As the Director of Photography at a national magazine one of the most difficult things I have to do is discuss photography with people who know next to nothing about it. Most editors are very literal minded when it comes to photography, they want a picture of the person, place or thing that the writer talks about. To convince them that other images will better serve the story is a difficult but important task in making a magazine’s photography great. Learning how to describe what you intuitively know makes one photograph superior to another is the greatest skill you can have in this battle.
There are many ways to use photography at a magazine. The worst is to use photos as decoration or as a literal translation of the story into pictures. Low end catalogs, real estate brochures, those car rags next to the gum ball machine at the grocery story all use photography this way. So, goddam boring *snore*. This does not serve the reader, it only serves the editors unconscious plan (my theory) that the photography only support the story not equal or trump it. High level photography and photo editing brings additional information about a subject to the story and when it’s really cracking the reader reacts emotionally. In my book “that photo makes me want to throw-up” is way better than “it’s fine by me.”
I have a sweet technique I use for finding the great images from a shoot that really tends to piss-off the editors: I edit the film without reading the story. This helps me tune into which images have the most impact on me and which ones transcend subject matter and become forces in their own right. When you read the story first you react differently to images that match important plot points and wrongly ascribe more weight to them.
Once you’ve found the images you want to use how do you defend them? There’s always the time honored technique of the scowling Director of Photography telling everyone that will listen that these are the best images from the shoot and to publish anything else would be the greatest tragedy in the history of all magazine making, to be used as an example for future generations of the perilous pitfalls associated with not listening to the DOP when it comes to the goddam photography.
If you can’t use intimidation you need to find language to describe the photography beyond the obvious lighting, focus, exposure and subject matter. Editors will use those terms to determine if a photograph is good or bad and it’s an easy trap to fall into but as photo editors we know the power of photography lies in its ability to affect us emotionally and there is no literal translation to the emotions it projects (or some shit). The first place to look is the fine art world, because they have shattered any preconception that focus, exposure and subject matter have anything to do with what makes a photograph great. And, they’ve plumbed the depths of an emotional connection in photography for such a long time they’ve developed a whole language and way of speaking about it that makes it somewhat easier to understand and explain to laymen.
The best place to start and develop your language for photography is anything written by John Szarkowski, who recently passed away, but was the Director of Photography at the MOMA from 1962 to 1991. I started with these two books:
John gives you language to defend photography, an important skill to have.