Elevating Your Craft: The Value of Discussing Art for Photographers
I’m a hamster on a wheel. I get stuck doing the same thing over and over again. Over time, I’ve learned to be a clever hamster; I’ve learned to adapt and change. I’ve learned to grow.
My most reliable source of growth comes from studying art across all disciplines: from literature to paintings to sculpture, and of course, other photographers. Take it a step further, learn to talk about art, and you’ll finally get yourself off that hamster wheel. Learning how to discuss art broadens our creative horizons and helps us talk about (and sell) our own art.
Broadening Your Artistic Vocabulary
Discussing art allows photographers to develop a rich artistic vocabulary, allowing us to better articulate our thoughts and ideas. Understanding the principles of design, color theory, and compositional techniques is one thing, but being able to talk about the ideas behind our art; the why of a piece, is imperative in separating the artist from the technician.
Try it sometime. Challenge yourself to examine the principles you know best, and apply it to a piece of art–your own or someone else’s. It will broaden the depth of understanding you have with that principle, and deepen the levels of your own work.
For example, in Salvador Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” (1931), we clearly see exceptional compositional technique. Dalí utilizes the well-known rule of thirds by placing distorted, melting pocket watches along the horizontal and vertical lines that divide the canvas into nine equal parts. The eye is led from one watch to the next, encouraging you to explore the entire composition. There is a clear “why” in his placement of the watches, and exploring this idea helps us understand how to use the technique within our own work.
Encouraging Cross-Disciplinary Learning
Art is vast; art is connected. Engaging in discussion about art in all its forms can offer photographers fresh perspectives and ideas. Exploring the techniques and concepts used in painting, film, or even literature can inspire us to experiment with new approaches in our work. Cross-disciplinary appreciation expands our creative toolbox like never before.
As someone who studied Literary Criticism and Theory, for example, I’m particularly drawn to semiotics, which uses symbols and metaphors to analyze text. By understanding this idea, photographers can create more intentional and thought-provoking images.
Let’s look to Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (1936) for a real-world example. The image was taken during the Great Depression, and features a mother with her children huddled close. The symbols in the photograph include the mother’s worried expression, the children’s faces hidden from view, and everyone’s worn clothing. The meaning derived from these visual elements suggest themes of struggle, despair, and resilience. By understanding the relationship between these ideas, Lange created an image that resonates with viewers to this day, and powerfully conveys the hardship faced by migrant families during that era.
Enhancing Visual Literacy
Talking about art helps photographers develop visual literacy—the ability to read, interpret, and create meaning from visual content. By analyzing art such as “Migrant Mother”, and discussing the symbols, metaphors, and narratives present within them, we improve our ability to convey complex ideas and emotion through our images. An evolving visual literacy will lead to more profound and evocative photographs.
Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1980, is a prime example of this idea in photography. The image features a naked Lennon curled up and embracing a fully clothed Ono. The composition evokes the religious imagery of the Pieta, a common theme in Renaissance painting, where the Virgin Mary cradles the dead body of Jesus Christ. By drawing on this connection, Leibovitz added depth and emotional resonance to the photograph (tragically, the image took on even greater significance after Lennon’s assassination, just hours after the photo was taken).
Actively engaging in discussions about art is an essential part of our ongoing education. By broadening our artistic vocabulary, learning from masters, and fostering a growth mindset, we elevate the craft to better express our creative vision.
Let’s put it all into practice. Below I’ve included a few selections of my own work, from sessions in my Walnut Creek studio to a wedding in Morocco, to an engagement session in San Francisco. I’ll show the image first, and ask that you try dissecting the piece yourself before scrolling down to read my intention of the symbols and narratives.
I love this peace. The clarity and size of the father’s hands contrast the soft delicacy of baby’s own fingers so powerfully,, that you can’t help but feel safe. It’s as if your own father’s strong hands are wrapping around your own again, assuring the viewer that everything is going to be okay. The enormous boots juxtaposed against baby’s stocking feet further enhances this feeling, along with the calm confidence of her expression.
Water has always held significance in my life, and in literature is a consistent symbol of forward movement and change. As photographers, we’re constantly stealing moments from time, allowing memories to be captured in the stillness. For this reason I’m particularly fond of this piece: because it goes against the typical symbols of water. See how calm and still the water is; it’s almost as if the couple could walk away and leave their reflection permanently imprinted on the surface. It lends a sense of unyielding permanence, the perfect metaphor for a wedding portrait.
This piece tells the story of being engaged. The couple is placed at the end of the Golden Gate bridge, suggesting that a journey has ended–they’re no longer merely boyfriend and girlfriend, that part of their lives is over. However, just as the waves recede back into the ocean, their journey will never truly end. They embark on a new narrative as husband and wife, always moving forward even as their story evolves.
As you can see, discussing art encourages cross-disciplinary learning, builds visual literacy, and cultivates a community of shared expression. Let me know your own interpretations of my work in the comments below, and carve out some time to examine your own favorite pieces as well. You’ll never see it the same way again.
You can see more of David’s work at DavidNSachs.com, and keep up with him on Instagram and Facebook.