Photographing To Feed The Soul

Beyond taking pictures, make photographs that express emotion

Being house bound, this is an excellent time to develop or exercise your creative “eye.” Modern cameras and smartphones in all price ranges have tremendous technological capability. But when I look around and on the internet, they’re mostly being used to produce images that  capture or document what’s in front of the camera. Even professional and fine art photographers are mostly documenting what they see. I enjoy these images and appreciate what it takes to produce them; as a lifelong photographer, my collection is filled with them. But my preference has always been to photograph expressively. 

Expressionism    

Artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tired of accurately representing their subjects on canvas, turned to express their feelings by painting distortions, exaggerations and fantasies that were dramatic, sometimes violent. Always emotional. Examples of the “expressionism movement” in painting include Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Franz Marc’s The Large Blue Horses. 

Many fine art photographers in the late 20th century picked up on that approach, but photo historians don’t consider expressionism a “movement” in photography because masters working in “Straight Photography” (Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams) and “Modern Photography” (Chuck Kimmerle, Ruth Bernhard, Paul Caponigro) varied their styles. 

Photographic documentation involves the recording and presentation of subjects as they are. To find interesting or spectacular locations, travel was required and for many professionals, hardships had to be endured. Documentary photographs excel at providing information about  the visible world, revealing what the photographer saw from his or her point-of-view at a particular time and place.

Expressive photography is less about recording information and more about revealing the photographer’s feelings about a subject and eliciting an emotional response in the viewer. To those ends, subject matter can be found anywhere. One of my teachers at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) said “A creative person can photograph in a phone booth with an Instamatic camera and come away with a masterpiece.”

As opposed to the hunter-gatherer approach of documentarians, the expressive photographer’s challenge is to see in ways that differ from everyday reality, to image the ordinary as extraordinary. This is not to say that documentary photographs can’t also be expressive. They can be, very much so. Master photographers such as Mitch Dobrowner and Julia Anna Gospodarou have demonstrated that both approaches can be inspiring. 

Try it yourself

Technically and aesthetically, expressive photography is largely about the light and what it’s doing, so I offer the following little exercise in black and white to make a photograph that feeds your soul.  

Equipment & material

  • Camera or smartphone. Consult the manual on how to photograph in black and white
  • Tripod or phone support. You need your hands free to adjust the subject, camera and light
  • A plain black cloth. Nothing with a print or pattern, and about 4 ft. long on one side.

Light source

Use a penlight and a way to support it; another person could even hold it in place. As a specular “point-source,” it’s ideal for creating very sharp shadows. And being the only light you’ll use, it will produce a high contrast image. Penlights differ widely in color. That’s another reason for shooting in black and white, but the main reason is to take the impact of color out of the equation. An aesthetic eye is best developed by first becoming sensitive to what the light is doing, how it’s affecting the qualities of form, brightness, contrast, gradation and texture. 

Location and subject

At night, turn off all the lights in your kitchen; make it as dark as possible. Shine the penlight on whatever is there, ideally something smaller than 8-inches in diameter and without printed words. You might take an item from a cabinet or the refrigerator. Fruits and vegetables, cut or whole, make great subjects. 

Instead of pointing the light from the front as you would a flashlight, direct it to the sides, behind, above and below. As you move the light around, change your point-of-view as well. Resist the impulse to name the object. Just see it as a form that has texture. Watch what happens to the shadow as the light moves. You might want to look at several objects this way to create fascinating forms and textures. When a particular combination stands out, that’s your subject. Here’s another one of mine.

The setup

Stretch the black cloth on a flat surface. Eliminate or hide any seams or buttons, anything that could distract from the subject matter. With the item placed, move the penlight around it again.  Notice how light from the side emphasizes texture. To reduce it, light the subject from above. At some point, as you change your position and the light relative to the subject, your soul will prompt a Yes! or Wow! When that happens, fix the camera and the light so they stay in place. 

To compose the shot in the camera, turn the penlight off and the room light on to make adjustments. Go in close with the camera or phone. Exclude everything that’s not the subject, and eliminate any distracting elements in the foreground or background. When that’s done, turn on the penlight, turn off the room light and shoot. 

Edit and print 

Sometime later, select the image you like best. What you have is a digital file, it’s potentially a photograph. You could print it as is, but that won’t be as satisfying as it would be with some editing. If you have the technology, crop the image as desired—eliminate spots, lighten or darken it overall, increase or decrease the contrast and sharpen. 

When you’re satisfied with the adjustments, make a print. Because this is a photograph, not a snapshot, I recommend a letter-size (8.5 x 11) print. Critically important, if you care about making images to grow your aesthetic eye and feed your soul, do not let anyone see it! Not yet. Ultimately, the only evaluation that matters is your own.

Your aesthetic evaluation

Sit alone where you won’t be disturbed. Have the photograph in front of you. A notepad is not necessary, but a good idea if you want to continue with expressive photography. Close your eyes for a full minute or more; you want nothing else of importance on your mind. When you open them, look at the photograph and address the following questions. There are no right or wrong answers. What you’re going for here, is a recognition of what worked and what didn’t work relative to your aesthetic preferences—contrast, gradation, texture etc. When a soul “sees” authentic creativity, it provides a jolt of joy, feedback that’s saying “Do more!” So this exercise is an opportunity to discover which of your aesthetic inclinations worked at that level. Ask yourself —

  • Why did I choose this subject?
  • What about the “ground” that the subject is sitting on? Does that work?
  • Does the background work? Distract? What would have been better?
  • What is the light doing, relative to brightness,  contrast,  form, texture?
  • What about the shadow? Does it contribute or distract?
  • What worked best?
  • Does the photograph convey what you were feeling when you took the picture? 
  • What would I do differently? Given the response, you might want to do another edit.

Feedback from others 

Now, share the photograph with others, including people who don’t know you. They’ll be objective if someone other than you does the showing and asking. Considering those you show it to, pay attention to their immediate response. In a matter of seconds, are they curious about you or the subject matter? Or did they react with a Wow! or other emotional response? When that happens, you know your photograph moved them. Did the responses you got make you feel good about yourself? Encouraged? Joyful? If so—continue shooting. Your soul is asking for more.

Looking directly into the penlight

Beyond expression

Within the images we create, there’s a message from the universe about life—if we’re open to looking for it. Receiving it. I consider it feedback from the soul. 

In a quiet place and a meditative state, look at your photograph again. In what way is it a reflection of—or metaphor for—how things are? Trace back the origin of the object you photographed. What was its journey? How did it get to you? How many people handled it? Why did this subject appeal to you? This type of questioning amounts to “contemplation,” focusing our attention on a point—in this case, a photograph—and hold it there long enough to explore its deeper meaning. Besides heightening appreciation and improving your eye, one of the great benefits of photography is that it employs the light without—from penlight to sunlight—to illuminate and awaken the light within—Self (soul) l awareness.


Email: smithdl@fuse.net

Portfolio: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

Photography Monographs (Click on the pages to turn them)

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