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This is the photography blog for photographer and writer David Moore. He's based in Santa Fe, New Mexico but speaks with a funny accent.


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    January 15th, 2010

    What being a writer taught me about being a photographer

    writingFor my first thirty years I was the writing guy: good at English in school and college, Masters in Literature, and a working journalist for The Irish Times and other publications in Ireland, the US and UK. And I’m the author of a a book of travel literature (that doesn’t have any photographs in it).

    Even my entrance into the world of technology came because I could write – in this case, training materials teaching people how to use Microsoft products (God help me).

    This might seem like a lot of wasted time, or at best lots of irrelevant experience.

    But since I’ve been pursuing photography more seriously over the last four or five years, I’ve come to see that a lot of the things I learned writing have been very useful when I have a camera in my hand.

    Learning to See

    A good writer is observant – you can’t tell a convincing story if you miss the important stuff. And often what’s important are subtle changes to the ordinary that most people don’t see.

    For a journalism article, it might be a telling quote, and for a photograph it might be way the light catches a face just so, but you need to be paying attention to catch these things.

    So by character or by training, writers notice all kinds of things that others don’t – a trait that’s also invaluable in photography.

    Showing Only What’s Important

    Your time will come

    A common mistake among people just starting with photography is to show everything in a photo. They might want to photograph someone enjoying their first sip of Guinness after a hard day, but their photograph includes half the pub.

    Which is kind of like a writer of the same scene describing what everyone in the bar looked like, the names of all the drinks on offer and how many beer mats were stacked up near the pumps.

    Not everything matters the same amount, and knowing what are the important things in what you’re communicating is key.

    Writers might do that with careful editing of a first draft, stripping away the irrelevant and polishing what’s left. Photographers have less time to do it in the capture (but some later cropping might help), but it’s a different application of the same skill.

    Part for the Whole

    _MG_1048 - Version 2

    Related to the previous point, there’s a classic writerly device where you use a small detail to represent a larger idea – synecdoche it’s called if you’re being precise. And it’s something that really helps in photography.

    In the pub example above, maybe you don’t even show the whole drinker’s face, or the whole pint. A detail of the fingers round the top of the coldly glistening glass as the beer settles might be all that’s needed.

    To do this well you need to stop asking ‘What is this a picture of?’, and start asking ‘What is this picture about?’.

    The Dramatic Moment

    Drum line

    As well as spotting details that carry weight, a good writer has an eye for that key dramatic moment – the point at which time stands still.

    To my mind these come in two flavors. Either it’s the one moment that is a crystallization of an emotion – the utmost point of joy, sorrow, reflection, bravery . . .whatever. Or it’s the point at which everything changes, where there’s no going back to how things were before.

    This is obviously related to Cartier-Bresson’s idea of the decisive moment – the point in time and space where the camera captures the perfect representation of an event.

    Some of this is luck, of course, but some of is practice and a feel for how events unfold. There are times when I’ve been working on an article or a section of the book when I’ve been watching events unfold and I get a sense that what’s happening at that exact moment is the key, that I need to remember this or get it down on paper right away.

    I get that with the camera too, where there’s a strange sense of anticipation of an event, and when it happens it’s like the Universe went out of its way to arrange things for you. Just make sure you don’t miss it.

    Telling Stories

    Mazatlan schoolkids go round the corner

    If there’s one thing a writer should be good at, it’s telling stories – arranging material so there’s a flow from beginning to end.

    A single image can tell a story, though often it captures that crucial dramatic moment (see above), leaving the viewer to fill in the back story or speculate about the future. That’s a great thing, but it’s a sequence of photos can more obviously have a narrative drive.

    David duChemin has a great outline of how this can work in his book Within the Frame, but a version of the approach goes like this:

    • establish the scene with a wide shot to give context
    • follow up with some activity shots to show what happens there
    • add in some details to flesh out the environment
    • show the decisive moment shot that captures the essence of the place or event
    • leave with a final image that suggests closure or shows the way to the future

    In its own way, this is a pretty good model for a piece of writing too.

    Knowing when to break the rules is as important as when to follow them, of course, but photographers should definitely be thinking about narrative as much as writers are.

    Words and Pictures Together

    When I was on a recent journalism assignment for New Mexico Magazine, writing about a week-long cattle drive in Roswell, NM, I spent a long time talking to Chuck West, the photographer who accompanied me.

    He wanted to know what I was going to write about, so he could make sure he covered it with his images, and I wanted to know what he was taking pictures of so I could write about it.

    We were really asking the same thing – what have you seen that strikes you as important? What sense can you make of all this? The details, the story, the decisive moments, the part-for-the-whole vignettes . . . we were communicating in different media, but there could be no real communication without observation and reflection. We each noticed particular things and then arranged a story around them based on what we thought was important.

    You can’t write or photograph well without there being a thought behind the act, and that thought is driven by careful observation.

    Would I like to write and photograph a single topic, to try both media to communicate the same ideas? Yep, that would be great, although the concentration required for each is a little different, and it might be hard to do both at the same time.

    But being able to communicate the same conclusions across the two media would be a great opportunity.

    Clearing the Vision

    The similarities of writing and photography for me are captured in a quote of Ansel Adams:

    “Through the art of brush, pen, and lens … we possess a swift and sure means of touching the conscience and clearing the vision.”

    Which is why my photography business is called Clearing the Vision. We see so much – just can’t stop ourselves without closing our eyes – and miss almost all of it.

    In my earlier career as a writer it was my job to sort through all that and present what really mattered elegantly and succinctly with words. And now it’s my job to do it with a camera. But while some of the craft might be different, I think the crucial skills are the same.


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    6 Responses to “What being a writer taught me about being a photographer”

    1. Romana Says:

      Dear David, really significant post. As a magazine editor and a passion photographer i always try to combine images and words that speak the same language. It is like the same story but told through two different tools. You couldn’t have put it better. Thank you!

    2. David Says:

      Thanks Romana for the kind words. I’m still feeling my way through this, and the blog post is a way to help me organize my thoughts.

    3. Chris Campbell Says:

      Thanks, David– a thought-provoking post, and very well-written! Often, when I write, (a story or poem, for example) I try to turn the subject into a clear visual image for the reader, using my photographic skills to think through the details of the subject as if viewing them through a lens– similar to what you describe in your post, only the other way around: using photography to help me be a better writer!

      You have a very nice site. I envy your mastery of web technology and your tasteful linkage of WordPress and Photoshelter!

    4. How to tell a story in your photographs. | Santa Fe, New Mexico Children and Family Portrait Photographer - David Moore Says:

      […] In one of my other lives, I’m a journalist and writer. I used to write for The Irish Times in Dublin, I’ve published a book of travel writing (it’s a lasting regret that it has no photographs in it, but at the time I was taking rubbish photos), and I now write for New Mexico Magazine and other places at times. (I outlined what I learned about photography from being a writer here). […]

    5. Chris Jones Says:

      David, thanks for the opportunity to put into typing(!) what I’ve been working on for years. I’ve tussled with combining writing and photography for decades; combining what I think and what I see. I’ve waded through the philosophy of Heidegger and Emerson, the halls and galleries of academia and contemporary art, and the streets of many cities, ghosting Cartier-Bresson with my camera. And what I’m discovering common to both is just a few things: Technology – you can’t write or shoot without it. (And more and more, the technology here is Photoshop). The Moment – but only when the writing and the photography is Zen-like rapid and prepared for mountains of loss. The Spirit of Discovery, but only when the photographer is physically and mentally prepared – Cartier Bresson once said “You don’t take the photograph, the photograph takes you.” Tone: when you’re combining writing and photography into a picture, like Cezanne combining color; like Bach combining notes, each can coalesce in tone…. And finally, and most important I think, Feeling. This holds the written and photographed together from start to finish. But damn if it isn’t hard to hold! Thanks again!

    6. Kathy LeMay Says:

      Brilliant and spot on piece that I’m just discovering! I’ve left my career in global social change fundraising and philanthropic advising to pursue writing and photography. I consider it a gift to have read your piece before I read others. Many thanks for pointing me in the right direction. It helps as I see my past fade in the rear view mirror. In gratitude, Kathy

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