This month, NYIP Associate Dean Jerry Rice has written the Photo of the Month Review. Jerry’s keen eye can help readers decipher any type of photograph. A lifelong lover of fine photography, when Jerry talks about photographs, everyone at NYIP listens. We know you’ll enjoy Jerry’s observations on this month’s photograph.
At NYIP we teach our students a simple Three-Step Method for setting up every photograph they shoot:
- Step 1. Know your subject.
- Step 2. Focus attention on your subject.
- Step 3. Simplify.
This simple Three-Step Method is the secret of every successful photograph ever taken. We teach our students to consider these three steps every time they look into the viewfinder. To consider them before they press the shutter button.
When our students mail in their photographs for analysis by their instructor, the instructor starts by commenting on what we call the three Guidelines. Of course, the instructor analyzes other elements of the picture too — focus, exposure, filters, etc. But the key to every good photo — and the essential element of every great photo — is adherence to these three Guidelines.
How do they work? How can you apply them? It’s beyond the scope of this Web site to teach you every nuance, but you will get an inkling from the Photo of the Month Analysis that follows.
Photo by NYIP Graduate Gloria Restrepo
But that is not to say that this month’s photographer, NYIP Graduate Gloria Restrepo of Medellin, Colombia, was deliberately trying to copy the work of Dorothea Lange. It is hardly possible to make a photograph that has not been made many times before by other photographers. As it says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Raphael spent countless hours studying (and possibly copying) the works of other artists. Each, of course, brought his own inimitable touch to their creations.
So what do we learn about this man in the photograph? Of course, our judgment can only be based on visual observation — what we actually see in the photograph. There is nothing else to suppose, evaluate, guess at, or what-have-you. When I evaluate student photographs I am often struck by the verbal assertions that accompany the pictures — statements about the child’s innocence, the veteran’s patriotism, the old woman’s valor, etc. But the point is that the student is describing verbally inner emotions or characteristics. That is impossible. In a photograph you can only show what is visible, not what is buried deep in the heart, the soul, the brain, or even the big toe. You can only show what can be actually seen; all the rest is supposition and sometimes vivid imagination.
Back to the photograph in question. I think it is a picture of a man, but I am not certain because the facial features are hidden. The hat seems to be that of a man’s, but in South America, women are often seen wearing a man’s hat. The clothing, including the hat, suggests poverty, but there are eccentric millionaires (Howard Hughes, e.g.) who often appeared as ragamuffins. The hands and fingernails are dirty, but we do know whether this might be the result of hard physical labor or merely the lack of the wherewithal to keep clean. Once again, we can only go by what is seen, not what we suppose. Looks are often deceiving.
And what else do the hands suggest? Fatigue, the person is cat napping. Shame, the person does not want us to see the dire poverty. Fear, the hand blocks the sight of impending danger. And so forth and so on. But all of these things are in our minds; we do not actually see these conditions, do we?
There is always a risk in photographing a person of this sort. Are we, for example, intruding on one’s privacy? Are we, without intending to do harm, exploiting this person’s apparently down trodden condition? Are we placing ourselves in some imagined superior position, for we could just as easily photograph a well-dressed millionaire exiting from his splendid yacht?
These are questions that all photographers should ask themselves if we are to be honest. Of course, honesty in photography goes with the territory (as we all know, don’t we). To prove that honesty abounds in photography, consider Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima. When Rosenthal got to the peak of Mt. Suribachi the flag has already been raised and was hanging limply from the flagpole; several Marines were sitting on the ground, smoking. But the photographer restaged the photograph with the flag waving rapidly in the breeze and several Marines struggling valiantly to raise it. Of such fakery Pulitzer Prizes are won!
Or take Karsh’s famous photograph of a truculent Winston Churchill defying the Axis powers. You’d be truculent and angry too, if the photographer had unceremoniously yanked your expensive cigar out of your mouth, but Karsh got the picture he wanted.Or how about NYIP’s most famous alumnus, the great W. Eugene Smith? Take some of the pictures Smith made at his hospital in Africa. One in particular shows Dr. Schweitzer surrounded by workers, all in sunlight. But for dramatic effect Smith added some silhouetted hands of other workers to give the photograph a black foreground in order to highlight the main subject, Schweitzer. In other words, the silhouetted hands were not in the original photograph.
So much for honesty in photography.
How did Gloria Restrepo, the photographer, utilize the three NYIP Guidelines? The subject matter is obviously of a strong nature. To focus attention on the subject Restrepo used the hands to hide the face, used the hands also to form a frame, worked in black-and-white which in itself is a form of abstraction, and threw the background out of focus in order to emphasize the person. And she simplified the picture by admirably filling the frame with the subject. That business of filling the frame appears too infrequently in student pictures.