I’ve spoken and written often about the value of looking at different art forms as a way to expand your “visual literacy.” This starts by understanding that photography is based on a visual language that when properly used, helps us communicate effectively with the viewer.
An analogy I often use is that the best way to become a better writer is to read widely. Stephen King says it best: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
And similar to the way reading different types of books expands your vocabulary, looking at many different types of photographs will also expand your visual vocabulary. You’ll start to see how various visual elements are used over and over again to convey an emotion or message to the viewer. Contrasting colors, negative space, tonal variation, or directional lines that make it easy to identify the center of interest; all of these are parts of the visual language that will become easier to identify and use in your own work the more you see them used in other images.
As you build your visual vocabulary, you’ll become more and more literate, and that’s what I mean by building your visual literacy. This is really important when it comes to evaluating your own work and dealing with criticism from others. While feedback is critically important, it’s equally important to get to a stage where you feel confident that you’ve used the language properly and effectively.
That doesn’t mean that others opinions aren’t valid, but there’s a difference between an image that doesn’t quite work and an image that works but isn’t for everyone. In fact, all great images aren’t for everyone. The stronger the statement, the more it reflects the photographer’s personality and vision, which is subjective. That alone will make the image different from the mediocre, and usually, that means some will like it and some will not.
So how do you gain the ability to produce work that is good and personal? According to the great book Brain Apps by Robert G. Best, one proven way is by cultivating a deep well of domain knowledge; the breadth and depth of your familiarity with the art and craft of photography. And this is where analogous thinking comes into the picture.
In the book, Best explains that all creative acts aren’t born from spontaneous epiphanies, but rather from the sum total of one’s domain knowledge in a given field. Think of any creative genius and when you dig deeper beyond the folklore, you’ll see someone toiling for years to learn and hone their skills leading to that famous breakthrough.
Whether that was da Vinci, Einstein or Mozart, their creative genius was really built from years of dedicated practice; they did their homework and mastered their field. One of their secrets was combining and adapting ideas from as many sources as possible. They didn’t segregate their learning, but instead copied and re-combined from as many sources as possible to create new connections, new ideas, and new solutions to creative problems.
In that sense, creativity can be thought of as taking existing ideas that seem non-related and combining them in ways that didn’t exist before. We borrow or steal from what exists and recombine it into something new and interesting. This is the basis of analogous thinking, whereby we use what already exists in related fields to help us reimagine something we’re trying to achieve.
When it comes to landscape photography, the most direct way I know to do this is through the study of great painting. It’s directly analogous to photography since the language is so similar. It uses a two-dimensional surface to recreate what see and feel, and it also strives to convey what is most elusive; the feel of light and atmosphere.
Painters realized centuries ago that interpretation of nature was the only way to convey what they felt—simplification and symbolism would be the basis of their language. Trying to capture all of nature’s essence is simply impossible for the painter, so they developed shortcuts through analogies and impressions that communicate the same ideas.
Yet as photographers, our cameras can indeed capture it all, with ever more detail and complexity. But does that translate to better communication? I think we know the answer, which is why we struggle with simplifying our images. Ansel knew that as well, which is why we still revere his graphic black and white images that tend towards the abstract rather than the literal.
Simplification is the key and painters can be our great teachers in this regard. This is not about trying to make your photographs look like paintings. It’s more about learning how they composed their images and how they used the visual language to communicate their feelings. You borrow and recombine ideas they used and apply them in a related medium.
How does this look in practice? Here are some suggestions.
- Study the great landscape painters that had to learn how to convey what they were experiencing in nature. They interpreted nature to convey light, drama, emotion, and symbolism with exceptional composition. Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher Durand, Albert Bierstadt, Ivan Shishkin are some names to get you started.
- Study impressionistic and abstract painting to help you reduce your reliance on photographing things, and increase your awareness of shapes, colors, lines, and how they work together to form a cohesive visual statement. Great painters to start with include Monet, Seurat, and O’Keefe.
- There are many “virtual museum” apps, but I love Art Authority, which will let you search and study paintings from these and many other artists. Wikipedia’s landscape painting entry is also a great resource.
- Visit museums to experience artwork physically rather than virtually—it’s worth the investment in time. You’ll see and experience artwork on a much higher level, and that translates to deepening your visual vocabulary.
- To go even deeper, read a book on composition from a painters perspective. It won’t teach you how to use a brush but will give you a totally different way to think about composition that will translate directly to the camera.
The lasting benefit comes when you invest the time to think and study analogously, increase your domain knowledge, and recombine what you learn to make better and more personal images.
Below are some of my favorites (at least today!)