A Photographer’s Frame of Mind: Why Artists Should Read Scott McCloud

While laid up with the flu and not venturing outdoors in the cold, I decided to reread one of my favorite authors.  Scott McCloud is a literate cartoonist who has produced three of the most analytical and concise looks at comics as art in our society. His UNDERSTANDING COMICS—THE INVISIBLE ART in 1993, REINVENTING COMICS—HOW IMAGINATION AND TECHNOLOGY ARE REVOLUTIONIZING AN ART FORM, in 2000, and MAKING COMICS in 2006 give an incredibly articulate voice to the communication process as it is used by the story-telling industry.

McClouds 5 aspects of Clarity & COmmunication:Choice of Moment Choice of Frame Choice of Image Choice of Word Choice of Flow

SCOTT MCCLOUD’S IMAGE QUESTIONS

Scott McCloud begins with Clarity and Communication as the primary goals of the artist and how we get there is defined under five areas he wants us to look at. While he aims his analytic eye at the comic book, I have found that the first three of his five aspects of story-telling apply to the photographer in every sense of the word.

When a photographer gets ready to take an image he or she should ask themselves, "What do I have in Mind?"  That’s where the process and the experience should begin.

mcCloud's Choice of moment, choice of frame, choice of image

CHOICE OF MOMENT?

I know when I do a photographic student portfolio review that the first thing that comes to mind are questions to the student, "Why did you choose this moment to shoot the picture?"  What is it about this moment that made you snap the shutter? What are you trying to say?  What message are you trying to convey or capture? There’s even more to this first question and we haven’t gotten to design aesthetics quite yet, but let’s go ahead and look at the second aspect Scott McCloud mentions, and ask the student even more.

CHOICE OF FRAME?

What made you choose the edges of this picture in this way?  What drove the composition to look like this and what made you choose this lens focal length and particular depth of field to produce the window that encloses the composition and the depth of sharpness in the image? The artist chooses to draw the image within a window that establishes either a wide angle scene-setting view, a mid-range view, or a close-up of detail, and somehow all of these are story-telling views.  Granted, each of these images should be necessary to the story-telling process and they are part of a greater group or sequence of images, but each one should be necessary.

CHOICE OF IMAGE?

Finally, I ask the student a question related to the first one.  Why this Choice of Image? Digital is cheap, the photographer can shoot literally hundreds of images (usually, with a subject with fast-breaking news being an exception).  This is when I want them to talk to me about aesthetics and design.  This is when all of those words like line, shape, form, texture, space, balance, continuity, emphasis, and unity (plus a few others) are all supposed to come out.  Now usually, this is what I hear when I talk about Choice of Moment in the beginning.  But choice of moment goes back to the question of simply "What is the statement you are trying to make with this photograph?" Frame and Design Aesthetics are HOW you achieve the STATEMENT, not WHAT you are saying.

Put it another way, Scott McCloud is more subtle is his questing, but I simply want to ask the student "Where’s the hook?  What is it about this image that makes you want to capture and to save it?"  The Photojournalist can answer this one a lot quicker than the Fine Arts photographer or the Educational Photographer, but all of them should be able to give a reason as to why they made a particular image.

Let’s break it down.

I dug out my old (like more than forty years old) psychology notes from a couple of classes on learning theory and came up with these points to ask the photographer, or maybe the photographer should ask themselves before they click the shutter.

THE PHOTOGRAPHERS ASK THEMSELVES WHAT THEY ARE TRYING TO DO?

What are you trying to do? What do you want to say?

Is it:

  1. Attention Getting?
  2. Teaching a Skill?
  3. Influencing An Attitude?
  4. Capturing a Moment for History,
  5. or Producing an Aesthetic Experience?

I think there are really three kinds of photographers outside of the home photographer who simply wants to record a personal moment.  These three kinds fall into the category of the:

  • Educational Photographers, who seek to communicate strongly the essence of their subject in the most pleasing light.   Advertising photographer are included in this group because they are trying to show a product and convince the consumer that product is superior for its purpose. 
  • The Photojournalist is recording history and reporting the news of the immediate moment. 
  • The Fine Arts Photographer is trying to capture a visual aesthetic experience in such a way that a viewer would choose to look at the image for the emotional satisfaction alone.

Now the Fine Arts photographer usually chooses the first, fourth or last of these questions about what he is trying to do. The Educator chooses the second or third and just maybe the fourth), and the Photojournalist answers the third or fourth.  But then I try to get a bit more specific:

OK, what did you really have in mind?  Here’s all that psych talk from long ago. (There’s a bunch of reasons to make photographs.)

  1. Identification/naming object/observing details
  2. Characterization
  3. Evaluation
  4. Prescribing
  5. Relating/import/conveying facts/relating to experience
  6. Motivation
  7. Perceptual Skill
  8. Recall Experiences
  9. Add Detailed Study
  10. Correct Misconceptions
  11. Prevent Misconceptions
  12. Compare and Contrast
  13. Build New Experiences
  14. Give Meaning to Word Symbols
  15. Demonstrate a Process
  16. Form Value Judgments
  17. Create An Atmosphere
  18. Prepare for Experience
  19. Motivate Learning
  20. Publicize Events
  21. Develop Insight and Appreciation
  22. Dramatize A Point
  23. Raise Questions/Problems
  24. Stimulate Reading
  25. Foster Individual Interest
  26. Provide A Setting
  27. Complete Research
  28. Provide Reference
  29. Enrich And Enliven An Experience
  30. Invite Participation
  31. Help Learner Understand Self
  32. Build Background
  33. Create Center of Interest
  34. Develop Critical Judgment
  35. Stimulate Creative Effort
  36. Introduce A Topic Of Study
  37. Review And Summarize
  38. Test Learning

Now usually the Educational Photographer (and in that I include Travel Photographers to some extent by their goals to show us far-off places) could say that they are trying to do the majority of those choices at one time or another.  The Photojournalist may have a bit more limited goals, and the Fine Arts Photographer probably seeks to enrich and enliven an experience as their most often chosen goal.  The Fine Arts Photographer has the hardest job and has to do it with the most elegant of technique and aesthetic skill because to the Educator or Journalist a picture of less aesthetic quality may still be the superior image if it conveys the most pertinent information to the viewer.

So the Fine Arts photographer has a lot tougher job justifying their image when they are trying to make a statement with the display of their photographic skill and craft, and catch a moment to be shared in contemplation purely for the aesthetic experience.  

The Educational photographer is trying for an aesthetic answer even though they really have other goals in mind. Advertising photographers, whom I class as Educational Photographers are trying to produce an aesthetic moment, but there are times when the product itself is utterly prosaic—perhaps the photographer can produce a symbolic image of the process but the product is never seen.  A photograph of a handsome man and beautiful lady enraptured with one another may sell perfume even if we don’t see the perfume bottle.

The Photojournalist seeks equally to produce an aesthetic moment as they report the news, but both can succeed without answering to the aesthetic moment.

What about my student in the portfolio review?  What do they need to do before they set out to trip the shutter?  First, they have to define the statement they are trying to make, and then to make the image with the most craft and skill that they can bring to the subject.  The choice of lens, the focal length, the framing of the image all these should come as they explore the image they are trying to create.  Finally, they select the one image that best defines the epitome of their craft and their vision, and with time they will produce an image that both achieves the statement they wanted to make and presents it with a truly aesthetic vision.

It doesn’t come easy, but the more they think about it and analyze the failures the better the student becomes.

After fifty years I am still trying to come to terms with all that is involved in becoming a Fine Arts photographer.