Heels? On a sofa? – that photo of Kellyanne Conway

So, today I saw the photo of Kellyanne Conway, Counsellor to the President, kneeling on a sofa in the Oval Office, while guests were gathered to meet POTUS. Apparently, this has caused something of a stir. I don’t really care about whether she was wearing heels. I was more interested in the photo itself.

My initial reaction was that KAC looked a little like a bored or disinterested teenager does when their parents invite complete strangers round. She’s focused on her mobile phone, seemingly oblivious to large group of people gathered around her. 

That sparked a thought in my mind, about photos and their ability to ‘tell a story’, and how often that ‘story’ can be a misrepresentation.

I think this photo is fascinating in many respects. KAC’s pose is intriguing enough, but look at the whole room. It’s a large depth of field, trying to bring POTUS  into focus amongst a sizeable number of people. I don’t know how tall POTUS is, but he seems to be dwarfing those right next to him. That makes little difference, because the perspective of the shot makes those (mainly men) standing in the foreground much larger, effectively dwarfing POTUS. If the intent of the layout was to make POTUS seem like the central figure, this shot undermines that effect. Even without KAC in the foreground, there’s plenty to take attention away from POTUS. There is a type of golden triangle effect, drawing  the eye towards POTUS, the way he’s stood at the end of the two channels of people, but he’s so distant the impact is underwhelming.

I’m curious about what purpose there was to surround POTUS with women in the background, and keep men in the foreground – if any. The men, and KAC, dominate in a big way. With some of the men looking at KAC, it’s effectively turned her into the main subject. 

There’s a funny casualness about KAC’s position on the sofa. Very much at home and relaxed. In that respect, it does bring a slightly less formal atmosphere to one of the most formal political rooms in the world. 

I’m sure the media and Twitter discourse is focused on that casual positioning and with vaguely sexist undertones, her heels, but for me this is a story of context. In the linked article there’s a second shot as she’s lining up to take a photo with her phone. The context of the image becomes clear; she was in the process of setting up a camera shot on her phone. From the angle, it was probably easier to take that shot from level of the sofa than standing up. 

I find this a useful examination of the subjectivity of photos. Not all of them tell the story we think they do. People’s perceptions of the subject matter as well. Would people have had the same reaction to this photo if it were Michelle Obama? Ultimately, I think the message I get from this photo, it’s story, is one of casualness. Something about KAC’s posture suggests a familiarity about the Oval Office, whatever she was actually doing in that moment. Compare that to the formality of the men around her. It paints a telling scene for the observer, at a glance, of an arena normally so difficult to describe succinctly with words. This of course is what photos manage to do.

Photography desire

So, the other day, while on my daily commute home, I had cause to take the train home since I had missed the various buses home. I decided it was quicker to take the train rather than wait for the next bus.

On stepping out of the train at Perth station I had a view of the concrete block next to the art gallery. It was fading light, and normally the bland concrete would simply blend with the dull steel grey of the darkening sky. This time though, sunset light fell upon the building and delivered sharp contrast and lines against the background. The building was transformed under the orange glow, and simple concrete turned into vibrant urban visage.

At the time, I was moving quickly to get to my next train, only had iPhone on hand – at that distance a hopeless task of photography. The thought that occurred to me was along the lines of wanting a camera lens (and obviously camera) to get the shot. The actual words in my mind were ‘that’s the kind of view I want to make love to with a camera lens.’

…sigh. Yes, weird. 

Setting aside the distinction between badly chosen words and paraphilia, it has in fact opened my mind to a new realisation, about my passion for photography. This last year has been about writing, setting time aside to work on writing projects. I even delayed my degree by a year to do this, but the principle casualty has been photography. It’s not that I have lost interest, or passion, but time I might take for trips and camera walks, has been set aside for literary pursuits. 

I still love photography, but seeing that building reminded of desire. The desire to capture a moment on frame, whether it be film or digital. It is refreshing to be reminded of a core passion, and that moment it was about pure desire to take a photo. 

I’ve still got the love.

The photography passion and inspiration

I was very pleased to discover last night a video from YouTube I had long thought lost. It’s a slideshow of slightly blurry black and white images set to the music of Mazzy Star’s Into Dust.

I first came across this video years ago while searching for Into Fust on YouTube. I loved the video. The abstract nature of the photography really appealed to me. I was probably already playing around with the idea of taking up photography at the time, but this video cemented for me the idea of photos being inspirational.

Of course, I know that photos can inspire, but what I mean is that this helped me realise how photography can inspire me. For an interest to become a passion, there has to be a spark in what you’re doing. The difference between performing a task, and being driven to achieve something great.

I don’t fancy my photography sits in the realm of the greatest photographers, but I like to think that I’ve taken decent shots here and there. It’s fascinating to think about the things that inspire, that set you free to explore. All great passions are exploration, and I have loved this journey since the outset. So enjoy the video, and think about what could inspire your passion.

Telling a story

What is the purpose of a photo? Is it to tell a story? I don’t mean as an optional, I mean as a general characteristic. Are landscapes stories? Selfies? Abstract Neo-feminist cubism? (I may have made that last one up – I will google later to see if that exists).

Seriously though, I have seen some interesting photos unduly hampered by the descriptive that it tells a story, or, worse still, that a photo has failed to convey a positive impression but it lacks sufficient narrative.

I tend to take more abstract shots. Often landscapes and urban street shots, but generally my preference is for abstract. It’s never been my intention to tell a story through the casual manipulation of angle, light and framing of subject matter. At least, not deliberately. 

I’m cutting this blog post short as I struggle to catch up on some writing. I am woefully behind on my intended word count and so need a little catch up. 

Follow this link here for a bit more about story telling 

I am a cliche

Photo cliches can be annoying, but in some way they are an integral part of the learning process.

I saw this YouTube video the other day, about photography cliches. On looking at the list, I am glad to say that I am only guilty of 11 out of 25 (I don’t sign or watermark my photos – duck that’s annoying). It’s comforting to see that I don’t completely fail an arbitrary list of cliches.

Not that I mean to be critical – I agree with the blogger. Maybe not arbitrary; subjective is perhaps a better word. And in a good way subjective. 

If I were to add anything to the list it would be photos of your own shadow (guilty!). That was probably going out of fashion, but then I noticed that a Vivian Maier photo of her own shadow was heavily publicised, so I can only imagine shadow photos are making a come back. Also, using film for the sake of using film – that’s another cliche. The artistic quality comes purely from the fact the photo is on film and not a memory card. Yep, guilty as charged.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the list.

Photo cliches. Why do they happen? Lack of artistic integrity? Crappy photographers? Actually no, I don’t think so. I happen to think I have both integrity and am a good photographer. Yet I still cliche from time to time.

Cliches exist because they have been done so often. The photo subject matter is popular, so people want to be popular. If it works, why fix it? It’s a bit like a company using the same slogan ad infinitum into cliche. It works; it’s familiar and safe. Newbie photographers are more likely to adopt this approach – entering the field and lacking confidence. It is better to fall back on tried and tested. I used to do that a lot, because I wasn’t really sure what else I should be doing.

Sunset photos (6 on the list) are particularly prone to this. People like them. I like them. Why not offer people something they want?

Another reason for cliche is the fault of professional photography (by this, I mean those whose primary income comes from photography). Obviously, I don’t mean all pro’s, but rather the abstract collective sense. Professional photography is based around things like weddings, babies, pets, that type of thing. There is scope for artistic variation to be sure, but the expectation will be for some standard bride, groom and respective parents/in-laws shot; smiling baby; dog with head on owners lap etc. Technical aspects become very important and expectations exist. Even the equipment is vital – imagine everyone’s face if you started taking wedding photos solely with a Holga, and a Polaroid using Impossible Project film…(oh my god, someone do that!).

Technical aspects. Professional lessons have a lot of blame here. Their lessons are almost always based on technical aspects of photography rather than artistic expressionism. I know they might not feel that is their responsibility, it is in the power of the photographer after all, but in a photography world that harks on about the ‘pro’ standard, it is easy to forget the creative variance critical to photography as an art form.

This brings us to the central issue. 99% of photos are crap. Rubbish. Useless. Ancillary at best. To find those golden 1% is difficult. I don’t mean out there in the world – there are amazing photographers out there that blow my mind. What I mean is in the photographer themself. Most photos taken will be ‘meh’, some good, a few great, and just one or two that make you catch your breath. Perhaps it’s just me.

To get that high standard of artistic expression consistently is difficult. So it becomes easier to opt for cliche. I know fully well I am taking a cliche shot when I take one – indeed, sometimes it is a tongue in cheek thing. I do it because the opportunity is there and they are an easy means of communication (the beauty of smartphones and social media). Selfie’s for example, like the one I took for this post, are partly for effect, but also for benefit of family and friends living in other continents.

Having said that, my own creative zest seemed to be heading into cliche (at least that’s how it felt), hence my recent hiatus from digital.  It’s about creative discipline – thinking more in the moment and worrying less about the technical aspects. 

Cliches have a place, they really do (remember, popular), but it is vital to distinguish between technical versatility, and artistic expression. The former you can be shown, the latter comes from within. But even that bit of Karate Kid wisdom is a cliche. 

Maybe just fuck it. Take some photos, and go for broke.