Making Images that Resonate… and What Does That Even Mean?
How to gauge the possibility of engagement in your photography.
I wanted to discuss a term that I am thinking about more these days;
v. res·o·nat·ed, res·o·nat·ing, res·o·nates v.intr.
1. To exhibit or produce resonance or resonant effects.
2. To evoke a feeling of shared emotion or belief: “It is a demonology [that] seems to resonate among secular and religious voters alike” (Tamar Jacoby).
3. To correspond closely or harmoniously: “Symbolism matters, especially if the symbols resonate with the larger message” (William Greider).
A shared emotion, a shared belief.
It fits into the other term I use a lot, context.
This past week we were looking at an assignment in Project 52 on “hands”. It is one of the favorite assignments that I give, as it forces the photographer to work with one of the most expressive parts of a person’s body, in a way that focuses on context… what are the hands doing?
The challenge was to present the hands doing something, not the “something” the hands were doing. An example… hands using scissors is a quite different than a shot of scissors cutting cloth, albeit with hands on the scissors.
Now of course there is no way to codify that. No rules, no diagrams, or percentage of hand versus background that will make that shot of hands — instead of scissors.
It is a shared emotion of viewing the hands, and the context of what the hands are in relationship to the rest of the image that helps form the response we are after. And even then we may not succeed with every single viewer.
Their context may be different than ours, and different than the shared experience of most of us.
As we work with the subject before us, many photographers simply compose intuitively and upon finding something pleasing, push the button. Again and again. Certainly nothing wrong with that. I rarely find the ways of any photographer who works at making an image to be ‘wrong’, even if I may not work that way. All’s good, as they say.
But how many of us look for something to resonate inside us before we commit? And I do not mean the sketch shots we do before the final shot, I am referring to that sketched shot that seems to jump out at us, to call for us to pursue it a bit further, to keep at it until it is the shot, THE shot we want.
I sketch with my camera before nearly every shot… especially people shots and environmental shots. In the old days we would wander about with our Polaroids shooting very expensive one-off shots to see the three-dimensional world as two dimensions… and to get an idea of what that world looks like as a photograph.
Upon finding that ‘set’ or area we liked, and looked good as a photo, we would commence to set up our shot.
If we were not able to use Polaroid, or it was not available because we simply didn’t have the cash outlay for a test shoot, I would look through the camera and make decisions based on what I saw in the viewfinder.
I sometimes think the world looks more interesting through a viewfinder. Often, in fact.
I was looking for context… I was seeking an image that would ‘resonate’ with me, and hopefully the people who would see the work. Not ‘just a picture’ but something they would want to look at a bit more closely.
It isn’t easy.
It shouldn’t be.
These days, the large LCD screen, or the iPad/tethered notebook, gives us instant feedback on the image, and what the world looks like as a two-dimensional representation. We can see what we are doing. And we can sketch more, rather than less because of this technology.
Looking for that moment when the image we see before us is something that we like both with our eyes and also with our minds and emotions. A pair of hands holding scissors becomes something that fascinates us instead of informing us. A portrait becomes iconic right before our eyes… something about it resonates with our inner selves and we like what we see in a way that we haven’t felt before on the other images we have made.
In the days of contact sheets, we could lay out 5 or 6 of them — each with 36 images on them, and one would jump off the page at you… no matter how close they were in the manner of taking them, there would be that one image… two or three if you were lucky — that would simply scream to be enlarged.
That is resonance.
Editing through a batch of images in Lightroom, Bridge, or C1, we will go from image to image, noting the ones we like, discarding the ones we don’t, and suddenly in front of us is an image that makes us stop.
We know that one is the one.
It rang our bells, so to speak.
Now a question for you… how many times while you are shooting have you snapped one and knew, just knew at that moment you may have gotten it?
In that fleeting moment of a headshot, or a mountain vista, or a group of young people having fun on the beach… click, and that moment is burned into your brain almost like the LCD on the back of the camera.
I know it happens to me. It happened in film days too, but I would have to wait some period of time to see that frame. The film would come back from the lab and I would go looking for that frame — the one that resonated inside me — until I found it. And I usually knew exactly where to look, as its spot on the roll, and which roll had it, was something I kept track of mentally.
How do we make images that resonate? With us, and with the people we show them to?
No single answer. No single way. No “gerfsnitching” or “fangasmical” or other nonsensical words to describe some ‘method’ to finding the ‘best’ image we can produce. That would all be BS, and suitable for download only… as only BS can be ‘downloaded’… heh.
I think it happens from us doing a lot of things to build our visual literacy to the point we begin to see our own work as having merit, a point of view, and a consistent presentation of the imagery — a style.
In no particular order of importance:
1. Look at a lot of photographs. Steep yourselves in the masters, the best work you can find to study. Learn some history (and respect) for the medium’s short and volatile history.
2. Note what resonates with you. What images do you love? Whose work stands out and beckons you to view it again and again.
Why do you think that work wants you to look at it again?
Why do you want to look at that work again?
Use pen and paper… seriously.
3. Sketch with your camera. Move around, change lenses. Get in close — then pull way back. Begin to see the image in the viewfinder as the image on the print. Look for the image that speaks to you, one that resonates with all your senses.
4. Refine the shot. Sure you got it… but what would happen if we darkened the foreground a bit, or included more sky, or opened the aperture a bit, or turned a vertical into a horizontal? You may find gems hidden within the image you love.
Sketching is an important part of finding an image that resonates with us.
So is visualizing. Which seems counter-intuitive. If one visualizes the image they want beforehand, what need is there to sketch?
The answer is that if the image is well conceived and visualized, the sketching has already taken place. Either mentally or as a physical reality on a piece of paper in front of us.
A student who drew a very detailed sketch of his image before shooting it told us that as he made decisions on paper, and then had to justify those decisions with what the subject would do with the light he was creating, he began to clearly see the image in his mind’s eye. When he actually set it up, the image in his head became the image in front of him… he had sketched and visualized the shot.
Making a photograph that resonates with our own sensibilities is the result of having sensibilities to resonate with. That takes some time, a lot of shooting, and looking for things that interest us.
Take some time in this following week to think about your images, the ones that you really like — and no, they do not have to have a lot of Facebook likes or Twitter comments… they just have to make your list of shots you like.
What makes them work for you?
Then do more of that… lots more.