Making an Impression (Part 3)

IN PART 1, we gave an overview of the origin of the modern attention crisis that started in Paris. In PART 2, we discussed how how a group of artists addressed those cultural problems, and provided solutions. We now turn to how the lessons of the Impressionists work in photography.

Impressionism in a Camera

The lessons of Impressionism are directly applicable to using photography to help deal our version of the problems of the "modern" world. Using the philosophy and perspective the Impressionists developed, our street photography can fulfill a similarly useful artistic and social function, helping both us as photographers and our spectators to makes sense of the world.

A happenstance, mysterious moment.

But first it's important to understand that photography is not painting, and therefore the kinds of moments we realize as photographers have a different quality to them. Whereas the impressionist painter would recognize a moment, then process emotions about the moment, and then interpret those moments on canvas over a long period of time, the photographer deals with nature more directly. The photographer recognizes the moment and captures it as presented, through the filter of timing, composition, and processing.

It takes most spectators time to decipher the meaning of the title: "The Escapee."

The goal is not to create the look of an Impressionist painting. Instead, the goal is to use the philosophical approach of the Impressionists to meet a similar cultural need, and to present visual solutions that only photography can. Although the moments captured in painting and photography will have a qualitative visual difference, the philosophical approach can be identical. Indeed, considering the frustrations of Degas in having to go repeatedly back to the same spot to add the next layer of paint, photography might well be a superior method of capturing an impressionist moment than traipsing back to the same geographic spot, at the same time each day, to revisit a passed moment.

The endeavor is helped by a few specific approaches:

1) Be humanist

Ideas which are too emotionally personal won't work well as lasting subjects. Degas' prostitutes may have meant something personal to him and to the day, but the meaning doesn't translate well over time. Conversely, a father with his children in a somewhat chaotic scene is as old as procreation. A broad and open mind, with a healthy dose of empathy for the rich variety of future spectators, will open your eyes to many meaningful images.

Conversation and connection are universal, and juxtaposition is often immediately understandable.

This image, while a mystery story, isn't obviously humanist. Taken in Spain, the two women are Roma con artists. Without a spectator understanding the context of the Feria, the Roma in Spain, and how con artists operate, this image just won't have the same meaning.

2) Go wide

Context is what draws the spectator in. It's the artist's job to distill an event to its most salient elements, however, it's important to not only be open about what those elements are, but also to leave things for the spectator to do both visually and with the mind. To engage with any visual activity, we need to be able to play our own role as participant, and that requires having visual information to process, evaluate, and place in the context of our own spectator-as-participant lives. As aptly illustrated by the Impressionists, the power of a mystery scene can captivate an audience. Stumbling into the middle of an active moment is far more engaging than simply surveying a controlled and static scene.

3) Extend the moment

A still image need not be still in time. As aptly illustrated by Degas, skewing a horizon can make a spectator feel like a participant in the visual scene. Getting in close, with people on the edges of the frame, can also put a spectator into the moment. 

Capturing an active moment extends time as we participate, too.

A still moment can lets us linger.

These are not merely visual tricks, especially in photography. This is, instead, how we see moments with our own eyes when we are out and about engaging with the world: quick, slightly chaotic impressions, certain things standing out immediately, some disappearing, some reappearing with our attention. We naturally cut out information we don't find relevant to our interests, and an image should properly reflect that same mental activity in the photographer.

Having a puzzle a spectator can work through keeps them engaged with the image for longer. Using captions as hints or invitations can help. This one is titled "Four Eyes." How long did it take you to find the third face?

Like the Impressionists, street photographers are at the forefront of confronting a chaotic world. Using their well thought out philosophy and approach, you, too, can make your images make a lasting impression.