By now, we know the purpose of story is to confront our internal worldviews with the world through the external struggles of characters (episode 1). We know how stories are told to keep our attention high from beginning to end (episode 2). Let’s now examine how photographs and films / video go about this in their own different ways.
Before we can get into answering the initial question, I need to address two final theoretical points relating to our handling perception and causality.
It’s easy to imagine that perception follows a one way path : photons enter our eyes, hit the retina, electrical signals travel along our nerves to our brain, where patterns are recognized and the scene is interpreted. The end.
But that’s only one part of the story.
For one thing, our brain is selective. The cocktail effect is when you stand in a busy room, managing to focus on one conversation to the exclusion of the many concurrent others and, suddenly, someone three tables away says something that triggers your attention and shifts your focus away. Your mind has been constantly monitoring other conversation but bringing only one to your awareness. Similarly, you can focus on moving balls and not see the gorilla in the room …
And secondly, the brain brings prior experience to the perception process. You can understand words written with lots of missing letters because you’ve seen the words before. You can recognise a spoken sentence with the sound artificially distorted, but only if you’ve heard it non-distorted before. The brain knows what to expect and while listening to the distorted version, you still hear the clear sentence in your mind, which you couldn’t seconds earlier, before hearing the undistorted version. And when you know there is a gorilla in the video, it’s impossible to not see it anymore. If I spoiled it for you, here is another chance to test yourself through this whodunnit or this cup trick 🙂
Of course, this selectivity and bias in perception extend to interpretation and worldview, that principal fuel for storytelling. The stronger your wordlviews, the more you react to stories. A playful child will see a happy puppy in the photograph above. A busy parent will see a dirty carpet in the making 😉
Imagine someone told you; “Voldemort and Harry duel, (kinda) die and Harry gets thrown back into life after a while in limbo”. Would you want to read the previous 7 tomes after that? We hate spoilers before movies, or being told the result of the football match before we can watch it.
To tell an effective story, ie one that is able to impact the reader/viewer, the author needs to provide enough clues to create a setting and a context, but leave out enough for the audience to have to ask themselves what is happening.
A totally abstract photograph might be pleasing to view, but it will struggle to capture the viewer’s attention for very long. Unless the photograph is incredible as an object, and the viewer asks “how on Earth did he/she do that?” But that is technical mastery, not storytelling. In the photograph above, the larger, distorted reflection of a man appears to be looking, shocked, at a couple of girls sitting next to a wall.
There’s nothing mysterious there, but the composition clearly opposes the two groups and makes us wonder why the guy looks so appalled. Shouldn’t they be sitting, in this room? Are they touching something the sign says not to touch? Is he looking at something else beyond them, out of the frame? It’s not a life altering story, but it makes you stop and ask yourself what is happening because you have enough clues to care – and because your mind automatically infers a cause relationship between the two main visual elements – but you don’t have the answer.
So, interesting photographs can be created by showing evidence of a fact but not revealing its causes. Anytime the viewer is interested enough to ask “what am I seeing” or “why is this happening”, that’s a win. The more interest you can create to make the viewer want to understand, and the less you reveal, the more tension and interest you create, letting the viewer fill in the blanks according to their prior experience and viewpoint.
In a movie, the photograph below could be a scene about our hero’s backstory as a skater. As a photograph, it is rather flat and boring. It’s a skater. That’s it. No questions come to mind. No storytelling here. Until you notice the man in the back. Then, the photograph somehow comes alive.
And this, below, might be considered mysterious by some, but no one really cares. It’s too out there (clueless) for anyone to really care enough to try to understand. The same is true of a purely abstract photograph above. It might be interesting to some, but wouldn’t qualify as a storytelling image. It’s a fine line with no definite rules to rely on. Experience and intuition are good guides here.
Duration is main difference between photography and film. While the interesting causality gap happens between elements of a frame in a photograph, it is editing that makes the most use of this in filmmaking.
The very first films consisted of single sequences such as a train entering the station in La Ciotat. Beyond the initial amazement at moving images, this soon became boring and the very inventors of the process deemed it without future.
But filmmakers soon realized that stitching together two shots created an automatic causal link between the two in the viewer’s mind. For instance, seeing a house and cutting to a shot inside the kitchen, the viewer automatically inferred that the kitchen was inside the house previously seen. Obvious now, but an absolute breakthrough at the time. Taking this to a new level, Kuleshov proposed an experiment in which an expressionless actor is shown for a few seconds in between shots of a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, a pretty woman (see video here) … Although the exact same footage of the actor was used in every case, the audience ascribed different feelings and moods to him and lauded the excellent acting.
You can use a similar ‘fill in the blanks’ approach to bring back memories in the viewer’s mind. The stronger the memory the better. There is no causality here, only evocation.
Here, we see the sun shining on my wife through a plane window. We’ve all been on planes. We can all relate to this sort of memory. And the photograph brings us back to a pre-Covid pre-Greta world in which air travel wasn’t considered dangerous or an act of eco-terrorism. Happy days.
And how about this? Remember summer? Remember getting real close to people, close enough to touch their skin, and no masks?
Similarly, pareidolia (which we did a challenge on) is a way of stirring thoughts and emotions by photographing objects that evoke human face/behaviour.
And, below, the gentle light on the organic looking building evokes a peaceful evening in a civilised place.
You can question whether evoking something in the viewer’s mind is storytelling. To me, it isn’t really. But it can be a strong constituent of storytelling in a photo series or in a film, by creating a mood and prepping the mind to react to further images in a predetermined way.
Composition is photography’s main storytelling tool.
Choosing a frame format already sets the tone. And that format imposes a natural resting eye position within the frame. Any departure from that natural position begs the question “why?” , which is the start of a visual story.
In the photograph above, the woman is placed along the center of the frame, as the frame dictates. Her lit face and the direction of her gaze, towards the light, are what start the story here : “What is she looking at? Why is she kneeling? What is that light?” The answers are much less story worthy: the light is the entrance of the museum, she is looking at her phone, and she must have been in a hurry, so didn’t sit 😉 In fact, the story ends as soon as you notice her phone. There is no interrogation about what is happening anymore.
But below, the character is offset to the left, along the fabled rule of third principle. The first, subconscious, question is “Why is she not in the center?”
Composition is the balancing of the various visual components of a photograph. Balancing with respect to the natural center of the frame, and with respect to one another.
The visual attraction (or repulsion) of each component acts like a weight acting at a certain distance from the fulcrum that is the natural center (line or point) of the frame. If the weights all neutralize one another, like kids of equal weight on a see-saw, then the photograph is balanced. If not, it is imbalanced. Those options, obviously, are crucial to storytelling.
The photograph above is balanced because the strong weight of the sharp human figure (anything human, particularly faces, creates great weight) is much closer to the center than the hazy mountain in the background. The photographs feels quiet. It could be an ad for nostalgia 😉 In reality it is a woman freezing and waiting for breakfast while her husband insists on taking pictures early in the cold morning 😉
This photograph is also balanced, but the dynamic story is more slightly elaborate than the previous ones. The first group, large and sharp, are collectively close to the center of the frame. But the less weighty second group and very strong leading line convergence sit a bit further out. Global balance is established, and there is little tension, but a regular eye movement from one group to the other and back. The main story is played in the foreground duo: what is happening? There’s obviously a tripod, so probably a camera. Isn’t it working? Is it an elaborate view camera? …
All the visually obvious cues (size, luminance, contrast, human features …) and psychological cues (joy, anger, implied intention, …) give various elements a certain strength that draws the eye more or less, defining the order in which the viewer takes them in, and creating the visual story.
Compare the two main characters above to the two characters below, from Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low. Can you sense the opposition below, compared to the collaboration above ?
Which leads me to blocking, one of cinema’s main tools for storytelling. Blocking is moving image’s equivalent of composition. Because human beings and faces are the strongest visual elements you can use, actors are inevitably what we look at 99% of the time, in any given frame. So the way actors move in a scene and interact with objects on the set determines very accurately who we look at and when, allowing the filmmaker to guide the viewers in a predetermined fashion.
Akira Kurosawa and Steven Spielberg are two undisputed masters of the craft. Typically, frame composition is very centric, yet Kurosawa often places his protagonist at the very edge of the frame, introduces new characters, making actors turn their back or get hidden behind something just long enough for us to switch to someone else, producing stunning frames that look like paintings joined by natural looking but carefully orchestrated ballets. It is mesmerizing dynamic composition that occasionally sits still to create a tableau and deliver a powerful message. Simply brilliant.
Can we do that without actors, simply by filming landscapes or non-orchestrated street scenes? No. I don’t think so. At least nowhere near as powerfully. Humans are interested mainly in humans. Faces and human (or divine 😉 ) interaction are what we seek the most.
Photographs without human looking figures can be striking, but there is little chance of strong storytelling if human condition isn’t at least implied in some way.
A landscape can set the mood for a story, it can provide a background for a story, but it doesn’t tell a story by itself, unless we can associate human activity to it. There is no story about trees, but there are human stories involving trees.
Consider these two photographs. The one on the left is mine, the one on the right is by grandmaster Henry Cartier Bresson. The two depict men jumping in a very similar position. And yet, they tell very different stories, stories we have no idea about and can only make up through the visual cues provided in the frame.
As explained above, the human mind loves to find causal relationships between events. It understands the world through cause and effect, a consequence of which is our love for murder mystery stories, detective stories, guessing games, … Basically, we love to fill in the gaps. The clues on the left are sneakers (leisure), long shadows (morning or evening), zebra crossings (safety), a newspaper (safety) and a grocery bag (yum). This seems like someone jogging with the morning paper in hand. And we can guess at croissants in the bag. I can even taste them while thinking about them.
On the right, the clues are the water (flood), a ladder on the floor (not right), stone blocks and metal circles (unfinished work) industrial looking buildings that most French people will recognize as a train station (must be on time). And the off-balance stance of the man, who seems more rushed and perilous than the jogger on the left. Is he late for his train? Is he just trying not to get drenched or damage his shoes? He is on the right edge of the frame, looking blocked and hampered, while my jogger has room to breathe and run, creating less tension and drama.
Now, this is not an attempt to compare my photography to HCB’s 😉 This is merely an illustration that the best way to tell a story in a photograph is to leave a lot of information missing. It is when we try to fill in the blanks for ourselves that we engage with the story the most. Imagine a detective story that simply narrates the facts, all the facts. Who would read that? We want to figure it out for ourselves, that is why we read/view mystery stories.
Worldview is what photographers struggle the most with. Many people simply refuse to acknowledge that stories and worldviews are inseparable, that stories confront worldviews with reality.
So, what do you think about this scene ?
If the guy’s hungry enough to be begging, why does he have a dog, causing extra financial strain, and toys? Is he a parasite picking off busy workers as they rush to and from work? Or is he that person who never had a chance, from the moment he was borne and only has a dog a a couple of toys to keep him going through this hell while rich gits pass him by on their way to their warm homes and their cosy jobs?
The truth is: probably neither. But every viewer’s worldview will pin him to a specific role with absolute certainty without a second thought for the subjectivity of that act.
The less long the performance, the more beautiful the object has to be by itself. A photograph must hold on its own. Whereas no single frame in a 3 hours movie matters. It is the character arcs and the building of suspense leading to the climax that draw us in.
Togs will do anything to get rid of visual obstructions in a photograph but filmmakers will do anything for the opposite, as it adds layering and realism. The photographer typically strives for admiration of the finished object where the filmmaker aims for suspension of disbelief.
So, filmmakers have time on their side to follow one of the plotlines described in the previous episode. The quality of the photography plays a role in the success of the movie, but most award-winning Directors of Photography will tell you that they hold back and only create images that serve the story. Lesser DPs will try to impress with their artistic skill and will detract from the audience’s understanding of the story.
Finally, aesthetics obviously play a role in storytelling.
Long story short: photography strives for a pretty final object. While filmmakers create a believable universe, seeking any opportunity to create depth and control the light or any other element of the image that could grab the audience’s attention and pull them out of the story.
A separate mini series has been devoted to this topic, so this is all I will say here.
Photographers, on the other hand look for maximum impact in one frame. Either through beautiful printing (fine art), beautiful image making (composition, lighting, …) or striking subject (photojournalism, wildlife …) This impact can be one of admiration at a pretty scene or a reaction to disturbing content, or one one of puzzlement and desire to understand and find an explanation.
This is my only possible answer to the original question, then.
Film, through its ability to harness time, has more options to actually tell a story. But photographs have the ability to be more immediately impactful and to get the viewer to make up a story in their head, hence to start a story.
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