How Important is the ‘Story’ to a Fine Art Photograph? (Podcast Episode 65)

How Important is the ‘Story’ to a Fine Art Photograph? (Podcast Episode 65)

In this episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast, we ponder this question: How important is a story to the making of a fine art photograph?

This majestic old tree is the one I discuss in the podcast when citing examples of unexpected stories that can be discovered about photography subjects, even landscapes.
This majestic old tree is the one I discuss in the podcast when citing examples of unexpected stories that can be discovered about photography subjects, even landscapes. Black and white photograph by Keith Dotson. Buy a fine art print.

Fine Art Photography Podcast: full episode transcript

In this episode: How Important is the ‘Story’ to Fine Art Photography?

Intro music

Welcome back to another episode of the Fine Art Photography Podcast. In this episode, I want to ask this question: How important is a story to the making of a fine art photograph?

First, I want to give a shout out to Frank, who I had the pleasure of meeting recently for a long talk about photography, and part of what we talked about was how to bring story into the practice of photography. He is a heckuva nice guy and our chat inspired me to think more deeply about this for this episode.

We’ve all heard that age-old axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words. And periodically I hear photographers talk about how they composed their photograph to tell a story. They’ll say something like “the fog in the treetops helps tell the story of the old, abandoned mill” — that’s a made-up example, but you get the idea.

To be honest, I never really understood that. In my mind, a picture alone cannot tell a story. It can help tell a story but a photograph is just a slice of time, a fraction of a second, an isolated episode. How can that really tell a story?
Even in photo-journalism, where the very best images are darn compelling and can definitely enhance or even spawn many stories, is it really possible to tell a story in a photograph?

In his recent book See/Saw: Looking at Photographs, art critic Geoff Dyer claims that Garry Winogrand insisted a single photograph had no narrative ability. He said in a photo, you can’t tell if a man is putting on his hat or taking it off.

That’s such a great example of what I mean.

And to be clear, I’m not saying all fine art photographs need a story. Many photographs exist solely to be mysterious. Others seem to ask a question that maybe has no answer. Some photographs exist solely to be beautiful. Others just give you a mood or a vibe.

There are millions of photographs and they each have their own reason for existing.

If you don’t need or want a story built around your photographs — that’s OK! 

For my photography practice, a lot of my subject matter is more satisfying if it’s supported by a story, and in my way of thinking, there are two ways to do that. One is a series of photographs that explore a subject more fully from various viewpoints, and the other is by composing a written or verbal narrative around the photograph as I want it to be told.

Some photographs provoke you to create your own stories in your mind. The beautiful fantasy photographs of Kirsty Mitchell do that for me. Have you seen her work? She creates elaborate costumes often using plants and flowers, then stages portraits in natural settings. Her models look like goddesses or fairies. But a big part of Kirsty Mitchell’s story-telling is in how she makes the photographs, She makes behind-the-scenes videos showing her process and they are just spell-binding. And she sells books!

I admire photographers like Kirsty Mitchell who can make photography interesting to watch. Let’s face it, photography is fun to do, but as an activity, it’s not much more exciting than watching golf or watching paint dry. It’s dull. (nothing personal to you golf fans out there).

Yet, there is a retinue of photographers on YouTube who have found ways to entertain us as they take photographs.

These photographers are good at telling the story in the field as they shoot. They’re great at improvising the story and they are often educational as well. Frankly, I don’t always like the photographs they take, but it doesn’t matter — they are masterful storytellers and in many cases, the story is the thing. 

Before we get too far into this, maybe we should define the word Story … 

Definition of story according to Merriam Webster:

  • an account of incidents or events
  • a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question or anecdote, especially an amusing one
  • a fictional narrative shorter than a novel, specifically : SHORT STORYb: the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work

Dictionary dot com says a story is a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.

Lisa Cronn wrote a book called Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. She said, “A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.” (Medium)

Here are seven elements writers use to shape a story. They may not all apply to us, but it’s good to know. The seven elements of story are:

  • Setting.
  • Characters.
  • Plot.
  • Conflict.
  • Resolution.
  • Point of View.
  • Theme.

Several years ago I began researching some of the abandoned places I had photographed. It was mostly out of curiosity, but I also needed the information for the purposes of writing titles and descriptions on my website. I was really looking for basics — just enough to help me achieve those simple goals.

Over time, I realized that there was much more to it. I began to understand that there was much more dramatic information to be gleaned from some of these buildings. As an artist making black and white photographs, why would I work so hard on making a compelling photograph, and not try to tell the backstory in the most compelling, dramatic, poignant way possible.

For myself, a story supports the photograph by giving it context and allowing people to understand the significance of what they’re seeing in the image. And hopefully my photograph helps the narrative by adding a unique artist’s vision to it. Remember, for me, I’m making quote-unquote fine art photography, so I’m not always trying to document a scene so much as I’m interpreting the scene. So, I want the story to help push along my reasons for making the art. Sometimes I want the words to be more poetic or abstract. Sometimes, they are a straight-up set of facts, if that’s what it calls for.

I tell stories about the photographs I take because I think the context matters. Quite often there’s a very interesting backstory. It might be something interesting in the history of the subject matter, or it might be a quirky thing that happened on the day of the shoot, or it might be some personal frame of reference from my own life or viewpoint that caused me to zero-in on that particular subject matter.

In the end, I want viewers to identify with the photograph. And if they buy a print, I want them to have a little extra satisfaction in knowing the story behind it. I like the idea of a photograph in a collector’s home being a potential conversation piece. While the framed print on the wall may keep some of its secrets, perhaps the collector would enjoy sharing its story with friends gathered in their home for a get-together.

So now, let me give you an example of all the story-possibilities from one photograph that I made several years ago. It’s a photograph of a gnarly old tree that I just loved. The photograph was made in winter time, so the twisty branches are barren, and it stands above windswept tussles of tall grass. I make black and white photographs so in this image, the tree is very dark, almost solid black silhouetted against a white winter sky, and the windswept yellow grass makes a bright contrast. The tree stands on a hill overlooking a river. You might not think there’d be much to say about a tree on a hilltop, but sometimes there’s more than meets the eye.

I live in the American South — which as you may know, is still rather obsessed with the Civil War, and there are a lot of Civil War parks all around. Some like Chickamauga, in Chattanooga, Tennessee are vast. Others are quite small, just a historical marker and a little bit of land where a battle or something happened.

So this tree that I described earlier, stands over a small family cemetery on land that once was a farm. There are a couple of small broken headstones there. The farmer had died in the 1850s, leaving his wife and a passel of small children to manage the farm. The bodies were buried under the tree in the 1850s, and the farm was overrun by soldiers in 1862. A ferocious battle took place all around this tree, which you can see is quite old — it predates the 1850s cemetery. It not only stood guard over the small family plot, but it also witnessed a ferocious battle.

In one account of the battle that I read, it was nearing dusk, which in those days typically meant no more fighting for the night. Some Union troops had found a chicken, certainly the property of the farmer’s wife — the wife of the same farmer who was lying in the Earth under the tree — and were putting it into a pot over a fire, when they were called to arms. Apparently, the Confederate soldiers on the opposite banks of the river had decided to make an ill-advised evening raid.

A ferocious battle ensued. The Union side on the hilltop had the advantage of higher ground, and they had cannons. It’s said that cedar trees exploded all around from the cannon fire, amidst the cries of fear and screams of injured men. It wasn’t a long battle, but disastrous for the attackers trying to cross the river. Afterwards, the Union soldiers returned to eat their chicken still stewing over the fire.

All of that happened on the now quiet and peaceful ground surrounding this old cemetery tree.
But there’s even more.

It’s believed that this same tree was used even before that, as a landmark for early settlers and travelers, and as a marker for land surveyors. 

That’s a lot of fodder for story telling. Suddenly this gnarly old cripple of a tree takes on epic, even legendary status in my mind. It’s a survivor, a witness. I discovered all of this background from research and detective work. After the research, the task becomes shaping the story into something clear, concise, and compelling. Remember from before, one of the elements of storytelling is theme, and another is point of view.  I think those two elements work closely together. What’s your point of view and how does it shape the over-arching theme? 

By the way, Sadly, the tree was lost a few years ago. A winter storm caused a severe split in the trunk, and it had to be taken down. Just a wide, flat, low disk of a trunk remains there today, next to two or three small old headstones.

Now, admittedly, that’s a very special case. Not all landscapes have such readily available stories, but you won’t know unless you do the research. I’ve had much more luck finding stories about abandoned buildings, where there’s often a goldmine of detail to be learned about the building, about the people who lived there, or about the community-at-large.

One caveat — try to verify your facts before publishing! I have been called out many times by locals in Pamplin City Virginia, telling me that my facts are wrong about some of the buildings in Pamplin’s abandoned old downtown strip. Blog posts are easy to revise, but YouTube videos are not so easy once published.

One final section to this and I’ll leave you to think about stories for your own photographs. Once you have a story about a photograph, where or how do you tell it?

For me, I tell these stories in a variety of venues.

I tell very short portions on the portfolio pages on my website.

I tell much fuller stories on my blog, where I can include not only my final black and white photography, but also behind the scenes snapshots or video as appropriate.

I tell some of these stories on YouTube, where you can offer a very different kind of context. Often my videos are recorded at the time the photo is made, so people can see the context of the scenario for themselves, but you could do that in other ways. A video could be you, sitting in your studio, telling the story while you hold a print in your hands. The possibilities are endless — make it your own style.

And sometimes, I tell the stories to you here on my podcast.

By the way, earlier I mentioned the book See / Saw — that’s See slash Saw — the Geoff Dyer book. It’s worth reading if you enjoy reading about photographs. He’s a respected critic and he’s written about photography for years. His essay on Vivian Maier doesn’t quite give her the proper due in my opinion, but he writes with a viewpoint, so it might be helpful if you want to see how it’s done. I’ll put an Amazon link in the write-up for this podcast.

Or check with your public library — his name is spelled G-E-O-F-F  D-Y-E-R.

Anyways I hope you found this helpful or interesting. That’s all I’ve got for this episode.Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Sources and Links: “Story.

Dyer, Geoff. See/Saw: Looking at Photographs. Graywolf Press. Minneapolis. 2021. Pg 14.

Instagram. Kirsty Mitchell. 

Medium. “What is a Story? The best definition of story I’ve ever heard, and how to use it to help your writing.” Catherine Lee.

Merriam Webster. Definition of Story.

NOTE: Contains Amazon Affiliate links. I may earn a small commission on qualifying purchases.

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