#Photosketching: Towards a New Personal Visual Language

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The visual documentation by artists of everyday observations has been at the core of creative practice since the dawning of time. The desire to record and display can be traced back through ancient civilizations as methods of communication, storytelling and artistic expression. There is nothing new about the creation of images from the visual building blocks of mark, light, form, juxtaposition, composition and abstraction. And yet the digital revolution and its subsequent technological innovations have created an environment in which creative visual documentation and sharing has become available to all.

As a result digital photography has been placed into a new dimension of understanding as a democratic global visual language.

As with all forms of language our ability to communicate depends upon our understanding of the structure and agreed forms that constitute its construction and use. The more sophisticated and nuanced our understanding the more we can manipulate a language to develop our own personal voice and broadcast the messages we want to deliver in the way in which we wish them to be delivered and heard. In the case of photography that delivery is now through digital platforms and the language is
seen and not heard. Today we could all be seen as ‘digital cavemen’ using images to deliver messages instantaneously on the Internet rather than on the cave wall, ignoring language barriers with a tool instantly and increasingly available to a global populace, the smart phone.

In 2015 there are few of us that do not have a camera in our pockets for most of our waking hours. A camera that is easy to use, that produces high quality images that we can manipulate with ease thanks to a multitude of easy to download software options. A camera that we can play games on, make films with, listen to the radio on, collect music with, watch films on; a device that fulfils all of our information and entertainment needs. I say a camera and not a phone because as the quality of smart phone image capturing functionality has improved we have increasingly turned to the digital image as its main form of communication.

“As the language or vocabulary of photography has been extended, the emphasis of meaning has shifted, shifted from what the world looks like to what we feel about the world and what we want the world to mean.” Aaron Siskind.

The artist has always used the image as a form of communication, a final conclusion resulting from a personal dialogue based upon the process of ‘sketching’ as an intrinsic aspect of their creative process to develop their own personal language within a greater creative linguistic understanding, to explore, experiment and decide upon a voice with which to begin a journey, which has as its final destination a completed work; a culmination of intellectual and emotional endeavour.

To begin to understand the relevance of sketching to the photographer we must first accept that the basis of all photography is the process of capturing light in a box and that light is transient, ethereal and of the now. We must also accept that light is not willing to wait for the photographer to consider, examine and re-construct what they see: to reinterpret the scene at a later date, to develop and adapt what was seen to what is required within an artist’s personal vision. The photographer is therefore not afforded the luxury of sketching, that the artist bases their visual language upon. The photograph is the journey and destination captured in a fleeting moment destined to live forever as the final statement of the photographer’s intention.

The contact sheet, whether digital or analogue is the closest a photographer comes to the creation of a sketchbook, a series of images that form a storyboard for a film never to be made and yet each frame is a finished work in itself. The decisive moment is the completed moment. The contact sheet demonstrates a physical journey and an internal intellectual dialogue but it is in essence a document of the photographer’s ability to find/create/make/capture the successful image. There is an implied pressure within this judgement, which prevents many photographers from sharing the images that were created either side of the chosen moment. The artist has no such pressure as the sketchbook is seen as an informative insight into the formation of the finished work. The artist’s sketchbook is part of the process.

The art director, photographer and artist Alexey Brodovitch spoke of the importance of being able to see and frame the world for a photographer when he stated “Begin without a camera: cut out a window in a piece of card. Look, discover, choose what you are going to photograph”. Brodovitch was a teacher and mentor who taught photographers such as Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Hiro, Art Kane and Bob Adelman amongst many others through his summer schools. His opinion is one to be taken seriously but it was an opinion developed within an analogue age. Today we do not need to utilise an actual piece of card when we have a digital alternative that allows us to frame the world and make the same exploration of visual decision-making Brodovitch refers to.

Of course nothing I am saying should come as a revelation to any photographer fully engaged with the changing landscape of lens-based media practice. The digitally engaged photographer will already be exploiting the creative possibilities new technology affords them. They will be actively exploring both the still and moving image, they will be promoting and sharing their work across multiple online platforms and creating bodies of work previously beyond their economic capabilities free from the incurred analogue costs of processing and printing. However, I question how many are analysing those practices and placing them within a broader understanding of artistic practice to bring a depth and rigour to the work they are creating and in turn avoid the real threat of professional photographic practice becoming a self-reverential, internalised tsunami of repetitive imagery.

The principle online platform for photographic creation and sharing is Instagram. It is also the home of photosketching. Established in 2010 as a free mobile phone app, Instagram rapidly formed a community of users with over 100 million users by April 2012. In 2015 it is believed that Instagram has over 400 million active monthly users, a figure that could be seen to indicate 400 million active photographers but few of that number would actually use that term to describe what they do. Despite this Instagram has become a vital platform for professional photographers to both develop their visual language and market their work.

Many photographers have eagerly embraced the concept of marketing through Instagram, promoting work completed using more traditionally accepted professional cameras, but to do this is to misunderstand the creative possibilities that the smart phone and Instagram offer. Those that have adopted these possibilities have been at the vanguard of creating a new photographic language, although it is one, which heavily references the work of past photographers. Just as the multitude of filters promise aesthetic outcomes from the history of photographic presentation so the images themselves are echoing work created under very different technological parameters.

The square format of Instagram lends itself to a form of compositional abstraction at the touch of a button as new ways of seeing are instantly suggested by this its algorithmic functionality. The experienced photographer will instantly recognize this as being akin to the square format created by both analogue Hasselblad and Twin Lens Reflex cameras, a format that was swiftly superseded by the emergence of DSLR’s. This abstraction has led to an interesting either intentional or non intentional adoption of an abstract expressionist approach to photographic image making pioneered by photographers such as Aaron Siskind (1903-1991), in which the process of creation is more important than the end of result. This is the essence of photosketching.

Images heavily influenced by Siskind’s deceptively simple black and white work documenting observed graphic marks and tarmac juxtapositions created from the 1950’s until his death in 1991 are to be seen all over the Instagram platform. As are images echoing the pioneering abstract expressionist colour work of photographer of Saul Leiter (1923-2013). Leiter adopted a similar approach to his image making to Siskind, walking, observing and capturing his images with a similar fascination with the process of image making within self-imposed aesthetic and geographical parameters. An interesting aspect of both of these photographers work is their relationship with painting as both an influence and secondary form of creative expression. However, despite the proliferation of images on Instagram referencing their work I do not believe that the majority of these images have been or are being created with the knowledge of these photographers work or their process’s, it is the smart phone as tool for image capture that is leading the process and form of documentation.

The photographer Ernst Haas (1921-1986) was an early pioneer in the experimental use of colour film that bridged the divide between commissioned photojournalism and more experimental self-expressive work. Hass is a photographer rarely discussed or sighted as an influence these days and yet he was the first photographer to be the sole subject of an exhibition of colour photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1962. A reassessment of his large body of work instantly reveals his influence on today’s Instagram photographers. Vivid, saturated colour, controlled blur, graphic abstract composition and the documentation of urban daily life all feature in Hass’s images. Created on film but just as dynamic and relevant to today’s photographic visual culture as they were when they were created over fifty years ago. However, where Hass was experimenting with chemical boundaries and the limitations of analogue reproduction today the effects he mastered are easily achievable with the swipe of a finger to the left or right of an inbuilt post-production filter. It is this ease of achievement that I feel has seen the work of these photographers become so relevant and yet unrecognized in its influence.

Where the photographers I have discussed so far have been experimental in their image making and influence from a contextual and technical perspective it is within the informal storytelling approach of photographers such as Robert Frank (1924-), Stephen Shore (1947-), William Eggleston (1939-) and Lee Freidlander (1934-) that we can find the visual narrative foundation for the Instagram photographer.

The ability to record the everyday, the domestic and the urbane with an aesthetic looseness and creative awareness is central to the work created and still being created by these photographers. Their approach has always been that of the observer, voyeur, documentarian and in the case of Freidlander specifically the self-chronicler. The smart phone is of course the perfect tool for creating work based on these fundamental aspects of visual storytelling. However, where once this work relied upon grants, bursaries, commissions or independent financial security to be made today the financial concerns behind creating such work have been removed. Just as the technical and compositional aspects of experimentation have been simplified through the smart phones algorithms, the democratic ability to create digital files without an attached expense has given the photographer freedom to tell whatever stories they wish within a single image, in short form or long form narrative. This democratization of photography has seen a proliferation of personal projects and bodies of work being created bringing stories big and small, intimate and expansive to a wider audience than could ever have been achieved previously with analogue technology.

The art of photosketching is based on the principles, ideas and processes that these photographers pioneered throughout the last century. The difference today is that where once the opportunity to work in this way was available to few and seen only by those who chose to seek it out, today these ways of working and seeing are being adopted by many and being seen by a global audience. It is the sheer number of people experimenting with photographic language, which is taking photography into new and unchartered areas of understanding. This leaves the professional photographer in an interesting and challenging position in how to define themselves as photographers? My answer to this dilemma is to focus on the two specific requirements a photographer must have to develop, evolve and succeed, these are the abilities to be consistent in their image making and to be able to craft and deliver visual narratives. These are not abilities that can be easily learnt and just as an artist sees their work as an explorative progression so the photographer has to understand the importance of a similar process of visual exploration that feeds into a final image or body of work.

During a discussion concerning the moving image functionality now incorporated into most still cameras a New York based photographer said to me “Why wouldn’t I use it? It’s another way in which I can be creative” the logic of this statement is of course obvious and yet his openness to new technology being a key to his own creativity is surprisingly rare amongst photographers. This is not surprising to me if you view photography within an historic context. The success of a photographer as a photographer has too often been based upon the perceived success of a single image or selection of single images rarely as a body of work in which we consider the photographer’s work process’s, contact sheets, workbooks, research, influences and perhaps most importantly his visual experimentation outside of his or her recognized area of practice. If we change the way in which photographic images are created then we must also change the way in which they are seen and read. The process by which the images have been created now provides the context for their creation and the ‘back story’ to the aesthetic and narrative decisions made in their completion. In the case of photosketching both the smart phone and the Instagram platform inform these decisions.

However, it is important to keep in mind that the creation of a personal visual language is led by process but not controlled by it and that a digital visual language is enabled by technology but should never be dictated by it. Life experience and passion are the driving forces behind the creation of a personal visual language and as photography enters into a new landscape of understanding and intention it is essential for the professional photographer to not become seduced by the surface possibilities available to them whilst ignoring the fundamental truths of powerful storytelling and image making. It is often stated that everyone is a photographer today and that this is a negative situation for photography and photographers to find themselves in, but would we describe all those who can write as authors? Authors are masters of language as artists are masters of their process, professional photographers can and should learn from both of these practices. The smart phone and Instagram are the tools that can help photographers achieve this.

© Grant Scott 2015

  1. […] This article very much appealed to me. I have not done nearly enough ‘sketching’ as a photographer and remember having the same block when I first started properly drawing and painting. I was so afraid to produce something that people would not think was good: “what if someone sees this and I am revealed as a fake?”. Those insecurities linger but are much weaker now. Keith Greenhough mentioned how he used his iPhone to scope out sites for his ‘Lifting the Curtain’ project and that inspired me to do more. The convergence of tech encourages this – we have great cameras in our pockets at all times and platforms such as Instagram to share explorations. There is really no excuse. […]

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