Saturday Evening Post #152: Adventures in Visual Literacy

One of my previous mentors and a blog I follow, is David DuChemin. A practicing photographer, photo-journalist and mentor-trainer.
On a recent post, “What makes this image work”  David struck a note that parallels my own photo expression.

He talks about being able to de-construct the image to work out the elements that make it successful, and any that might detract from the story. Worth the read if you like to think about why some pictures are more memorable than others.

It is a process I’ve been fortunate to have been taught a long long time back when I was a mere wee broth of a photographer, and still wet behind the shutter button.

One of my great mentors, and a notable photographic friend and a staunch ally was, and I’ve mentioned him before in past blogs, John Harris.
John had a way of teaching that made people want to learn.  He would often say about deconstruction of a photo, “What we are looking for is the photo inside the photo.”

John and I first met when I was, for want of a better term, acting as Stage Manager for a major photographic convention and National Judging event.  Judging of National and International competitions is on par with any blood sport, and emotions, egos and competitive angst abound.
So it was not surprising that during the running of the event, as I was co-ordinating it, I was told, “John Harris is coming!”   Fear and trepidation would be the hallmark of such an appearance.  John will want to change the colour of the room. John will need those curtains to be pulled back (or forward, or removed), John, will bring his own equipment and the current gear will need to be removed. Don’t expect John to accept the furniture layout, it will need to be changed, etc, etc, and etc.
Quite the demand list it seemed.  Pity is we were running on a tight time schedule, a budget that didn’t exist and we had a power of work to get through in the time allotted. Changes, however small, were not going to happen, let alone be tolerated.
And certainly NOT on my Watch.

“John Harris is here” midway through the afternoon, I heard in hushed terms.
I expected some demi-god.  What I got was a pretty decent replica of my own Dad!

He did look the place over, suggest a few changes, we had some words, and eventually we arrived at what I expect could be called an amicable arrangement.  The show went on.

Something between us Clicked—to coin a photographic metaphor.   It was more than just respect.  We would go on to build a great relationship, built primarily around our mutual love of image, and as seekers of the story within.

So much so, that John spent a lot of time over my photos, and their progression, I reciprocated. A process that benefitted both our work.
Together we ran classes for visual literacy, and general photo training.
I was scheduled to run a two day event in a small country town, and while the locals came out in good numbers, just as I was beginning I was a bit shocked to see John Harris come through the door.  He’d heard I was there ,and had driven up specially for the day.  I added him to the programme and as he was an accepted ‘local’, any friend of John’s was a friend of all.  Suddenly I wasn’t just some passing stranger with a few slides to show, I too was part of the community.  Such was John’s prowess.

A programme we developed together, and did successfully run for several years, involved image deconstruction. John had collected a large folio of tear sheets from a range of magazines, and we would pass them out to small groups at the event ,and have them highlight the elements of the visual.  Much as David D is asking in his blog.
John’s skill was making the images meaningful, mine was getting each of the groups to communicate what they were seeing and experiencing. What lens, shutter speed, lighting, point of view, emotion, visual elements and the like, so that everyone could both share their experience with the photo, and of course hopefully use the gained knowledge in their own work.

David’s current image of the coffee barista at work is a classic shot for deconstruction.  No two of us are ever going to agree on what should and shouldn’t be in the image.  As John would remark, “If we all agreed, then someone could take One Photo of the Subject and we’d never need to take our Cameras out again. Art that is not growing is Dead!”

Thanks David for the insight, Thanks John for the memories.

A Black-shouldered Kite, hunting pre-dawn. Too simple? : Or simply Abstract?


8 thoughts on “Saturday Evening Post #152: Adventures in Visual Literacy

  1. An interesting read David, on another aspect of your fascinating journey through your photographic career. It is encouraging to share ones story, as there are always parts that touch the lives of any one of us in a constructive and inspiring way. Interesting capture of the Black-shouldered Kite, I often have difficulty capturing them hovering, due to back-lighting. It has now been months since we have seen anything other than a backyard bird. Here’s hoping and praying for a way out of this prison. Stay safensane my friend 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Ashley, The lockdown has indeed driven us to treasure the days out we previously took for granted.
      I have refrained from wandering back though the photo library this time around, just get too sad at seeing what we were doing, and how many projects had to be abandoned because of the inability to get out.
      Just living each day and doing our best to keep the faith in the ‘roadmap’ ahead.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A fascinating read, David! Great to learn a part of your story.
    Must say the line ‘we were running on a tight time schedule, a budget that didn’t exist’ brought a wry smile.
    It is great to click with a mentor in any field, I have been very fortunate in that regard to my own work. And will deconstruct an image in a similar way that I will deconstruct a sound mix, mine or someone else’s. And is great that no two of us will have the same thoughts on an image (or mix). Even better when we learn from such processes and progress in the field. With birding it may be that we know we need to take those two steps to the left, step the f stop one, zoom, either in or out and when that becomes intuitive we are heading in the right direction. I guess it helps to have in mind just what we are trying to achieve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. G,day, yeah, I thought long and hard about how to phrase that, knowing you’d find it either amusing or downright enervating. 🙂

      I have been remarkably fortunate over my entire career to have worked (from time to time), with really superb mentors. People who have been willing to see where I should be going and looking for ways to help me see it and achieve it.
      Also, sadly I’ve been mislead and taken up blind alleys by those who saw me as a step on their own career. But I think that makes the gems only shine brighter in the darkness.

      I long ago committed to giving back as much as possible, and its always amazing to meet up with photographers who are willing to share their view and vision of the world around us.

      Keep takin pictures, we do!


  3. I know a bloke who is just like your Mr Harris. Without his similar patience , instruction and encouragement towards me, I suspect I’d still be sitting in a room pulling wires apart. Now while I still find that of interest I don’t think anyone around me nor teachers of past schools etc ever recognised I had a creative streak as well. While I only really started in the later years to discover this freedom of thought, its proof that’s its never too late. It takes a village to raise a child but it generally only requires one person to provide the belief and reason to that child to mature past childhood. Luckily some of us have had these mentors. Some of us are understanding enough to pass such knowledge on. My Mr Harris knows who he is (I hope) and I take this place to officially say thanks because I know he’ll read it 😉

    Literacy, hmm not a strong point of mine. Too many of my early years spent on the pursuit of sports, amongst other things. There is an intuitive eye and there is the eye of learning and somewhere in all the grey mush in between is the rest of us. To me it’s a massive struggle to describe an image, with little to know upbringing in such things to fall back on. I can easily look at dozens in a gallery and pick out, fairly quickly, ones I “like” but answering the why is often not as clear cut. Well not with words anyway. I was recently astounded at myself for really loving the “fashion” in the movie Cruella. If it had been any other production than that of Disney I’d allow myself this indulgence. I have been seduced by the dark side it seems. I think we would all be better off with the collective hive mind of the Borg.
    Anyway I’m still playing with Davids barista. However I must say that over the last few years, words are starting to form. I think I’m “cat on the mat” level.


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