This month, we have TWO QUESTIONS from Japanese photographer and editor, HIROSHI YAMAUCHI, his first question about how Alex frames his photographs and his second one about how Rebecca thinks about the marriage of text and images in photography books. Next, our second featured photographer, OLGA KRAVETS from Russia, asks Rebecca about which comes first in her photographic process –– the idea or the image –– and then questions Alex about how he feels about the expansion of photography into the world of multimedia, and the challenges that places on photographers today. You can learn more about Hiroshi and Olga at the end of this column, which also includes links to their work.––Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb
ON THE FRAME’S ANATOMY; ON TEXT/IMAGE SYNERGY
HIROSHI YAMAUCHI: Alex, when you come across a situation and “smell” the possibility of a good photo, do you run an anatomy of the scene first to divide spaces in your finder for what could happen? It’s almost as if you precisely choreograph the elements in each of your frames.
ALEX WEBB: Saying “run an anatomy of the scene” makes the process sound highly analytical. Nothing could be further from the truth. My process is not about thought, not about analysis, but rather about feeling the totality of a scene and responding intuitively, emotionally, non-rationally. I have sometimes used the word “smell” in this context (and I think I am paraphrasing Cartier-Bresson) specifically because smell is sensory, not rational. The process can be a bit mysterious. When I photograph, I sense the possibility of something — something about the feel of a place, the situation, some impending moment, the light, the color, the space, the shapes — and I often hang out and wait, hoping that something will happen, something will emerge. But I’m never sure quite what this something is. For me, the elements that go into the picture are often emotional elements: not just what is in fact “happening” in a situation (the purported “subject” of the image), but the space, the color, the light. Form isn’t just form, it can be emotion. Color isn’t just color for color’s sake, it, too, carries emotion. Sometimes a shape in the foreground becomes some kind of transformative element, sometimes an empty space strikes a special emotional note, sometimes the color changes what wasn’t an evocative scene into something very different… Ultimately I never know what it is that I am going to find, and just how the world will surprise me.
HY: Rebecca, do you design your creative writing to play certain roles in your visual presentation as a whole? Do you feel a good marriage of writing and photography can generate synergy, like a good meal with good wine?
REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: Originally a poet, I’ve long been interested in the relationship between text and images, and how the two can illuminate each other. For me, it’s one of my chief obsessions, something I hope to explore with each of my photography books. In some ways, when the relationship between text and images works well, it is like a good marriage or a good meal, where the different elements complement each other, sometimes creating a kind of synergy that’s stronger than the separate elements individually. Ultimately, it’s about striking the right balance, so that one form doesn’t overpower the other. That said, I don’t think all books call for a lot of text –– some books just need enough to point the reader/viewer in the right direction. In my opinion, part of power of the photography book –– and one way it is like poetry –- is its ability to suggest complex themes and ideas, yet leave enough space for the viewer/reader to have his or her own unique experience of the work.
Since we are talking here about the photography book, I think the visual element has to be considered when thinking about the text. For my first book, The Glass Between Us, my designer, Astrid Lewis Reedy, and I decided to place the text pieces, which I called “Reflections,” either across from a blank page or opposite another text piece, as way of creating a kind of pause visually for the reader/viewer, hopefully as a way of echoing the kind of reflective state of mind one feels when looking at the creatures in a aquarium or zoo — philosophically or psychologically or emotionally or humorously or, sometimes, all of the above. After visiting a zoo, the poet Charles Simic once wrote, “…I noticed many animals who had a fleeting resemblance to me.”
ON PHILOSOPHY & PHOTOGRAPHY; ON MULTIMEDIA
OLGA KRAVETS: Rebecca, your projects seem to me very philosophical: There is much that your pictures make me think of, after I go through them. When you develop the idea of a photo project, do you know in advance what your pictures would look like, what and where you would shoot, etc.? Will an unexpected picture find its place in the final layout of a book?
RNW: My work is first and foremost a collaboration with the world. I’ve learned over the years to have faith in those images that speak most insistently to me, first when I encounter them in the world when photographing, and, secondly, when I come across some of them again when editing, those rare birds that continue to resonate in me in a rich and complicated way –– emotionally, philosophically, poetically, politically –– with something akin to a kind of hum: the hum of life and death, the hum of beauty and suffering, the hum of praise and lamentation, the hum of the world.
So, I guess you could say that I follow these resonant images to the complex idea or ideas underlying the particular book I’m working on, not the other way around. “The image is an idea, a true idea, an earlier idea than a concept,” says the poet Li-Young Lee, and I agree wholeheartedly with him. When I work, I try to stay as open as I can throughout the entire process of photographing a project: I don’t know before I go out to photograph what image I will find, and many of my photographs that end up in one of my books –– at both the beginning and the end of a project –– are unexpected ones. That’s part of the excitement of working on a long-term photography project: you never know when or where you’ll come across your strongest photographs. As a fiction writer once said about his creative process: If I knew how a story would end before I wrote it, what’s the point of writing it?
OG: Alex, you started photography in the pre-digital era, when a photographer was just a photographer, so what do you think of the industry today, when one, willing to become successful, has to be a jack-of-all-trades — shoot not only stills, but also video, write text, record sounds, and, finally, also produce a quality multimedia piece?
AW: You are right that photographers seem to be asked to do more today by the industry than in the past. However, I should remind you that photographers have rarely been “just photographers.” The process of making a book of photographs — conceiving, editing, and sequencing (sometimes even designing) — has always demanded all kinds of other skills beyond just being a photographer. Photographers used to always print their own photographs — sometimes an arduous task, potentially as time-consuming as some of the activities that you describe. What is different is that now photographers are increasingly being asked sometimes to step outside of the vocabulary of still imagery into other fields — video and sound. I personally remain deeply involved in the specific language of still images — books and exhibitions — but I think there are some very exciting possibilities in the realm of multimedia. For the latter to be successful, a vocabulary has to be developed that is significantly different than either still photography or the moving image — so that in looking at the multimedia piece one is not reminded of what it isn’t — still photographs or film/video — but of what it is — a presentation that partakes of both kinds of media but is, in reality, its own unique medium.
Hiroshi Yamauchi was born in Osaka, Japan in 1974. After studying political science and international relations, he entered the School of Visual Communications at Ohio University. Hiroshi worked at the Anchorage Daily News and other U.S. newspapers, returning to Japan in 2000 to work for a wire service. In 2006, he freelanced for domestic and international newspapers and magazines, and in 2007 joined a photography quarterly, 81Lab. Magazine, which he now co-runs.
Hiroshi’s website: http://www.wow-photo.jp
81Lab. Magazine website: http://www.81lab.com
Olga Kravets, a freelance photographer based in Moscow, has worked for Berlingske Tidende (Denmark), Dagsavisen (Norway), Financial Times Deutschland (Germany), Helsingin Sanomat (Finland), Kristeligt Dagblad (Denmark), Observer (UK), Tank Magazine (UK), The Globe and Mail (Canada), Throw (Netherlands), among others. In 2009, she was a finalist for The Aftermath Project grant, and top-10 winner of the competition, “Young Photographers of Russia.” Olga is the author of the photography projects, “Primorsk. The Sunken Soviet City” and “Heroes of Karabakh.” Her work has been included in several group exhibitions in Russia and Norway.
Olga’s website: http://www.olgakravets.com
Tags: 81Lab. Magazine, Alex Webb, Astrid Lewis Reedy, Beijing, Charles Simic, framing, Hiroshi Yamauchi, image as idea, Li-Young Lee, Making Books, multimedia, Olga Kravets, Primorsk, Rebecca Norris Webb, Text and Image, text/image synergy, Two Questions