How to Create Mystery in Your Photos
My continual desire as a photographer is to try and look beyond the obvious elements of a photograph: subject, time and light. I’m not looking to acquire images for their own sake, as illustrations of a place and time, but rather to make them as enquiries; as a way to find out what I think about my subject or the light. They are also a way for me to enquire about what moves a photograph beyond an endlessly detailed description; what makes an image evocative. Eddie Ephraums, the editor for my last two books, asked me a very simple question when I began working on my latest work, Landscape Beyond; ‘What do you consider to be the essential ingredients of your photography?’ I was surprised by my instantaneous response, ‘Simplicity, mystery and beauty.’ The certainty and speed with which I uttered these three words made me realise how strongly I felt about these qualities. The following is an exploration of mystery, one of my essential ingredients.
What photography does supremely well is explain the space photographed. But mere description doesn’t excite: it is like reading a very long list that contains no adjectives - tree, hill, cloud, blue sky, blade of grass, blade of grass, blade of grass, another tree, blade of grass etc. When a photograph presents a ’perfect’ copy it is just a diminished representation of the original; it may tell us about the interests of the photographer but it will not tell us anything new about reality or ourselves. We need something more in a photograph to hold our attention: something intriguing, something mysterious. The power of other visual arts relies upon more than simple description; they offer translations of reality and hence the possibility for transcendence.
Yet the majority of colour landscape photographic work today lies within a ‘straight’ landscape tradition stretching back to the 1930’s and monochrome photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston who were founding members of the ’Group f64’. The declared aims of this loose association were to promote ’straight’ photography, to move away from soft-focus Pictorialism and to celebrate what they saw as photography’s fundamental qualities - its clarity and ability to render fine detail and delicate tonality. This led to an emphasis on photography’s veracity above all else.
When I went to see the ’Ansel Adams at 100’ exhibition in 2002 one of the things that struck me was how lacking in contrast, how ’flat’, many of his early prints looked. Every tone was exquisitely rendered but somehow this made the scene emotionally - as well as tonally - flat. I felt a little like Emperor Joseph II (obviously not a lot like him!) who famously said, ’Too many notes, my dear Mozart’ - too many tones my dear Ansel! There’s no doubting their beauty but I wonder whether these early prints are celebrating Nature or the photographer’s ability to render Nature? In striving for tonal perfection did Adams become too clinical? When we describe a space too well in a photograph - open up the shadow detail for instance - we may unwittingly remove the chance for mystery.
Photographs are true and yet they are not the whole truth. The light reflected from a subject delineates the subject with exquisite faithfulness yet fails to tell us everything. In that failure lies the possibility for expression. Rather than fighting against the ‘essential’ nature of photography - perhaps by making out of focus images, or using outlandish filtration - in order to achieve expression, a more satisfying approach would surely be to subtly subvert the way the photograph represents reality, by introducing mystery. In this way one might remain true to photography’s lucidity whilst increasing its scope for expression.
In my own work I try to minimise photography’s illustrative power, principally by trying to break the photograph’s bond to the particular. One way to do this, for instance, is to remove the object that is photographed from its context, to extract or abstract it. But no matter how much one tries to minimise a photograph’s illustrative power it is, in its most fundamental sense, never diminished.