Photo Prose

By Gary Rabenko

Artists must work by feel. Many photographers refer to themselves as artists; yet only a few work by feel, while most work by habit. Feeling is essential. A sculptor feels how much to press here or add there. A musician feels how fast, slow, hard, or gentle.

Some event photographers have no patience to read, they have flat-out told me. That impatience extends to images as well. It takes time to read an image. A photographer must recognize the potential, see that moment of greatness, be sensitive to an expression that is building.

For album design, I have to feel the images, letting them transport me somewhere. Designing any collection of images is much like crafting poetry. But what does design mean? What thoughts have gone into page presentation that elevate the viewer’s experience beyond that which a single powerful image might have already conveyed? I have watched persons design albums using software that boasts speed and gimmicks, but offers nothing in the way of feel. Instead of poetry, with a sound and a feel, such albums are interrupted prose–a popular form of poetry of this last century requiring no meter or cadence of sound but rather words juxtaposed sans grammar! Such design has your meaningful imagery interrupted by garish graphics, meaningless motifs, and foolish frames that could not possibly amplify the moods of the subject.

Each image has the potential to communicate some feeling. Most look for what they see in an image. Some can actually get a feeling from the image. That feeling is created by a whole host of things beyond the average viewer’s awareness. There is the look in the eye, the expression, body language, color or lack thereof, the direction of light, the quality of light, the contrast in light and dark, the color balance, the composition and placement of elements in the photo, and more. Placing additional graphics and design elements on and between images must be done with a sensitivity and feel for the images themselves.

The better way I mentioned in my previous article goes beyond just getting the job done. It involves feeling each step of the way, with reasons for everything. It began years ago, long before digital. Left with a few must shots to use and many others to consider, I would do albums of hundreds of images. My process back then, in ancient photographic times, is no less valid today.

First I would spread the several hundred paper proofs out on tables so all were visible.

Then, donning headphones and locking all distractions out, I would get to work while listening to some favored classical music.

The next step would be the most important, and the hardest. I would spend time with the photos–doing nothing! I would look at them, but not think at all about them. I would let my mind go blank. And look at them some more. I was not looking at all the photos. Many would come later. I needed to have an idea. I needed to have a start to the book. I needed to feel where I was going. Usually there would be 10 to 20 options as a way of starting. As in a chess game, each choice added some options and reduced others.

For several hours, I would just pace back and forth. I might have been studying the images, but no, I was doing the opposite. I was giving them a chance to speak to me, and that can only happen if I can move mentally to a space where I am not thinking of the image but just coming upon the image as I might come upon a person as we cross the street from opposite sides. There is a feeling you get that is just an honest, from-the-gut feeling. Going beyond the visible to what I could hear in the images, to how each spoke to me.

Eventually the feelings from each image would clarify, and after a few hours I would have the first ten or so images that just felt so right. Over the next two hours, things would accelerate and the feeling would get stronger and, like a building tornado, have me picking up one image faster than the last as the book took on a voice of its own.

Books have chapters. Each section of the event would be its own little sub-creation, with a lead-in and a lead-out that too felt just right. I was combining images on a page. But some pages were panoramic prints spanning both left and right page. Rubber bands and paper clips were used to keep together the many images intended to be on the same page. And proofs folded in half designated panoramic treatment, where a sole solitary image actually spanned both pages.

What a mess! The great thing was that every client got feeling from the arrangement. Every client approved the design because it really was a design, in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. It was alive. It spoke to the viewer. That kind of design was valuable. And in that, the word design certainly meant something. Removing one image would affect earlier and later pages.

Today’s album-design software are digital tools that speed and simplify album design. Having tried the best and the cheapest, I can say that none are a substitute for heart, mind, and thought. All can easily distance one from any feel.

Advertisers claim photographers can design an album in 15 minutes, and most albums are made that way today. But if it is worth viewing, it needs thought, and thought takes time. To be done with feeling, personalized album design takes two or three days. That is design worth reading and investing in. v

Gary Rabenko can be reached at Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.

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