We do a couple different projects in my picture story capstone. We have three picture stories to work on throughout the entire semester, and the last one is like the magnum opus of the class — the 30-day story. We've been talking a lot about photo essays and how they're not the same as picture stories. This week, we had a couple different readings regarding photo essays, how to approach them and how they were done in the past.
One of the pieces, by Bill Jay and David Hurn, explored the importance of memory to photo essays. The two talk back and forth about how to shape photo essays and one of the way to do so is by memory. Although I think photo stories can be more objective, I think the idea of photo essays is a very subjective idea — one has to take a specific point of view on a photo essay to go forth with it.
And one thing that Jay and Hurn talk about is the idea that photo essays are shaped by memory. They describe how we should photograph how we remember the event, because that is the most accurate. Photos can be taken out of context — a photograph can capture a moment that never really happened, at least in the grand scheme of things. It can misrepresent a situation. So, photograph, at least overall, in the way that you remembered what happened. This can be shaped by your perception of things, by your point of view, but if you think about what you'll remember, that's what you should photograph, according to Hurn and Jay.
Another big idea that Hurn and Jay proposed that I had not before considered was the idea of writing headlines for essays — kind of like writing a shot list. And they talked about writing them from memory, after one has become a mini expert on the subject. Because once one has observed a situation, they, for the most part, know what to expect — we know what will most likely happen, because we are "experts."
These headlines will describe a picture, or a subset of pictures, that are necessary for the story to happen. These headlines can be written from memory — you know, what we subjectively saw that happened — and they are important because it gets rid of things that aren't important. What it also does is makes a plan of action for the photographer so we don't spend 90% of our time trying to get one shot and then 10% of our time making nine other pictures. It helps us balance our time because we know what we still need to get to get across what we are trying to say.
Our other reading was regarding great picture essays of our time. One of the most interesting things I took away from this piece, by Chapnick, was that the original photo essay was not candid or spontaneous — it was planned out. Some of the earliest photo essays, such as those by Margaret Bourke-White, were posed and planned out. And this was weird for me to find out. Later on, the photo essay sort of evolved with lots of artificial lighting with spontaneity but with lots of planning, and finally the fly-on-the-wall approach came into being.
One problem I had with both of these articles, though, was that I felt that they assumed picture stories and photo essays were the same thing, and they're not. And perhaps these two separate ideas have evolved, but I felt like the authors lumped the two ideas together. I also felt like Hurn and Jay's piece was more geared toward picture essays and the Chapnick piece was more about photo stories, but acted as though they were both the same.
I'm glad I read these pieces because although I've done picture stories before, the idea of the photo essay, while not complicated for me to grasp, is difficult for me to plan for. I feel like I approach it in the same way as a photo story, which leaves gaping holes in what I'm trying to do. So by doing what Hurn and Jay said — by making shot lists, by creating headlines, by becoming a mini expert, by making lens choices and frames on top of your shot list — I think I can begin to master the picture essay.