Photo By Barry Schwartz

For Photographers And Writers A Good Story Is A Virtuous Circle

It might go like this: a photographer makes a photo for themselves, not on assignment, and posts it online.

A photo buyer sees it and shows it to their client. The image suggests a solution for a story they want to tell to the client’s customers.  They hire the photographer to further develop that story.

Here is the circle: the photographer > the art buyer > the art buyer’s client > the client’s customer and back around to the photographer who makes a picture, the art buyer who puts the picture in an ad, and onto the client’s customer: the viewer.

So now when the photographer is making a photo, instead of just doing it for themselves, they are being paid to please a specific audience. This does not preclude pleasing themselves, of course, which is where they started. They got hired because of their voice.

All creative works project a voice, good or bad, practiced or accidental, focused or aimless. Good photographs obey the same mandate as good writing: clarity, nuance, and detail. Clarity makes it easy to to understand. Nuance gives it depth. Detail makes it relatable. Voice.

A photographer’s professional writing may be non-fiction: a bio on a website, a letter of introduction to a potential client, a caption for an editorial photo, a blog post about recent work. It might also be fiction: text applied to a storyboard to explain a concept that illustrates a story they want to sell to an art buyer.

Voice develops from intention: Is the writing simply to please yourself?  Is the writing to sell yourself?  Is it to sell a concept?  Is it to document what happened while a photo was being made to enable an editor to write descriptive text?  Clarity, nuance, and detail: voice supports the story and story supports the voice. It’s a shortcut to meaning. Good writing – like a good photo – is not reductive, it does not have to clarify every little thing. It’s more personal for the reader to make the leap, and they’ll feel more engaged.

Engagement comes in myriad forms. While it’s a poor communications strategy to make a reader to feel stupid, there is nothing wrong with making them look up a definition.  John McPhee is widely considered a writer’s writer, on staff at The New Yorker (arguably the most well-written magazine in the country) for over fifty years, a Pulitzer Prize winner, still going strong in his 80s, and there are words in every article that make me reach for a dictionary. His writing is so irresistible I don’t care, his voice so seductive I had to cure myself of trying to copy it. He doesn’t use those unfamiliar words to impress.  He uses them because they are the best words he can find. He is a craftsman.

People respond to McPhee’s writing like they respond to a good photo. There is a compelling personality projecting his stories. (It does not hurt he sounds like a guy you’d want to have a drink with.) It gets under your skin. Good work is the result of the work that goes into it and McPhee’s writing is specific to him: clarity, nuance, and detail: his voice.