The word photograph is the combination of the Greek words photo (light) and graph (picture). Photography is all about light — no light, no pictures. However, in this column I want to talk a bit about the graphy part. Graphic means vivid and picturesque but also means a line or a drawing — thus we have graphic design. When I judge photo contests I find that the highest rating photos all have good graphic design in them. I look at the lines and shapes and how they relate to each other. Moreover, I find that the best photos are very simple — they have only those elements that are needed to express the image.
While most travel photos are of famous landmarks or monuments, some of the best I’ve seen focus on simple elements or small details that express the spirit of the place more than the landmarks or monuments. For example, the image of the hanging laundry in a courtyard to me speaks more about Havana than a typical tourist shot. You get the sense of human presence in a dilapidated environment. Another example is the image showing the shadows of a streetlight. You don’t have to know that this was shot in San Miguel de Allende — a tiny artists’ colony north of Mexico City. The colours of burnt umber and sienna and the shadows of the streetlight ooze the sense of a hot day in Mexico. In addition these images are very graphic. They have very simple elements and simple lines — strong verticals lead to the laundry, and the strong shadows of the streetlight lead your eye from left to right.
Shooting images like these requires you to train your eyes to look at the small things around you, to be aware of the light — both the quality and intensity — and to find interesting patterns in sometimes very ordinary things. On one trip, my wife and I were walking around an outdoor market in Delhi, India. She was shopping for a pashmina shawl, going from one stall to another. At one of them a display of fancy slippers hung on a door. The colours and pattern intrigued me so I took out my camera and started framing various compositions until I found an interesting combination. To me, this photo captures the spirit of India more than a photo of the Taj Mahal.
While on a photo shoot on Grand Manan Island off the coast of New Brunswick, I was walking around a fishing port taking in the smell of the sea. I took many images of lobster boats and the colourful traps — all nice but none had the visual impact I wanted. Suddenly I saw a reflection of the lobster traps in the window of a portside shack and that was it. The window frames the reflection of the traps and the converging lines of the frame lead your eyes into the image. How much more east coast can you get?
So next time you are on a trip, open your eyes to the small and everyday — and go graphic.