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diptych # 119 ~ narrative and concept, pt. 1 - is a picture worth a thousand words?

stuff on the dining room table ~ Au Sable Forks, NY - in the Adirondack PARK • click to embiggen
On the recent entry, 2014 selects ~ potpourri o' pictures, Eric Fredine wrote: "I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of concept and narrative in a portfolio. Its a self-serving request because I’ve been thinking about it without much satisfaction. (But at least the thinking seems to have some value even in the absence of clear conclusions.).

my reply: I've started writing my reply 3 times. Each time resulted in the deleting and rebooting of my words and thoughts. Or, to quote Eric, "I’ve been thinking (and writing) about it without much satisfaction." In any event, I think this reboot will be on the right track .....

Eric raised the idea of concept and narrative within the stricture of a portfolio. A portfolio is, in this context, a collection of pictures which is normally organized around a specific theme or style (aka: concept). That is, a related / cohesive body of work which illustrates - the picture and referent(s) themselves - and illuminates - implied narrative / meaning - the central idea of the picture maker's intent.

Narrative in a picture or pictures can best be understand when thinking of pictures created in the photo-story / photo-journaism M.O. See W. Eugene Smith's landmark groundbreaking photo essay, Country Doctor as a prime example. Or, Walker Evans' pictures in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Creating a narrative can be accomplished with just a single picture as well. See Nick Ut's Napalm Girl.

In the aforementioned cases, narrative can best be described as a form of story telling albeit told in pictures rather than words. Various interpretations of those narratives / stories, made by various viewers, can be had for a number of reasons. Consider Susan Sontag's observation:

Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy... The very muteness of what is, hypothetically, comprehensible in photographs is what constitutes their attraction and provocativeness.

Unless a picture maker states / writes about his/her intended narrative, the pictures will be open to a wide range of "deduction, speculation, and fantasy". And even then, viewers are apt to ignore the picture maker's statement and create one of their own making. IMO, that fact is one of the medium's prime attraction for me - the best pictures - mine and those made by others - are those which avoid a propagandistic approach and which embrace the medium's ambiguity, meaning / understanding / narrative wise.

That is to write, pictures which, although they might hint at a narrative / meaning, leave plenty of room in the viewer's mind to form their own conclusions. Let the viewer decide because he/she brings to their viewing, as Sir Ansel suggested, all of their accumulated experience of "all the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved". ASIDE: heaven help those who read only pop drivel (if they read at all), listen to pop music, and have been unlucky in love.

I would also consider the notion of narrative in a picture or pictures to not be limited to literal story telling. IMO, a narrative can be thoughts, ideas and emotions which spring to a viewer's mind when instigated by the viewing of a picture. That is, thoughts, ideas and emotions which fall beyond / outside of the picture maker's intended narrative, aka: Sontag's "fantasy" notion.

All of that written, it seems obvious to me that the narrative to be found in a picture or a portfolio collection of pictures flows directly from a picture maker's picturing concept. I will deal with that idea in my next entry inasmuch as this entry has probably stretched the attention span of most readers*.

*this statement is not meant as an insult to my readers. It is merely a statement of online reading propensities.

Reader Comments (1)

"a narrative can be thoughts, ideas and emotions which spring to a viewer's mind when instigated by the viewing of a picture"

Yes, that's what I have in mind, as opposed to literal story telling in the photojournalism sense. I couldn't agree more that the ambiguity inherent in photography is one of its prime attractions!

I was thinking of something like Lewis Batlz's "The New Industrial Park's Near Irvine, California". He saw the work as a condemnation of land use practices. But they could as easily be seen as signs of progress and efficiency. Either way, a viewer is likely to construct some kind of narrative.

Or the work of Edward Burtynsky. He's not slamming you over the head with a point of view. In fact, he'd be unlikely to gain the access he has without the diplomatic position he assumes. But viewing the work forces you to formulate an opinion as a viewer.

January 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fredine

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