Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Photography - a few rules

A writer friend of mine sent me a piece written by Kurt Vonnegut an old hero of mine. In it Vonnegut proposed a list of rules for writing. It was clear that many of the rules also apply to making photographs. Although I've written about this before these benchmarks are always worth repeating. I've paraphrased Vonnegut's points and added a few thoughts of my own.

1. Find a subject you care about and which you genuinely feel others will care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language (photography), which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. 
I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

2. Do not ramble, though I won't ramble on about that. Isn't this all about getting to the point and getting there as quickly as you can?

3. Keep it simple. The two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
Simple can also be profound. What's more the best work, in both writing and photography is when something of substance is made out of nothing. Surely this is simplicity itself, although easy to say, hard to do.

4. Have the guts to cut. Your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, (photograph) no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.  Edit, edit, edit.

5. Sound like yourself. I  grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench. I  find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. Authenticity crops up yet again.

6. Say what you mean to say.  My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine.  They hoped that I would become understandable. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. 
Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us. Certainly readers need all the help they can get, but they're not to be underestimated. In my view a touch of Picasso and a drop of Coltrane can be spot on. 

7. Pity the readers.  Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through school. 
So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers (photographers) are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales. 

Last, the wisdom of Duane Michals is worth repeating - Forget all the rules.

And finally, this Kurt Vonnegut blog - So It Goes - is well worth checking out - HERE

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