Telling Stories

I was an undergraduate student at Macalester College in St. Paul, majoring in Theatre Arts. My professor for Directing classes was Douglas Hatfield, then the Chair of the Department.

Dr. Hatfield was a small man, maybe 5' 8", but with a commanding presence, and a depth of experience we all would have given anything to acquire during the four years we had in the program.

He had a test for all of us working on becoming stage directors: at any point in the performance of a directing project, he could call "FREEZE" to the actors, and have them stay frozen in place, while he examined the scene. If he could tell exactly what was going on in the story, just from the arrangement of actors on stage, the physical relationships, and their body language, then the director was doing a good job. If he could not discern the story from the frozen tableau, then the director needed to sharpen his or her vision and rework that scene.

We all lived in terror of Dr. Hatfield "dropping in" to a rehearsal, since we knew he would do his "freeze" test several times during the course of his attendance. But he was right: unless each moment of the production kept a clear picture in front of the audience, they were going to become confused and uncertain about the action they were viewing on the stage.

Dr. Hatfield is no longer among us, but I still hear his voice when I'm on a photo shoot, trying to decide what I can bring back from a particular scene or vista. His advice to budding directors is equally valid for working photographers: make every one of your picture tell a story!

In some respects, this is just a restatement of compositional principles we all know: put elements of interest into the "rule of thirds" points, look for leading lines, create depth in the image. Those principles help us present the "facts" of our image in ways that centuries of experience have taught us will speak well to an audience. But there is a deeper lesson at play in Dr. Hatfield's admonition.

"Telling a Story" adds the dimension of emotion to the picture - it encourages us to put more of ourselves into the image, by working to bring back the essence of the scene as we were photographing it, to repeat the heart of the scene that reached us at the time.

A recent example may help make the point. I was shooting on the North Shore of Lake Superior in May, and spent the late afternoon shooting in a bay where the wind was stirring up the lake into moderate waves. I experimented with various apertures and shutter speeds, trying to find the combination that would capture what I was feeling on that rocky, windy beach. The soft light meant that the boundary between the substantial and insubstantial was fading, and I finally realized that the most important thing for me to bring back was the feeling of a ghostly setting, where the real and the shadow might merge at any moment.

I took quite a few shots of a large boulder that lay just within the reach of the waves lapping onto the shore, and tried to tell the story of the rock starting to vanish into the soft form of the waves.

This image made me happy when I reviewed the day's shooting later, because it told that story the best.

All the work I did with this image in post-processing was to help tell that story as clearly as possible to those who will view my work. Knowing that was the story I needed to tell let me concentrate on just that one key aspect of developing the image, and kept me from getting lost in the technical aspects of Photoshop.

This is obviously just one sort of story you may find in your expeditions in the Wild. You will have to keep your eyes and heart open for the stories which will present themselves, perhaps stories of power, of tension, or of the passage of time. But if you can identify those stories, your photos will have greater meaning both to you and to your viewers.

So I give you Doug Hatfield's advice, filtered through my lens (figurative and literal) of landscape photography: see the story on the scene, shoot to capture that story, and print a picture that tells the story to everyone who sees it!