Living in the world overflooded with photographic images creates an effect when one’s images look like many others already seen before, vanishing from a viewer’s memory just as fast as they entered it. If we want to catch a viewer’s attention, we have to think about how our work can stand out within a sea of images.
When I think about what is it that makes one’s images to stand out, a combination of two ingredients come to my mind: way of presenting a subject matter and personal visual style. I will shortly elaborate on both of them.
Way of presenting a subject matter
A unique subject matter or a subject matter presented in a unique way will certainly increase the chance for a project to become memorable. As Derrick Price and Liz Wells put it, “photographs can also exhaust experiences, using up the beautiful through rendering it into cliché” (2015: 33). Choosing a vague or common subject matter presented in an ordinary way an artist risks his work to be banal, too cliché or simply uninteresting for the audience, for example, one of such subjects being sunsets. The world wide web is overflooded with repetitive images of sunsets to the point that they have become banal. The subject has been photographed so often that it has become simply uninteresting, unless presented in an extraordinary way. To be precise, choosing an ordinary subject matter doesn’t always mean that the work is going to be ordinary. “An ordinary object can be elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist” (Marcel Duchamp, 1938: 23 in Hector Obalk, 2000), and the success of it depends on the way how the work is presented. Furthermore, according to Charlotte Cotton, “there is no such thing as an un-photographed or un-photographable subject. It is for us to determine a subjects’ significance, knowing it must have one, for the artist has photographed it and thereby designated it as significant” (2020: 115). Similar viewpoint is expressed by Susan Sontag who suggested that “to photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified; moreover, there is no way to supress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects” (1973: 22). Since photography has been a part of visual expression already for almost two centuries, it can be difficult or even impossible to make work around a truly unique subject matter as everything has already been photographed during the last 200 years, however common things can always be presented in unique ways. Finding an unusual way how to make work will certainly increase the chance of it becoming original and memorable. A good example of this is David Robinson’s work about such a common subject as fungi and presented via luminograms to illustrate a story about a mushroom named Penny Bun (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1: Robinson 2012. Penny Bun [luminogram]
Moreover, developing a project that in some way is personal to the artist will increase the artist’s engagement with the project. The subject matter is not only presented in a unique way by Robinson, but also has a personal bond with his everyday life. Robinson is a co-founder of Sporeboys, a mushroom street-food kitchen touring food markets in London and events across the UK. Picking mushrooms is an activity that Robinson does very often and it has inspired him to develop the children storybooks “The Mushroom Picker” (2012) and “Penny Bun Helps Save the World” (2018).
In comparison to Robinson’s work, the photographer April Pulley Sayre has achieved the opposite effect with her work for the children’s storybook “Best in Snow” (2016). Pulley Sayre has photographed snow and water in diverse winter conditions. The photographs are more informative than artistic, revealing straightforward information about different winter weather conditions in relation to water, from thick clouds to frozen water. However, wat is unique about the book, is its creative text, but the visual images lack an original way of presenting the subject matter, thus the photographs are not unique or memorable in any way (Figure 2).
Fig. 2: Pulley Sayre 2016. On a squirrel’s nose [photographic image]
Taking it into consideration that what makes one’s work to stand out in between many others is the way of representing it, I have chosen to present the poem ‘What happens to leaves When they fall off trees’ in a playful way by pairing, matching and mirroring images so that the final representation would become more memorable than a straightforward shot of an ordinary object. For example, Figure 3 shows an image of a tree reflection in a pond. The image has been cut and arranged in a way that differs from a traditional form of presenting images.
Fig. 3: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Painting by the Sun on Water Canvas [digital photographic images]
Furthermore, besides digital photographic images I have incorporated other elements in my work (handmade leaf paper, sound track and a cyanotype postcard) to make it more diverse and interactive for a child to interact with. When it comes to used methods, I have used a digital camera to obtain the images. However, experimentation to me is an important part of the process as well. By using a pinhole body cap, reversing a lens and making a cyanotype print I am exploring the subject matter from different viewpoints, partly also in a hope that the used methods will create an interest in a child to further develop a discussion about what and why makes them different from regular digital photographic images. The combination of different materials (tactile, visual and audial) help to increase the overall engagement with the book. A child can view an image in a combination with, for example, listening to sounds that correspond to the visual message, taken at exactly the same place where the image comes from (see Figure 4).
Fig. 4: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Morning’s Diversity [Top and Bottom: a pair of digital photographic images; Middle: mixed sound recording]
Lastly, the reason behind developing the project “What happens to leaves When they fall off trees?” also has a deep personal value to me. The title of the poem shouldn’t be perceived literally, but rather figuratively, as leaves in the book represent any living creature and the book should be seen as a starting point for a conversation between an adult and a child about what happens when someone dies. The inspiration for the book comes from my personal life out of a need to find a way how one day to explain my soon-to-be-born child what happened to his deceased sister, why is she not with us and what happened to her after she died. The topic of death is certainly not an easy one to explain to a child and one has to be sensitive about how to explain it. I have chosen to do it in a way that seemed most appropriate to me personally by using elements from the natural world as metaphors for complex subject matters represented in a subtle, gentle way. The poem doesn’t provide a reader with any specific answer to the question what happens after someone dies, but it can be a way how to introduce the topic of death to a child. Finally, at the end of the poem a child is offered an opportunity to give his own reaction to the topic by leaving a response in a form of writing a postcard to the one who died in the family (Figure 5).
Fig. 5: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Leaving a Footprint Behind [cyanotype, bleached and then toned in leaf water solution]
The choice of the postcard to be a cyanotype was made in relation with the text it complements:
“Lastly, be assured that we all leave a footprint behind
And are never forgotten by the closest to us of our kind.
In the end the Mother Tree’s trustworthy belief
Brought peace and hope to the little leaf.”
When people who are dear to us suddenly die, we never forget them. They leave a footprint in our memory just like a leaf can leave a print by using a cameraless photography technique. To make the cyanotype print more appropriate for the project, the regular blue toned cyanotype was bleached and then toned in leaf water solution in order for it to get its brownish autumn leaf colour (Figure 6).
Fig. 6: Kalmane Saksens 2022. Toning cyanotype prints in leaf water solution
Personal visual style
Developing one’s individual visual style can take years and is certainly one of the most difficult tasks to do as an artist. Without a personal visual style an artist risks becoming transparent and unnoticed within the fine art industry. The only way how to find one’s style is through trial and error. Experimentation with colours, shapes, forms etc. can be recommended to see what works and what doesn’t. One of the photographers who has successfully formed his own individual visual language is Stephen Gill with his Night Procession series (Figure 7). His photographs definitely stand out among many others, having a very specific colour palette that is unusual when compared to other images of the same subject matter.
Fig 7: Gill c.2014-2017. The Night Procession series
The yellowish-brown and grey colour palette creates a mysterious, nostalgic effect, and in the combination with unusual angles Gill manages to capture a viewer’s attention long enough for the images to stay in one’s memory significantly longer than many other night-time animal related images that can be found on the world wide web (see Figure 8 for comparison). When a similar topic (animals at night) is googled online, one gets an offer of hundreds of images that are all similarly presented with full animal portraits, often in high resolution and full colour.
Fig. 8: Google 2022. Google results for ‘photographs of animals at nigh’ [screenshot]
Gills images are not perfect portraits of animals, they have more of the unpredictable animal nature characteristics and uniqueness in them than the images offered by Google. Similarly like Gill, I have tried to find the right colour palette for my series ‘What happens to leaves when they fall off trees’. The choice of the vintage brownish faded colour palette was made on purpose. As the project is meant as a discussion about life after death, the intention was for the colour palette to create associations with decay and fading life. Autumn season is a natural inspiration for such colours, when the lush green outdoor surroundings change into reddish-brown colours, creating associations with coldness, dreary weather and age. Therefore, all images have a unified faded colour palette. In order to make the images even more different from others in the contemporary sea of images, they have been created by playing with the concepts of pairing, framing and sometimes mirroring (see Figure 9). Since the project is intended as a book for children, to keep their attention going from a page to a page a decision was made to keep a variety of image framing and positioning types (vertical, horizontal, square form, rectangular form, etc.) and a variety of how many images are displayed (one, two, three or four). I believe the image combinations have a certain amount of representational uniqueness in them, however I also think that perhaps choosing one certain style of representation would have united the images even more (something to keep in mind in the future).
Fig. 9: Kalmane Saksens 2022. ‘What happens to leaves when they fall off trees’ series
LIST OF REFERENCES
COTTON, Charlotte. 2020. The Photograph As Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
DUCHAMP, Marcel. 1938. Dictionnaire Abrégé du Surréalisme. In OBALK, Hector. 2000. The Unfindable Readymade. In Toutfait [online]. Available at: https://www.toutfait.com/the-unfindable-readymade/ [accessed March 14, 2022].
PRICE, Derrick and WELLS, Liz. 2015. ‘Thinking about photography: debates, historically and now’. In Liz Wells (ed.). 2015. Photography: a Critical Introduction : A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.
SONTAG, Susan. 1973. On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks LLC.
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1: ROBINSON, David. 2012. Penny Bun [luminogram]. In David Robinson. 2012. The Mushroom Picker. London: Violette Editions.
Figure 2: PULLEY SAYRE, April. 2016. On a squirrel’s nose [photographic image]. In April Pulley Sayre. 2016. Best In Snow. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Figure 3: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Painting by the Sun on Water Canvas [digital photographic images].
Figure 4: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Morning’s Diversity [Top and Bottom: a pair of digital photographic images; Middle: mixed sound recording].
Figure 5: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Leaving a Footprint Behind [cyanotype, bleached and then toned in leaf water solution].
Figure 6: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. Toning cyanotype prints in leaf water solution.
Figure 7: GILL, Stephen. c.2014-2017. The Night Procession series. From Stephen Gill [online]. 'Portfolio: Night Procession'. Available at: https://www.stephengill.co.uk/portfolio/portfolio/nggallery/album-1-2/Night-Procession/thumbnails [accessed 14 March 2021].
Figure 8: GOOGLE. 2022. Google results for ‘photographs of animals at nigh’ [screenshot]. From Google [online]. Available at: https://www.google.nl/search?q=photographs+of+animals+at+night&tbm=isch&ved=2ahUKEwiul4HN-cX2AhUMi_0HHXdJBzcQ2-cCegQIABAA&oq=photographs+of+animals+at+night&gs_lcp=CgNpbWcQAzoECAAQQzoFCAAQgAQ6BggAEAcQHjoICAAQCBAHEB5QsRZY5Sdg5CloAHAAeACAAVmIAbwHkgECMTaYAQCgAQGqAQtnd3Mtd2l6LWltZ8ABAQ&sclient=img&ei=m2MvYu7dEYyW9u8P95KduAM&bih=866&biw=1895&hl=en [accessed 14 March 2022].
Figure 9: KALMANE SAKSENS, Ruta. 2022. ‘What happens to leaves when they fall off trees’ series.