I was driving down a dusty road. I think (my first mistake) a nail in the fence post catches my eye. The car creeps forward under its own inertia. The sun hangs low on the horizon. As the red chevy truck older than myself passes by, a flurry of dust enveloped the car. I reach over to turn the air conditioner to recycle so the dust wouldn’t fill the car’s insides As the dust swirls around me and rises over the field only to disappear into the air, crimson began to slice the horizon. Slowly the red from the sunset bleeds up and into the clouds filling the sky. Warmth rains down on my face, I reached for the camera. I stand there on the side of the road. Take a deep breath and hold it. I raise the camera to my eye and look through the viewfinder. I slowly let the air out. I gently press the shutter and within miliseconds an image is born.
The excitement of that moment builds. The connection to that truck, the air, the sunset, myself in the open vastness of the Palouse. I couldn’t help myself, I looked down at the little display on the back, knowing that it can sometimes show me a lie. In those 2 inches a lot of sins can hide in small spaces. My eyes wide, heart racing I look down. There was no lie. Only the truth.
I say it out loud so that my own ears can hammer in the point. This image is crap. Sure it looks in focus. Sure it was what caught my eye, but it did not have was anything that I was experiencing. The nostaglia of the old truck. The soft lifting of the dust. The sense of warm radiating over everything. The color of the sky moving to night. Nope. I took a picture of a piece of that nail on a fence post. Which isn’t hard, I am after all in the Palouse. They literally a fence post every 15 yards.
I see this so many times in my own work. I see it so many times when I am analyzing the work of others. As I sit there I think, what makes this photo so special? Why spend the time to process it? Why spend the time and money to print it? When asked about it, we tell these amazing stories about all that was happening when the photograph was taken. I sit there and can close my eyes and recreate the scene. A rich story. A compelling story. I open my eyes and see this stupid nail that has nothing to do with the story.
So what do we do about these misfires. It doesn’t take long when creating new work to stand there and figure out your story. Good photography is much more about intention (experience of what was going on around) then it is about a lizard brain reaction (a nail in a post). Much like the first draft of a novel, that first reaction we see doesn’t mean the image is the one. More times than not it isn’t.
We need to take the time to come up with our visual nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs for that story. First find those words, then frame up an image and tell me your story. Show me about the smells, sounds, and wind. The greatest stories in the world transport us to places we have never been to meet people we have never known. Your photograph has to do the same. You have to tell me the story in each frame. Maybe you don’t know the right words yet. In that case, practice, practice and practice some more. Write down those words when you make an image or when you are back home looking at them again. Who knows, maybe you are a in the middle of an epic poem and didn’t even know it.