Category Archives: Using Photos

Portrait or Headshot?

This portrait of my grandfather is one I value but it tells little about his life.

Are you writing a life story? Do you want to include a portrait or two of your subject? Let’s say you are planning to write a lengthy book or a short article. Your purpose could be to present the life of someone you admire or someone whose life has troubled you. You might be contributing to a family history or paying tribute to an individual on a special occasion. Whether your audience is family or readers in the larger world, likely, you plan to include at least one picture of the individual, and you are stuck. Which one is best?

At an earlier date, I wrote about a Karsh exhibit, and most certainly, he was a master at capturing personality in portraiture, but let’s be realistic. You won’t have Karsh quality photos at your fingertips.

 In fact, I seldom use headshots to accompany my writing. Why? Well, usually, they tell us very little about the person. Subjects pose for portraits, so the photos don’t capture the natural expressions of the individual. When possible, I prefer photos that have “story” or even actions in them. I like ones in which people are surrounded with things that are actually part of their lives. Of course, the individual may be away from home or even on a very exotic holiday. As a result, holiday photos may not reflect everyday feelings. When travelling, people are often more or less happy than when we are at home. Still, there is personality and story in such photos.

But headshots! Well, probably most people have cringed at the image of themselves used on passports, driver’s licences and similar identification documents. When I see my own, I can’t help but think, “Is that really me?” However, for legal documents, officials don’t want us to smile and look happy. Rather, they prefer to see the way we will look when police stop us with ticket in hand.

Am I saying that a portrait never works for me? No. Sometimes, photographers have interesting backdrops or subjects are encouraged to dress in costume, and I find those photos fascinating. But the backdrop or costume is not the person.

Also, some portraits convey little of the personality of the individual but reveal a great deal about the era of the photo. For instance, the hairstyle might be a perfect reflection of how the individual responded to the culture of the time. And that is personality. Whether the hair style comes from the late 1800s, 1920s or 1960s, we learn about both the person and the time frame.

However, the best portraits tell us even more about the person. Of course, most are still just head-and-shoulder shots, but if the person is wearing a uniform, we learn a great deal about the individual. If the uniform is a prison, school or military uniform, we have the potential for story. If the clothes are expensive-looking, we have yet another story.

Some headshots do tell us very little. Maybe you have to choose two headshots to create one story. For example, in one portrait the subject is a teenager but in the other, the person is now a senior. The differences are always significant. Some of the changes relate to weight and age, but occasionally we see personality changes, too.  The happy young person became bitter, or the angry teenager has developed smile lines. We know there is story behind the very different images, and generally, we would love to learn more. If there is nothing to discover in the image, if it is simply a headshot, keep searching for one that has a little more meaning or story.

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Just Thinking: Words and Pictures

Last week I posed a number of questions. Have you considered your preferred learning style? What is it? What impact might that have on you, your knowledge or your work? Eventually, I will have a guest write about learning styles because the subject is interesting, and our learning style may affect what we choose to do or not do in writing and in life. Most certainly, learning style affects how we respond to school, courses or workshops.

For now, the question from last week remains, “How do you respond to photos accompanied by text, whether as captions or in running text?”and “How do you respond to photos without accompanying text?”

Acknowledging that some photos are truly art and not focused on sharing information, I posted photos without text. The implied question was “How important are visual literacy skills —as opposed to print literacy skills—for you?” Of course, it was all in fun, and of course, if we are fortunate, we are all able to learn from both visuals and print.

Having published photo histories and included many photos in my books and workshops, the questions and concepts are undoubtedly more important to me than to most people. Admittedly, some images do not need captions to be meaningful. Sometimes, captions clarify what may be important information within images. A caption may use the image as a beginning point to expand upon an idea. On still other occasions, the tension between the printed caption and the image can be meaningful.

So, what about the images that I posted? None were intended as art photos, which stand on their own artistic merits. I shot all of them at Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village in early summer, 2011. My camera was a Cannon PowerShot SD 500 Digital Elph, which would now be considered old. I am not the photographer in the family and know next to nothing about cameras. However, here are my additional comments, some of which reflect my writing process.

This photo benefits from explanation. Because it is coloured, clearly, it is not from the old days. Here a costumed interpreter stands in the enclosed porch of a small pioneer home. Items surrounding her suggest the lifestyle of many western Canadian settlers. Most interesting is the ladder leading to the attic hidden from view. Root vegetables and supplies that might be subject to freezing were often stored there. The concept was fuel efficient since heat from the cook stove, which also provided home heating, kept the attic warm. Also, if the family was older or too large, the attic could be used for sleeping.

A research image for me, the photo reveals a very effective method of  using sod for the roof. Notches were cut in the mud wall for each layer of sod. The method created partially overlapping layers, which would make the roof more stable and weatherproof.

The photo captures what the eye sees fairly well. From the small domes, the church appears to be an Eastern Orthodox Church but the photo reveals little information about the religion or community. However, the information that is readily available and might be added.

Again, this visual does a reasonable job of capturing the image of a prairie elevator with two railcars beside it. A Home Grain elevator, the structure is in good shape compared to the few left standing elsewhere around the country. Little additional information is apparent from the photo. However extensive related history is widely available. There seems to be too much foreground in the image, but for many rural prairie people (except the young), elevators are symbolic and emotional subjects.

This is another research photo. On the roof of the early shelter, a stove pipe is visible. The front mudded wall suggests a wood frame, but natural shadows create uncertainty.  Question: Since the tiny home is in a treed area, why would the settler not simply build a small log cabin? Did the individual or family arrive too late in the year, and winter was setting in? (In fact, going inside of the shelter, tells more of the story.)

So, these words and pictures reveal something of my own learning style and writing process with regard to nonfiction and public histories. Still, I’ve said nothing about how a poem might surface for me or how I respond to photography as art. Yet, sometimes just contemplating process is fun—at least for me.

Self Test: Photos With or Without Text

Photos are essential in photo essays and are great in collages. Yes, there is a difference between a photo essay and a collage, but both are interesting, whether presented as art, on a poster, in a book, scrapbook or magazine, or on the Net. Neither form needs text, and in both forms, story or an important progression of ideas might be evident. Certainly for me, with or without text, photos have unbelieveable potential in captivating us emotionally, intellectually and artistically.

 I’m a writer not an artist or photographer. Yet I find it interesting to think about whether photos, on their own, are as effective as those with photo captions.  Often enough, teachers assign photo essays and collages, and some assignments are to be completed with text, others without text.

I firmly believe visual literacy is essential in today’s world, and I often try to promote it when visiting classrooms. But also, I suggest that contemplating how such elements work in our own learning process is time well spent. Might there be a difference in terms of how artists, writers and readers respond to photos appearing with or without text? Personally, I suspect there is.

 So, I’ve included this self text for you. Oh, there is absolutely nothing scientific about it. Yet, I was surprised  when one of my very best friends—who for years was a special education teacher, an elementary teacher and an elementary principal—said that I might be a multimodal learner or close to it. But what in the world would that  mean for me?

Already, I realized that words and print were central to my learning style. Also, I knew that I loved visual works, whether fine art or photography. Too, for me, like many other writers, the senses of sight, smell and touch are important.

Do I learn effectively through oral or sound experiences? I like hearing interesting speakers, but listening may not be my best learning mode. Today, countless slide shows and videos present images  accompanied by music, with or without lyrics. I enjoy the images, hear the music but I have trouble picking up the exact words, perhaps because I am too distracted by the images and music to mentally process the lyrics.

So, think about it.  Do you most enjoy photographs when displayed for their visual and artistic merits only? Do you prefer the type of visual presentation that includes music and lyrics? Do you gravitate to photos accompanied by a context and caption?

 The attached images  aren’t intended as great photo art. Still, maybe great works would be so captivating we would find it more difficult to evaluate our responses. 

Next week, I’ll give you a context and captions for the images, but, think about your preferred learning style and responses. And remember, this is just for fun and has absolutely no scientific basis!