English is my second language. In the beginning, long, long time ago, every student had to choose a foreign language to study as part of the high school curriculum and I chose, or was told to choose, English. The standard books in all the schools then was a series by E. V. Gatenby with short chapters and questions at the end of each. For various reasons, we kept reading the same book for at least a couple of years and as the English teacher changed in mid year because the previous one moved, we started from the beginning. To this day, I remember “The Browns went to the seaside for their summer holiday. The train was full, but they all found seats.” Needless to say, I did not learn much English in high school.
A foreign language was also a requirement in college and my studies continued with marginal growth of my knowledge of English. I tried reading books to learn more words and different sentence structures, usage, and so on. But, the real jump came when I went to London as a graduating college senior for internship at the Port of London Authority. My command of the language was still rather limited, so I compensated by imagining how various conversations may go during the day and figured out how I might respond. I more or less memorized my future conversations for the day! My use of the language, with all its faults, was based on patterns, rules, and how I perceived others’ expectations for response. I noticed some improvements though, I could go to a coffee shop and order coffee and something to eat, and even got what I ordered!
I went to a school after my internship and studied English more formally with British instructors and we did not use Gatenby! For reading, they chose Animal Farm by George Orwell because it contained a large number of words used in different ways. The school was a good experience; I took a test at the end and received The Lower Cambridge Certificate in English! Wow!
The long-winded introduction was to make a point that learning a new language is a long and tedious process, filled with mistakes, recoveries, laughter, embarrassment, with a steep learning curve. Over the years, after spending a couple of years in the US studying for my MBA and then later permanently moving here allowed me to improve my skill in spoken and written English. For many years now, I have been writing without “translating” as I used to do in my early days of learning the language.
Photography is also a language. It has its vocabulary, its grammar, syntax, style, etc. Beginning photographers generally focus (no pun intended) on limited subjects with limited vocabulary, like I did during my Gatenby years. I had no idea about constructing a sentence on my own beyond repeating “The Browns went …” For many beginning photographers the first few additions to their photographic vocabulary are “beautiful,” “nice,” “cute,” “amazing,” “lovely,” and the like. They generally try to find something they consider “beautiful” and photograph it to record that. The expected response to this is of course “beautiful.” This is very similar to the stage in my learning English when I first went to London, everything planned according to others’ expectations.
I love looking at photographs, all kinds, to improve my visual vocabulary; try to understand the structure of the photographs to learn new ways of expressing ideas. It has come to a point where I consider photography as sustenance, something I need like food or water. I will highly recommend this to anyone really interested in photography for with limited vocabulary and syntax you can only say so much. And, just as you would not read a book more than once, maybe twice, there is not much to gain from looking at the same or similar photographs all the time. Get outside of your usual genre, if you are a nature photographer, look at some street photography; or the other way around. There are more similarities than you think among various genres of photography.
In writing, or spoken language we develop and use our own style. There is no sense in imitating Hemingway because first, it will be a repeat of what he has already done; second, in all likelihood it will be a poor imitation; third, it will not speak our own voices. Sometimes, to make a point we take quotations from other authors because their word may carry more weight. Likewise, people try to do the same or similar things that well-known photographers might have photographed. To some extent, this is understandable but after a point it may actually stifle creativity; imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but that does not help one to develop own ideas and styles.
Verbalizing the visual sounds like an anathema to many, especially doing so outside the rules and expectations of the others, like I used to do with English conversations. Actually the rules about photography should be considered anathema for they are neither the language of photography nor do they lead to higher levels of creativity and expertise. For instance, one of the oft heard rules is the dreaded “rule of thirds”. Most people who preach this rule may not even know the reason for it but will use it and want you to do the same. Besides, how does one explain masterful photographs by great photographers who do not give a hoot about the rule of thirds? Or others like, do not center your subject or the horizon, or do not cut the top of the head, or avoid edge mergers, make the subject look in to the frame rather than out, and many, many more. These photographers are not “breaking the rules” but they “don’t care about the rules.” Eventually, we can all rise above the rules and let our vision, emotions, feelings guide how we make photographs. Here are some samples you may want to study. I have explored the idea of rules, learning, and experts in another post about 10 years ago. It may be a good one to read to accompany this post.
So far I have not mentioned much about the language of photography but focused mainly on the nature of photography and how “it speaks” using its own language. Learning this language is not any different from learning any other language. It starts slow, with a few words, simple structures, following some rules, imitating other patterns. But it must not stop there, after all you learn a language for more than just to say hello, ask for directions to the bus stop, and order a cup of coffee. You want to learn to use the language to express ideas, your ideas, in your style, using new structures that will delight the viewers.
I will continue the conversation in future post(s) on the same subject. Stay tuned.