Shelly’s post on “The Trouble With Chima” last week got me thinking about the relationship between the photographer and the viewer of a photograph, and how messages and stories are passed between the two.

Something clicked in my brain this morning: isn’t this a problem that songwriters have to solve every day?

The constraints of a song, or at least a conventional popular song, twist the songwriter’s narrative with the requirements for rhyme, sentence length and structure of verse and chorus. I’m sure everyone can think of an example of a popular song where the lyrics appear to make no sense, but it’s still a great song. The example that just jumped into my head was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.

This is often the case, as Shelly pointed out in her post, with photographing toys that don’t exist within our common cultural framework. The photographer has a story in their head, but once it’s translated into a photograph there are no threads left for the viewer to grasp in order to unravel the storyline.

So what do we do if no-one can grasp our story? If we keep hold of the songwriter analogy, then we can take some tips from song composition. A song doesn’t need a story, or lyrics at all, but it is often improved by the addition, or implication of a story. The main draw of a song is in the aesthetic pleasure we get from the structure. The beat, the melody, the anticipation of the chorus. The parallels in photography are the visual aesthetic properties: the composition, recurring themes, leading lines, curves, balance, etc.

Now this is far easier said than done, but if you get your photographic melody right, and you’ve got a good visual beat (I might be stretching this metaphor a bit far now), your photo can still be a great photo even if the viewer has no idea what the story is about.

There are plenty of examples of great photos that don’t have a story – abstract and non-narrative photography is all about this – and you can make a great photograph with only a story (e.g., most photojournalism), although our analogy with music falls over a little there as we’re heading into spoken word poetry and literature rather than music.

If photography is anything like music, abstract photography fits in with the lyric-free genres: classical, dance, etc. Still emotionally powerful, but non-narrative.

Story-based photos are your music with lyrics. Those lyrics may be indecipherable to the listener/viewer, but they add an extra layer of melody and intrigue.

The perfect combination, in my opinion of course, is the aesthetically pleasing photograph with just enough story for the viewer to pick up on. A photographic version of Hotel California.


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I like the analogy, it tickles me, even though I don’t know anything about songwriting. I wish I could then I could use that knowledge to make better photographs :)


Mike I love this post! It is amazing how much all the arts are connected. We each are trying to create a story, an image, an impression, an emotional response to connect with our audience. It doesn’t matter if it is an audience in a crowded stadium or a quiet art gallery or on a busy Instagram feed. Connection is what we (at least I) crave. As an artists (or photographer) it is good to know what all the tools are in your tool box and how to use them. This musical analogy works perfectly for me! Shelly ps –… Read more »