The New Visual Language

I come from a tradition of classical story telling with my photos. It’s the way documentary photographers have emphasized both content and moment in the stories each of their photographs tell. My friend and colleague, Sven Creutzmann, comes from the same tradition. And this—you may call it traditional visual language—is what we teach in our workshop, like the one in Cuba earlier this month.

We are not stuck in the way we see photography and of course let each student develop his or her own voice. At least that’s what we try to stress for ourselves as well as the students and that’s really our focus. Even though we believe in the classical use of visual language, I think it’s fair to say that we are both open to other approaches in ways of shooting and expressing oneself.

Nevertheless, over the last many years, we have seen a shift in how for instance award winning documentary photography are less and less accentuating the clear story telling, and we have both been puzzled by this change. In documentary photography, a more artistic or ambiguous approach has become more prevalent. Personally, I like photos that are open to interpretations, in which the message is not clearly set by the photographer, and where there are layers of understanding embedded in the photo. However, the photos that win these contests have quite often baffled both Sven and me.

It’s the postmodern or even post-postmodern school of young photographers that are now dominating the spearhead of photojournalism. It’s a kind of photography that is often described as deconstructed in which traditional rules or guidelines are broken in order to create a new visual language. Again, I am one who promotes not following any rules or established guidelines. However, I have found a lot of this new photography rather boring, drab and uninteresting. As I wrote in my post The Emperor’s New Clothes? a couple of years ago, the postmodern approach is often plain and boring—almost as intended—but is raised to the sky by pretentious acclamation.

I admit. This sounds like an old, outdated photographer ranting about times that are changing. And maybe I am. Still, I have always been one to push myself and try to go into unknown territory. So, after Sven and I were done with this year’s photo workshop, we decided to sit down and figure out what this new visual language is. We looked up a bunch of award winning photographers and tried to deconstruct their deconstructed photography. I tell you, the result was quite surprising.

To quickly sum up what we found: One aspect that we took away was the fact that a lot of the photography we looked at for us would have been mistakes we wouldn’t have selected and certainly not submitted to any photo competitions. Furthermore and to be more specific, we found that these photos often put elements in the foreground that are unsharp and add a visual disorder to the imagery. Photographers who shoot with this new visual language move further back or move out of the story (whereas I always teach that you cannot get close enough). They seem to capture in-between-moments where Sven and I have trained ourselves to be able to capture the peak of a moment. They use less wide-angle lenses and they often shoot reflections or through windows or openings. They often include weird details or something that is not quite clear what is and often the composition is static or symmetric. Their photos are often simplified and does not try to build a story, at least not in a classical sense, and part of this is that they often do not include moments at all (not only off-moments as already mentioned) nor people. Finally, we found that many of these photos are heavily worked over in post-production.

One thing that puzzled us was why some of these approaches were used, until a friend of us who is not a photographer, told us that maybe it’s to leave more open to interpretation instead of showing a clear-cut story, simply to be less clear. Of course, that is at least part of it.

Deconstructing is one thing, though. After having done so, Sven and I went out in the streets of Havana and tried to shoot with this new visual language as a template. At first, it felt a little weird and uncomfortable, but it didn’t take long before both of us got a sense of freedom in our shooting. The next couple of hours we completely lost ourselves in the process and captured thousands of photos. We had fun, we felt inspired and it was simply liberating to do something completely different.

Even the result took us aback. I am not saying this is amazing work, by far. But it certainly gave me a different perspective (you can judge by yourself). I think I am more open to the new visual language. Furthermore, I am sure I will pick up what this lesson taught me. It won’t shift my photography completely, but I have gotten a new tool in my photographic tool box. I really enjoyed this new visual language. Of course, by now what is new has already moved ahead to a new place. But that’s OK. I will just have to repeat this exercise every so often.

76 thoughts on “The New Visual Language

  1. Love the images in this post. To be honest I find them more spontaneous that your previous Cuban images (if spontaneous is the right word to use – I’m no expert, being someone who needs people/birds etc to stand perfectly still for me to get things in sharp focus). Love the invisibility of self (as the photographer) in this series. Previously, I always had the sense that your subjects were aware of you making the image of them when you pressed that shutter button.

    Hard to describe.

    It’s a ‘fly on the wall’ view of everyday life (as it really is). Living & moving and totally oblivious of you as the photographer.

    I also wonder how some young folk win some of these competitions. Their prize-winning image seem to be ‘edited to death’ and has no sense of the original vision left. Particularly landscape images. The overuse of editing leaves the landscape too static and no sense of natural beauty. I like landscapes that draw you in to the scene and make you feel as though you are part of the scenery and can smell/touch the leaves/trees.

    I like a lot of the B & W street photography that’s around these days though. There’s some real talent in that genre.

    1. Thank you for the thorough feedback, Vicki. I agree with much of what you write, and I particularly like your description in terms of the photos being more spontaneous and the invisibility of self.

  2. These seem more candid to me, the hand in the top photo, the low angle you used. I admire anyone who can shoot people, and street scenes. I am super uncomfortable doing that, but have always admired your photos, and others like you. Not every image, or idea, will appeal to every person. It’s fun that you ventured out of your norm and tried something new.

  3. I do like these, Otto. They seem, maybe, a little less composed–more like street photography quickly snapped and then gone.

  4. You have certainly taught me the value of people in photos Otto. I like these photos and think it is good sometimes to let go of our fixed ideas and be open to alternative approaches.

  5. It seems there is a time and place for both schools of thought. These images certainly seem more candid. I think it was a really good exercise to shake things up a bit and give you a different perspective.

  6. I enjoyed reading the article and hearing about your thoughts on exploring a new type or focus in photography. I need to go back and compare these images to some of your other ones. I tend to get a little lost when people try to describe photos in words. For example, I’m not sure after reading the article that I understand the differences you’ve mentioned between traditional storytelling with photos and a new style of visual storytelling. I do know, though, that I really liked the photos you included with this post. I also know that I am not a fan of highly processed photos. I don’t fault people for going that route – they create some fantastic images. But as soon as I start being more aware of the post-processing than the act of taking the photo, I tend to lose a little interest. Personal preference. And I don’t like working extensively with editing software, it means more time off the streets.

    1. Personal references is what makes your photos different from the others. It’s the backbone of any photographer’s voice. Nothing wrong with not liking too much post-processing. I often find in particular landscape photos being killed by too much saturation or too much use of HDR, for instance. In the end what matters is creating images that you feel are right for you.

  7. I’m not fond of post-modernist trends in literature, architecture, or music, and “deconstruction” as the new criticism isn’t to my taste. So, it’s probably no surprise that I’m not as fond of these as I am of much of your other work. They seem somewhat flat to me, and devoid of the emotion that often suffuses your work. Of course, that response clearly is an outlier, but I thought I’d add it.

    In his Alexandria Quartet, one of Lawrence Durrell’s characters says that it’s the role of the artist to “rework reality to show its significant side.” One of the flaws I find in post-modern thought is its tendency to weight everything equally. In truth, if everything is equally significant, nothing is significant. It’s something to ponder.

    I did enjoy the post, and the thought-provoking discussion.

    1. In much of what you write I have been in complete agreement with you. And I am still critical to a lot of the postmodernist expressions. At the same time, I feel like I need to be open and I need to try to understand new trends, see of there is anything in them that could actually be worth learning from and enjoy. I appreciate your honesty in the response to these photos. It does show that I somehow accomplished a bit of what we sat out to do. 🙂

  8. This is very interesting decomposition of the photographs. I am not too keen on this kind of photography but I really like to understand the differences between the two approaches. Regardless, I totally agreed with you that learning new tools are always good. It is another thing that you can use when you feel the need.

    1. By the way, I really enjoyed these pictures event though I am not sure I can take them apart. The last picture is a bit special to me for some reason. It is like something in between and not sure where you stand about it. I like it quite a bit though.

    2. I think even from approaches and results we don’t necessary like, it’s possible to learn something. For me-as it seems for you-the important thing is to keep an open attitude. 🙂

  9. I find the photos with the telephone “pods” in them quite interesting. They both (probably accidentally) feature interaction with people and balls. If I didn’t already know where this is, I would be wondering what place in the world is there left that every person does not have a cell phone?

  10. When I did my literature studies, deconstruction was the thing…and I did not like it. When it comes to photos though, I find it interesting. Your approach shows what we all should know – widening our minds is good and you should always be willing to listen to/practice new ideas. I think the results here speaks more freedom and a certain amount of joy… We learn something knew, but we do not have to eat it all…just pick up what suits our own mouth and stomach.

  11. Kudos to you and Sven for stepping up to the challenge of a new vision. The time and energy that you both invested in understanding a new approach is admirable and obviously, it paid off in some really great images that capture energy and movement.

  12. These are amazing photos. In each one there is a subject in the forefront that pulls the eye there before wandering to the background, the hand in photo #1! I really like that. Thank you Otto, excellent photography as always.

  13. You know my street work. You know I like the visceral candid approach. No knocks to what you’ve done previously at all but this effort to see and record differently is appeals to me greatly.

  14. Otto, I puzzled when I saw your photos in this post (before reading the article). I didn’t think they were your style, and I didn’t know what was going on… until I read your article.
    I have to admit that I have taken many of those in-between-moments photos, and at the time, I always could find some reasons to like them. It took me a while to realize that I liked those photos because (1) Street photographing is not easy for me. I was happy whenever I managed to build up enough courage to take one. (2) I didn’t have a clear idea what I liked or didn’t like (or what looked good) at that time.
    I like candid photos, and I also like photos that are open to interpretations, but, I believe, a story has to be there (clearly or not). No one can make something out of nothing. No one should anyway.
    There are many kinds of people; and people like different styles. Whenever I come across photos that I have trouble to understand, I would tell myself that those photos come from a different group and since I am not in the same group, it is difficult for me to like them 😉 Of course, I may move from one group to the other as I become better.
    I guess what I am trying to say is: from the group I am currently in, I like your old photos better.
    Thanks for the wonderful article.

    1. And thank you for your honesty. Not long ago I would not have like these photos, either. Now-as I write in the post-I feel some kind of joyous freedom to let myself be “allowed” to do something different. And obviously this is different than what I usually do. And that in itself is fun, particularly when it can create some debate and discussion.

  15. Your post triggered a memory of a long-ago painting workshop, where the instructor used a totally-foreign approach – than mine – to watercolor. I learned a lot, but I was usually very disgusted at the end of each day while using his methods. It took about another month to absorb what I liked most and discard what did not fit my own direction, and my work improved, thanks to that workshop. If we can step away from what is easy or natural and critique with a neutral eye, we reap great benefits.

    1. I believe the same. Sometimes we need to go into not only unknown territory as artists but into areas that we think we don’t even like or find interesting. If we can take something out of such an approach, that’s really when we expand our vision or expression. As you point out.

  16. Top post, Otto…love the analysis of modern photography..for me, the top photo truly intrigued me (with hand and watch in lh corner) as it got me wondering about poverty and how relative that can be. My riches are a rich man’s poverty!!

  17. An interesting post, Otto. One of the things that has always drawn me to your photography is that there is a sense of intimacy, of connection to the people and places that are your subjects. It makes me feel that I am there, in a way, and that I know something about them. I don’t know how to articulate what I mean, but I do know that these photos don’t give me that feeling at all. But I admire your careful analysis of the trend, and I can appreciate the fun and freedom of trying something new and different.

    1. What you write makes perfect sense to me. And it’s valuable feedback. With this approach I am certainly much more an observer than a participating photographer-and it does reflect in the photos. I have always, or usually, gone for intimacy and connections when I am shooting, while with this approach the photographer (that is me, of course) is more withdrawn.

  18. Otto, these images express a voyeurism where you are almost spying on the subjects. That quality is how I interpret street photography in its rawest. Your usual work is more of a duet where you are part of the story. Your presence is felt. In today’s visual culture the proliferation of images has been a clear influence on the quality and quantity of street photography. I’m not sure that as much thought is given to stilling the moment in the current climate. Still it’s a style that is more detached, and produces a narrative about what seems real to the photographer.

    1. I think you pinpoint this approach very well. It is indeed more voyeuristic than my usual approach – as is often the case with street photography. I appreciate your accurate analysis.

  19. The value of experimentation in any art form is that it expands the artist’s expressive vocabulary introduces a changed perspective and, hopefully, increases the range of understanding. In so doing, it revitalises the artist’s creativity. But much depends on how well the newly acquired skills are assimilated without diminishing the integrity of the artist’s voice. A creative artist must remain true to him/herself.

    1. I can only completely agree with you. An artist must always be true to him- or herself. And, yet, we must develop and expand our vision and expression, as you also say. The broader the vocabulary the more precise and direct the expression will become – as we all know from writing.

  20. Hi Otto, I love this article! And as you already know, I am proud of being boring… it’s an act of rebellion for me… I think it was me rebelling against G+ and all the new HDR landscape photographers, gosh I almost quit photography after I left G+!!! Plus I started processing the heck out of everything, something that I’m trying to cut back on now… I find that often, a little bit of my classically trained photographic eye remains in my work, but i try to stomp it out haha… so after reading your talk here, i think it must be hard for you to say nice things about my photography hahaha… my fave is the picture with the hand at the top of your post…

    1. It may surprise you, :-), but I have always enjoyed your photography. You have your distinct vision and voice and create interesting and different images. We are definitely in agreement when it comes to HDR and heavy processing. 🙂

      1. well, i got into processing BECAUSE my photography was boring to me, so i would spend an hour in photoshop having fun with them… for a long time it was all about over processing for me, just coz i enjoyed working in photoshop… but now? i tend to let the boring stuff stand, in all it’s glory hahaha… and man i hate HDR to this day lol

  21. It’s good to know that you’re still open to learning and to experimenting, Otto. I’m not crazy about this ‘off the cuff, anyone can do it’ style of photography but ideas change over time and it’s interesting to observe. I do find myself slow to latch on to new trends. It took me a long time to warm to street art but more recently I’ve thoroughly enjoyed some of it. Life is surely more interesting when you can keep an open mind. 🙂 🙂

    1. In addition to what you write here, trying out new approaches is the best way to keep yourself in touch with the muses. If we keep doing what we already like and have gotten the hang of, we don’t develop and, thus, run the risk of starting to produce less interesting photography-or other art work.

  22. For me, I think documentary photography has to tell a story, ideally would have a ‘critical moment’ and if I were paying for photography I would expect that. But, I like this style for its look at ordinary life. When I go somewhere new I live in that new, ordinary world. I think these tell a broader story, really. Having said that, I distinctly remember some of your other photos but doubt any of these have that kind of impact. That is the lack of this style, littke or no impact. As for processing, I am all over the place, whatever it takes to meet my vision. An interesting topic, thank you Otto.

    1. I am glad you find the topic interesting. I think that is really want I wanted with this post; to raise the discussion. I have no answers, only seeking new insight and understanding. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion, Robert.

  23. This is a great article, Otto. It helps me understand a little better of the new trend.
    I like these photos because they captured the moments, tell stories of people’s daily lives, and reflect the culture. The style works perfectly for this trip.
    I think trying a new approach is a journey, a leaning journey for sure. For many, it can be a long process to get there, I know I’m in this group. 🙂
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience and insights!

    1. I very happy it has been a valuable read for you. It’s all about taking the time to try to understand new currents in time, isn’t it. You say that this can be a long process. I actually think it should be a never-ending process. 🙂

  24. I like your collaborative approach – that you sat down with your colleague and asked hard questions together, that’s a lesson in itself. Keeping an open mind and experimenting is something I’ve seen you talk about before, I’m sure. You set a great example of the importance of keeping your aesthetic muscles loose and limber. The first photograph, with the hand and slice of body in the foreground, is terrific – and I love the second one in the second set of images, the two men carrying those sculptural metal things.
    You’re collaborating with people here on the blog, too – thank you for that.

    1. I wish I could collaborate more. It’s always so valuable, but unfortunately time doesn’t always allowed for such collaboration. Thanks for the comment, Lynn. Much appreciated.

  25. You make a thoughtful and precise definition of postmodern trends in art and photography here. The move away from clear-cut story-telling and the capturing of inbetween moments are elements of the postmodern that you make understandable by placing them in the context of your artistic practice.
    Ever since I first got acquainted with postmodernism and deconstruction, I’ve wondered what it is that makes these postmodern practices necessary. I wrote about this in my doctoral dissertation on American literature “The Utterance of America: Emersonian Newness in Dos Passos’ U.S.A. and Pynchon’s Vineland”. The short of it would be to say that the classical way of telling stories no longer answers to what our time needs and that in waiting for new ways of storytelling to establish themselves, we need a time of thorough reflection and experimentation.
    And I feel this is what you and Sven Creutzmann did have a go at. In a very playful and serious way.

    1. Thanks for the expanded view on postmodern trends. I am slowly getting a better understanding of what it might be, even though I have had problems with necessarily enjoying the way the trends are being expressed. I like the idea that postmodernism is an intermediate state between classic story telling and the new ways, whatever they are going to be. Makes perfect sense. Thanks for you clarifying thoughts, Arletta. Would be interesting to read your dissertation. 🙂

  26. these are fascinating to view. people with hopes, dream, love for one another. especially love the young girl in her dance mode.

  27. After my first comment, my first impression of this post and photos, I have been thinking about this and what a friend of mine has stated as well, he being a working photographer for many years. I have to admit I identify with these photos more than I do with photos I probably never will take, due to access, funding or sometimes equipment. I can greatly admire photos I will never have the opportunity to take but I can’t completely identify with them, in the sense of being an amateur photographer. I also wish to say that we learn from what you (and others) post, no matter the type or style of photography. I hope all this makes sense, it seems to difficult to explain.

    1. It does make sense. And we can of course appreciate work that we don’t necessarily identity with. That’s part of a process of opening up one’s mind, isn’t it. 🙂

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