In “The High Concept Image,” a recent feature in Outdoor Photographer, nature photographer Ian Plant intelligently challenges photographers to capture creative, thoughtful images that move beyond “snapshots,” rising to the level of “art.”
Ian’s description of the high concept image is in contradistinction to the “low-concept image,” which he points out is generally more “documentary” or “literal” in nature. Seeing nothing wrong with such grab shots, he does, however, push photographers to look for new ways to depict the world. He invokes legendary photographer Minor White, who once said “One should photograph objects not only for what the are but for what else they are.”
In his thought-provoking “how-to” piece, Ian offers six techniques to create high concept images:
- Don’t just record your subject; instead, capture a theme, concept or story.
- Move your feet and seek novel compositions and juxtapositions.
- Don’t just chase “magic hour” light; chase expressive light.
- Use weather and color to create mood.
- Wait for the decisive moment.
- Go with the flow with long exposures.
This got me to thinking about my own photography. Below I offer my the first of my two-part commentary—perhaps you could call it an addendum–to Ian’s great lead. If you have read my columns in the past, you may see one or two photos I have utilized previously; here, however, I will explore my images with respect to the tenets of “high concept” photography.
Symbolic Images Leading Upward
The first technique Ian offers is moving beyond the subject, capturing “theme, concept, or story.” In the limited space for his feature, he focuses on narrative photography. I would like to turn expand the other direction, here looking at the idea of concept photos. Namely, let’s look at what it means to capture images that are symbolic.
In short, symbols are objects that stand for something else. We are all familiar with roses standing for love, doves symbolizing peace, and blue representing sadness or depression. These are all symbols. By using these conventional representations of ideas, artists can quickly and efficiently convey ideas through symbolic objects.
Existentialism via Unique Lenses
Ian’s second pointer is to look for new ways of seeing the world, namely by moving around, finding new compositions, and juxtaposing one thing against another. One other good way to bring about new ways of seeing is by paying attention to the great effect that changing lenses can have. Here I mean particularly choosing lenses that may not normally be used for the subject you are photographing.
For example, have you tried shooting with a circular fisheye lens? Capturing one-half of the world around you, these unique lenses with their circular image areas allow you to create distinctive images that stop people in their tracks. The many distortions of this lens—which you might think at first to be a detriment to image-making—can actually create intriguing high concept images.
Take my image of two trawlers docked in Pensacola, Florida. By using a circular fisheye, I was able to not only show viewers what the fishing boats look like but also—by jarring them with the in-your-face view of the pier and the prows of the two boats—allow viewers to feel like they are right there on the waterfront, smelling the salty air and fish odors in a way, I believe, that surpasses the experience of viewing an image created by a standard wide angle or normal lens.
In addition, if seen from a very close viewing distance (put your nose almost against the photo), you are nearly immersed in the place. The image is elevated from documenting the scene to taking your audience to the Sartrean level of visual existentialism.
Amplification through Simplification
Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, a thoughtful examination of the art of the comic book, believes that comics work by a process he describes as “amplification through simplification.” What he means by this is that comic images, which do not have all the details typical of, say, a photograph, allow viewers to see something more universal than an individual subject.
In his argument, a circle with two dots above a small upturned curve—your typical smiley face icon—can be more beneficial in its effect on viewers than a mere portrait. For him, the smiley face’s lack of details—that it is more generic—allows comic book readers to slip into the place of or become the character more easily. The lack of specificity of who the smiley face is lets you identify or become one with the character. There is room for you to become or the image, inhabit the character.
In photography we can create the effect of amplification through simplification. While photographers do not draw abstract images of faces, we can, in a similar way, eliminate parts of pictures through framing to help viewers focus upon one particular aspect of a subject. For photographers, the idea of framing may be less about what we frame in as what we frame out. Eliminating distractions allows us to direct the gaze upon specific elements.
In the case of my Curious Critters series, I have placed animals against white backgrounds, removing them from the details of their habitats. While showing rocks, plants, water, and so forth can be important for science book documentary pictures, in my Curious Critters series I try to emphasize colors, shapes, textures, and seeming personalities of animals.
Simplifying picture elements can amplify certain aspects in an image. Viewers of my spotted salamander image may notice, for example, the reflections on the amphibian’s wet skin or the slightly webbed feet. Noticing these features can lead to higher-order thinking, allowing viewers–even without the presence of habitat in the image—to deduce that these amphibians live in aquatic habitats.
Interested in more thoughts on high concept images? In part two I will talk more about how amplification can be achieved besides through simplification.
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