Photo-Philosophy

Are All My Photographs Failures? – By Frank H. Wu

Fire escape, shot on Ilford HP5 pushed to 1600, with a Zeiss Planar 45mm lens on a Contax G2

My photos fail to tell a story. I was talking to an NYU professor of photography, among other subjects, who is expert in teaching his students to tell a story. He allows them eight frames to do so. This fellow is so successful that some of his undergraduates have been hired by major media companies, straight out of college, to tell stories. It is a rare skill.

Chatting with him prompted me to consider whether I ought to give it a try. As a lawyer, and more generally an advocate for various causes, I long ago realized that stories are more compelling than facts, except to people who train themselves to be objective, and even they despite themselves likely will be influenced by the background narrative. In giving a speech, it is the anecdote that engages an audience, more than data whether recited or shown visually.

Photos are even more powerful. Thus the cliched formula of 1000 to 1, credited to newspaper editor Tess Flanders. People identify with other people. That is why we focus on the lone figure in the landscape. It is hardwired into us. They stand out against the vista.

The photos that we admire, most of the famous, iconic images, at least imply a story. They are about love, war, laughter, and suffering. They might not be clear. They may require our imagination to fill in.

Since Matthew Brady, whose Civil War battlefield images were the earliest photojournalism, continuing to the late Marie Colvin, who died under fire while covering contemporary combat, and beyond, heroes have sought to acquaint us with the brutal reality of military conflict. The Vietnam War produced shocking documentation that summarized complex stories even if taken from an invisible point of view. Public opinion on the home front turned on such indelible visuals as the execution in Saigon by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan of a Viet Cong sniper, Nguyen Van Lem, for which Eddie Adams won the 1969 Pulitzer. Defining and essential though it was, capturing the exact entry of the bullet into the head, Adams regretted it for the lack of context. As much as Lem might have been perceived as the victim, he was no innocent: he allegedly had assassinated one of Loan’s comrades, the man’s wife, and their children. General Loan retired to America, opening a restaurant in suburban Washington, D.C., always followed by the legacy of this single act.

Another was Napalm Girl, the title given the scene of children running, having been severely burned by the viscous incendiary, slightly to the left of center a naked, screaming Phan Thy Kim Phuc, for which Nick Ut won the 1973 Pulitzer. She survived and later defected to Canada. The domestic protest of the conflict was memorialized in the Kent State University massacre picture, featuring a teenage girl wailing over the body of one of four students shot by National Guard troops, for which John Filo won the 1970 Pulitzer. The widely published version was edited to remove a fence pole that appears to emerge from the woman’s head.

Peace has its own set of stories. Even a print that depicts nature, especially nature, is an account of how vast the world is, or how rapid or still the water is flowing, the change of seasons, or the effects of climate change. The penguin reminds us of us. The polar bear too.

We have to be able to impart meaning. It may be what we as a spectator bring. But it is there. Emptiness demands interpretation.

The photographer who has had the greatest effect on me is fictitious. In Three Days of the Condor, a paranoid thriller from the 1970s, Faye Dunaway plays Kathy. On the run and framed for a mass murder, Robert Redford, as a bookish intelligence analyst named Turner, takes her hostage. Given the genre, she has to fall for him, afflicted by Stockholm syndrome. She is a photographer whose walls are decorated by her own work: shots of Manhattan as winter is coming, literally and figuratively cold. They illustrate alienation.

I saw that movie on television when I was young. For whatever reason, as happens when you are a kid and impressionable, Dunaway’s style captivated me. Redford’s protagonist pauses to reflect on the black and white stills. He is perplexed by their ambiguous sentiment. I identified with the sense of isolation. Dunaway’s character was telling a story, not about her subject but about herself. The photographer was distant. She was an observer who was not a participant in the society surrounding her. That was not incidental. It explained her motivations in sympathizing with a fugitive.

My photos are about the technique. Some are abstractions. I am attracted to fire escapes, for example, because they display an intricate pattern of steps, typically contrasting with another intricate pattern of the building walls, or differing even further from a blank surface with subtle details. Or they cast shadows. That creates drama, a play of light and dark, even if it is of inanimate objects.

Some photos are portraits. They are close up mug shot style. They exhibit a modicum of emotion. But they are limited to a face staring out. There is no narrative.

I hesitate, however, to exploit the possibilities — or, more accurately, exploit the people around me — in street scenes. I work in a neighborhood that is not where tourists visit, the “Tenderloin,” in a city that is a most popular destination, San Francisco. There are many troubled souls around. There also are belligerent individuals. Some folks are both troubled and belligerent, depending on the stimuli and the circumstances. There is a high level of entrepreneurial activity that would not be considered quite legal. Probably the participants would prefer not to be recorded. That provides an abundance of stories to be told. There is the comic, the tragic, the strange, the maddening, and what defies categories. There is the ordinary and the unique, and those bits of reality that are sublime for being both mundane and special, the ephemeral that we try not only to preserve but also to present.

So I intend to assign myself a project. I will look for an appropriate opportunity. Some may just walk in front of me. Each of us must challenge ourselves to develop. That ultimately is the story of photography as it is of any art to be pursued.

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23 Comments

  • Reply
    Jay Jones
    December 2, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    Frank,
    You are a lawyer, you think like a lawyer & even write like a lawyer. It bores me to tears. I’ve read more than half a dozen of your pieces since signing up to the 35mmc newsletter, and after every encounter with your pieces, I always wonder why the bloody hell I just did that to myself. This comment probably won’t get posted by Hamish, but bugger me, please do try and be less anal about things in life, would you?!

    Cheers!

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      December 2, 2018 at 10:55 pm

      I don’t tend to sensor comments, even ones like these. I do find it odd when people comment on something in this way. If you don’t find Frank interesting, why continue to read his articles? See below for comments from people who do find enjoyment in Frank’s writing.

    • Reply
      Joe W
      December 3, 2018 at 7:16 am

      I agree with Jay. Frank, your articles are boring. You take a long time to get to the point. I have been reading articles for about a year on here and unfortunately, I keep thinking your articles might get better. Then someone like Jay confirms what I have been feeling. Sorry man. Your photos are interesting from time to time.

      • Reply
        Jay Jones
        December 9, 2018 at 10:31 pm

        Joe, spot on mate.
        Look, to each their own & Frank has his fans on here, and that’s great (truly), but I feel like I’m reading some kind of service agreement/terms & conditions document. What can be stated in a concise manner turns into some kind of aim to sound somewhat philosophical/intellectual and it doesn’t quite achieve that goal (to me anyway). You’re overthinking it sir. There’s nothing wrong with having goals & intentions with your photography, but try to also have some fun with it. It sounds to me like you try way too hard.
        Peace!

    • Reply
      Salim
      December 4, 2018 at 12:55 pm

      Dear Jay,

      How exactly does a lawyer think in a way that only a lawyer thinks unlike anyone else. Is thinking and writing in a careful, reflective, analytical way about photography, or for that matter the law, books, the price of bread what you mean by thinking and writing like a lawyer? And why would you want to exhort a complete stranger to you to be less anal. Why do you think your opinion that Frank should be less anal, assuming that he is, is of any interest to Frank or anybody else?

      I am a lawyer and I doubt that you are bored to tears. Anyone bored to tears would not find themselves able to read a half dozen pieces. I think you are compelled to read in stupefied incomprehension and it has resulted in this unseemly outpouring. I hope you can see what I have done here.

  • Reply
    Louis A. Sousa
    December 2, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    This is exactly the line of thinking I have about my own photographs. Maybe the deficit perceived is part of my own story…

  • Reply
    Graham Orbell
    December 2, 2018 at 7:48 pm

    I always enjoy your writing Frank, and this is no exception. The Viet Nam photos described are burned into my memory and were among the reasons I have visited that country twice. I have also read Kim Phuc’s biography which I recommend. I don’t get there very often but like you I enjoy wandering the streets of San Francisco with my camera, but any city where you happen to be has photo opportunities. I need to check out “Three days of the Condor”
    As for being a lawyer, I don’t hold it against you.
    Now I’m looking forward a really informative exciting narrative written by Jay Jones.

  • Reply
    christian thompson
    December 2, 2018 at 8:07 pm

    “Telling a story ” is emotional manipulation. I don’t believe that is the greatest goal for a photographer.
    Telling a personal truth is a much more compelling and satisfying aim.

  • Reply
    David B Haynie
    December 2, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    There are a million variations in photography, as in any other art form. Telling a story is critical to photojournalism, and might play out over a series of photos. But even those you site are single-shot photos and stories. Do you have any idea about the 35 other shots Nick Ut took on that day? I sure don’t, but the power of that one iconic photo us such that your simple mention of it conjured up the details of it in my mind.

    Story telling is a wonderful pursuit in any imaging, critical in photojournalism, but just one paint on the palette we all have in art photography. I don’t get a story from most of Ansel Adam’s photographs, but I am profoundly affected by them anyway.

  • Reply
    Thomas Weih
    December 2, 2018 at 8:19 pm

    I think a image can’t tell a story because a story needs a beginning (who, where, what), a middle (development of the plot to the dramatic highlight) and a end. A set of images can at least try to tell but in most, if not all, circumstances the story develops in the viewers mind and this in return hasn’t (and isn’t mostly) to be the same as the photographer was trying to capture or tell. In your eksempel of the general and the sniper you can see what I mean in perfection. With the background story of the murdered family it’s not longer only a story of war but also personal revenge.
    I think it’s a misunderstanding if one says photographs that don’t tell a story are “failures” or every good photo has to tell a story. We shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously.

  • Reply
    Samuel james
    December 3, 2018 at 1:19 am

    Thanks Frank,
    for me I’m not a natural ‘storyteller’ with images, I am more interested in atmospheres and forms that transcend everyday experience. Its also these days about being in the moment and capturing something special that couldn’t have been done with just an iPhone, so its about the medium as well. Many people also say that filmmaking needs to tell a story but I think that’s just popularism and influenced by people desperately needing to win film festival competitions. For me that’s not where the art is. I think abstracted form is potentially more interesting than storytelling. For me I think street photography is an old form that was revealing in the 20th Century, but today it is more intensely personal and indeed, many millions more people are doing it. Everyone has a unique view and we need not be obsessed about winning first prizes for an image as that is just an external judgement.

  • Reply
    David
    December 3, 2018 at 2:04 am

    I love photos that tell a story, though I find that very few of my own photos do. I think you have to work at it.
    In my sceptical age I think that most photographers who tell stories are really telling lies, but some good stories are full of lies.

  • Reply
    Bent_Brent
    December 3, 2018 at 5:22 am

    I hear you, Frank – I feel the same way about my photography. But photos are weird. For example, I really love looking at arbitrary photos taken a very long time ago in places that I know well. I found an envelope of everyday prints shot my my granddad in Cape Town in the 1960s. Love the cars, the storefronts, the fashions. Time has turned them into really interesting shots – and yes, given them a story of a different time.

    I guess my point is, don’t be too hard on yourself or your work. My photos are usually very disappointing to me on first view, but looking back, they grow on me.

  • Reply
    Jan Steinman
    December 3, 2018 at 8:25 am

    One of the things I learned in a brief stint in journalism school is to work “wide to tight” to help tell a story.

    I start with my widest angle lens or zoom setting, to establish a context within which further tight shots work. I then progress through tighter and tighter shots, until I have the primary subject nailed.

    Does this always “tell a story?” No. But it’s a tool you can use to help tell the story.

  • Reply
    Nick
    December 3, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Hi Frank,

    ‘Storytelling’ seems to be a buzz word at the moment in photography. But I don’t think the basics of creating compelling images have really changed that much. As an experiment you could try shooting your next project in a “National Geographic style.” Find a subject/story that interests you and get involved in portraying it through images. Then it becomes less about you the photographer, but more about the subject.

    Nick

  • Reply
    Wayne
    December 3, 2018 at 12:00 pm

    “Napalm Girl.” More than once I have gone back and looked at the photo. As troubling as the view of the child is, I find, as time passes, the thing about the photograph that troubles me the most is the non-nonchalant posture and apparent attitude of indifference of the soldiers in the background. While the world, especially America, was convulsed with horror at the spectacle, for those who were there, and actively participating, it appears it was nothing special. I am grateful know the girl survived. I wonder about what the soldiers went on to. Thanks for the piece. It made me think again.

  • Reply
    JamesW
    December 3, 2018 at 12:05 pm

    Well thanks anyway for the thought provoking post. The thoughts that are provoked will depend upon the individual. Confirmation bias is something we should be aware of, in any situation. I find the problem with storytelling is the agenda of the storyteller. IF a story is to be told that doesn’t tell the whole story (thinking of a lawyer’s story that paints the defendant as a put-upon unfortunate whom society has treated unfairly etc. etc.) then it is only SOME of the story. The defendant, perhaps is a hardened criminal. Enter the prosecuting lawyer to tell THAT story….
    We photograph for a whole load of reasons. Mr Wu has his, and I for one will let him. I have mine. and yar boo sucks to anyone who tries to impose upon me. At best, we present to others what/how/why we see what we see. It’s not the only vision out there.

  • Daniel Castelli
    Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    December 3, 2018 at 2:44 pm

    Wow, there’s a lot going in response to Frank’s article. I’m not a fan of Frank’s style of writing, but I do read the articles he posts here. Why? Because I’ve posted on this site myself, and it’s only fair to extend to him the same courtesy I would expect when people read my work. Disagree with the content, not the author. Or don’t read his posts. I also don’t agree with people who put ketchup on their eggs for breakfast, but I don’t get in a huff and leave the diner. And, I find some of his observations valid and though provoking.

    Now, onto MY comments regarding the article. Try and find an out of print book by Harry Benson (paperback.) He gives perhaps, the most clearly written technical guide to building a photo story. I though I had my copy on my bbokshelf, but it has disappeared. I’ll be getting another copy off of Amazon today.
    IMO, you need to be a story teller to tell a story. I grew up in a family that told stories. Great stories. Some say I’ve inherited the gift. Story telling required a sense of drama, timing, and believability. Humor helps. (I just realize that these same characteristics also make a great educator.) But, the most important part of telling a story is to be part of it – as a participant or as an observer. All of this can apply to our photography.
    I don’t like shooting stories. I’m more of a photographer in the mold of Elliott Erwitt (without his talent.) I look for a single moment, a gesture, etc, and try and snap the photo. I’ll string together a sequence of shots, but rarely will I make a story. It’s just not in my photographer’s DNA. I’m more likely to gather a set of images that share a visual element and create a presentation.
    That’s all I’ve got to say (this time.)

  • Reply
    erich schwandt
    December 3, 2018 at 6:41 pm

    I work down the street from you and so I am familiar with your surroundings. I am even more familiar with the feeling of not making compelling photos. Here’s an excerpt from Constantine Manos- ” you have to have something very unique, a vision, a proof that you are capable of putting your own personal stamp on your pictures and can show us things we have never seen before and will never see again. I think every successful photograph is a surprise, often defined by a special moment. Think about the poet who writes poems for their own sake and then seeks a publisher.”

    He states that he MUST include people in his photographs and thats what makes them interesting. Another point to address your technical work would be to study the painters and dynamic symmetry which i’m sure you’ve made yourself familiar with, Tavis Leaf Glover is a good resource in that regard.

    I recently spent some time with Alex Webb, he admits 99% of all the photographs he makes are unsuccessful. If you think about the photography that he has published its obviously his best work over the last 30ish years, and its not a ton.

    Keep going i’d say and confront your fear start shooting people and leave the banal object alone at least try it.

  • Reply
    Louis Sousa
    December 3, 2018 at 7:08 pm

    Frank, read “On Being a Photographer.” It is a great book, an interview of David Hurn. The book starts with the author saying that when David met him and viewed his work, David’s opinion was it was not good and would never be good. From there a decades long friendship began. The author kept shooting, and perhaps he learned a thing or two from Hurn to impart soul and meaning to his imagery. It is a great book. Hurn speaks of how and why he takes photographs and about how he goes about employing the tool to express. I see criticism of you in some posts. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, I find your articles compelling and thought provoking. To me, one’s photography is an expression of the soul. What camera or lens or film is used has very little to do with this core expressive concept. I completely respect (and to a degree I am) a photographer who is a tinkerer, enthralled by the camera as an object, and perhaps less interested in, or less able to, employ the tool for meaningful expression. I struggle with the degree to which (and why) I am a tinkerer. Why is it so hard for me to translate deep seated emotion to an image? It is a good question, and a hard one to answer. Keep up the great work that benefits the many who surely enjoy it.

  • Reply
    George Appletree
    December 4, 2018 at 5:44 pm

    All that’s very confusing.
    First, usually “being positive” is a kind of intentions code allowing just being rather polite than really putting a grain of real constructive criticism (which includes obviously not to agree some times). Then so, … better don’t read and stay mute if you’re going to criticize.
    But the question is that all those experts (and I agree with the writer here) need photographs to tell a story. And I wonder why do photographers have to replace writers (remember Stevenson was buried as “Tusitala”: Story teller), or say sociologists in the way lots of those story tellers of the photographic reportage try to. Or so many others like naturalists or anthropologists or psychologists and etc.
    Then what kind of story all those hundreds of Weston’s peppers tell?, and all those experts would argue that it was another time of photography and etcetera, meanwhile the medium has desperately trying to get rid of the “story” since the very beginning. Remember Walker Evans telling documentary doesn’t mean whatever thing.
    But now it seems the story is what matters. Let’s be story tellers instead of photographers. Let’s writers stop doing literature, because newspapers are enough to document

  • Reply
    Charles Higham
    December 8, 2018 at 1:25 pm

    Frank, thanks for a thoughtfully written post. You mentioned Three Days of the Condor, which I also remember seeing back in the 1970s. You might also have seen a 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni film called Blow-up. If not, I recommend watching it for the, at times, surreal narrative which later in the film becomes driven by a single image. The lead character is a London fashion photographer played by David Hemmings.

  • Reply
    Jay Jones
    December 9, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    Salim,
    Most lawyers I’ve met have been undeniably dull & boring people. Especially anal. But that’s their job I suppose. A real pity it takes over their lives. They may be wealthy, but not particularly any fun to be around. And although I gave Frank multiple chances to prove me wrong in his pieces (after learning that he was a lawyer), sadly it just hasn’t happened. But he owes me absolutely nothing, or anyone else for that matter. This is his journey that he’s trying to figure out. To those who enjoy his articles, knock yourselves out.
    Peace!

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