personal emotional barriers to creativity; I should be a participant rather than an observer; Feeling is more important than the pictorial; Trying something new; Pre-visualization: It’s all about the experience; Tell a story; Imagination; Self understanding; Your soul.
Technical Should Matter: Understanding how to speak the language of your camera; What it can and can’t do; How to use your equipment (with intent) for creative effect; To execute on one’s ideas–intuitively and instinctively; Technical should be an afterthought; A means to a creative end; I learn the technical so I don’t have to think about the technical; I may be a tech geek, but the art, craft and message of my photography matters more.
Design and Composition Should Matter: Understanding the core foundation, structure and emotional impact of our design and compositional decisions; The emotionality behind constructs like light, line, shape, form, color, texture, tone, rhythm, pattern, perspective, energy, weight, contrast, counterpoint, tension, space, intervals, divisions, relative relationships, dimensionality, prominence, harmony, symmetry, balance and simplification; Interpreting a 3D world onto a 2D medium; Creating an entrance, Cropping in-camera for drama; Good order; Containment; How the individual parts fit into the greater whole; Where is the painting in this scene?
Atmosphere & Light Should Matter: Understanding how to use weather prediction to determine the right place at the right time with the right equipment and the right mindset; How does the weather and prevailing light emotionally affect the scene and viewer response?; Leveraging this to reinforce your ideas; Where does the light fall?; What are the qualities of the light?’; How does the light make me feel?; Chase the light, then find an earthbound subject to match; There’s no bad light, just appropriate light; Fleeting moments; The mood; I am painting with light; It’s all about the light; Capturing visual music; Become one with nature; The literature of light.
Culture and Sense of Place Should Matter: Understanding how to capture cultural diversity, humanity and the spirit of a place in a way that is culturally sensitive and without bias or stereotypes; Capture the unexpected; Take the unknown path; Feel the joy of the place and the people and become one with them; Let the people and place tell you what pictures to take; Throw away pre-conceived notions; Exoticism not for the sake of exoticism; Seek out what Nevada Wier coins as, “terra incognito,” or unchartered territory.
Metaphors & Symbolism Should Matter: Understanding how to imply or convey meaning through non-literal interpretation; Revealing the truth in things; Looking beyond labels; Transcending what’s in front of you; Juxtapositions; Abstractions, Extractions; Visual Clues; Worlds within worlds.
The Unseen Should Matter: To paraphrase Nevada Wier, “I look for what a passing glance cannot see…what hides within the shadows;” Illusions; Thinking sideways; Finding the poetry in things; Or as Nevada also says, “Photograph what you imagine, not just what you see.”
Behavior & Instincts Should Matter: Understanding the right moment to press the shutter; Instinctively understanding human and/or environmental behavior enough to predict the height or peak of activity; Or as Henri Cartier Bresson best expressed it, “The Decisive Moment;” Trust your instincts.
Sensory Experience Should Matter: Understanding how all of your senses factor into your interpretation and/or feeling about the scene or subject; Does a heightened sense of smell change your perception about what you are photographing?; Does hearing a beautiful melody from a street musician change how you would go about photographing this individual?; Does the sound of a bird in the spring make your photographs sing?
Perception & Intuition Should Matter: Understanding that there are more senses than just taste, touch, sight, hearing and sense of smell; Are you receptive to feelings or senses you cannot quantify? If you stop looking (and start feeling), what will you see?
Spirit and Zen Should Matter: Understanding that what really matters is the very quintessence of the thing itself rather than a mood of that thing; Finding blank and open receptiveness within your own mind; Dreaming with open eyes; Free your thoughts; Revealing the true nature of things; The suchness in things; Letting the subject generate its own photograph; Establishing the connection between seeing and being; Revealing the invisible; What you see is what you are; Become the camera; Become the subject; Look from the outside looking in and the inside looking out; Commit to the inner path; Spiritual insight; Mystery; Freedom, spontaneity, simplicity; In the moment.
Randomness & Now Should Matter: Understand (and be prepared to capture) the unpredictability of life, people and places; the icing on the cake; The Punctum; A real moment.
Your Viewers Should Matter: Putting yourself into your viewer’s shoes; Living vicariously through your viewers while maintaining your own voice; Being true to yourself; Empathy; Capturing the essence of humanity; The common experience.
I’m sure I’m probably missing a few “Everythings” and above is not in any particular order of importance (nor have I attempted to cover every caveat for each category). Rather, it is just meant to demonstrate the myriad of “Everythings” that could potentially factor into the making of a photograph; to stimulate some thought on your part; to help you ponder your own “Everything.”
For those photographers just starting out, “Everything that matters” could simply be a function of following the rule of thirds or making sure the subject is in focus. For the intermediate photographer, it could include a better comprehension of the impact of design concepts like leading lines, scene balance and harmony. And for the advanced photographer, most of above could already be intuitive and instinctual–and they have now moved on to more self-actualizing concepts that deal with the emotional self, spirituality and the unseen.
As we all continue on our never ending journey of photographic self discovery, we must find “Everything that matters” to each of us personally–and interject these into our own process. “Everything that matters” is not just what is comfortably on the surface, but what lies underneath when we dig deeper. This is what creating our own vision is all about.
For inherent within every scene, within each of ourselves, and within the minds of the viewers of our photographs–lie a million different possibilities; a million interpretations; a million different personal visions; a million styles; a million memories uncovered; a million subtleties that shape and form what our photos have become, or have the potential of becoming.
Like a Sculptor, we hold the power to mold the clay of our creativity any way we like–and even into our own likeness if we so desire. In this way, “Everything that matters” is a relative concept—and one that evolves as we evolve. So, what matters to you?
References: A few of the sub-ideas (such as the term, “literature of light”) referenced in this blog post were derived from the innovative writing and thinking of visionary individuals such as: Nevada Wier, Galen Rowell, Tony Sweet, David duChemin, Freeman Patterson, Brenda Tharp, Wayne Rowe, Henri Cartier Bresson, John Daido Loori and Minor White. I’d personally like to thank each of these brilliant photographers/writers for helping to enlighten me so that I may now present my own unified view of seeing.