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Do Your Photographs Evoke Emotion?

The colorful rocks, colorful reflections and the water and the graphic elements in this image created a visceral or emotional reaction to me - enough to compose it and click the shutter! Copyright 2011 Andy Richards

It’s just emotion that’s taking me over.” This short lyrical riff from the 70’s era Samantha Sang song, Emotion,” (written and performed by the Gibbs brothers – the Bee Gees) might just be a good photographic theme (just to assure those of you might be worried, no, I was not/am not a Disco fan – but you have to admit, some of the music had rhythm and melody that was just – well, catchy 🙂 ).

A recent photo contest statement illustrates the sentiment. The art director for the sponsor noted that what he was looking for was images that would evoke an emotional response. That got me thinking about whether my images evoke any emotional response, and if so, could I articulate it? Looking through some of my images, I asked myself, do they evoke an emotion? And if I thought the answer was yes, how could I articulate the emotion? Did they make me sad, happy, angry, excited, euphoric or depressed? Almost universally, I could not label any of my images with those traditional emotional responses. So what, exactly does it mean to have an “emotional response” to an image?

That got me thinking about whether my images evoke any emotional response, and if so, could I articulate it?

My conclusions are equivocal. On a purely empirical level, I suppose it can be said that every photograph evokes some emotion. We often see and hear comments like, “nice,” “beautiful,” “awesome,” “great composition,” “well – seen,” and the like. Less often, it may be “ho-hum,” or “yuck, that’s awful,”(though I suspect these latter comments are more often thought than heard or seen 🙂 ).

Photography is all about light. I have always been drawn to moving water and those slow-exposures that create a silky effect to it. But here, the "angel hair" texture to the water with the sunlight and shadow dappling it created an emotional reaction as I looked through the viewfinder: "I like it."
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

Recently, I read a statement by a photographer who said we as photographers often put too much emphasis on our work being liked or accepted by other photographers. It was a statement that resonated with me. While I welcome constructive critique, it is not the “camera club” photo contests and observance of “rules of photography” that is a motivating factor for my images. I want my images have impact generally to viewers who aren’t looking at it as photographers and artists, but just looking at it as an observer.

An image with impact should create an emotional, even perhaps visceral reaction

As I stood on a roadside above, with the October wind buffeting me, all I could think of was the vastness of this rugged, wild countryside. While "vast" is not an emotion, my reaction to it was certainly visceral.
Copyright 2008 Andy Richards

Emotion” is perhaps not the precisely correct word for this phenomenon. An image with impact should create an emotional, even perhaps visceral reaction in the viewer. It needs to strike a chord that makes them keep coming back to it and keep looking at it (and in the economic sense, it has to create a feeling with that viewer that they want to have it hanging on their wall, day after day).

And if not, is the image worth making?

This kaleidoscope of color, sky, reflection and fog/steam in the very cold October dawn in Vermont created a number of emotional and visceral feelings in me (not the least of which was cold!)
Copyright 2010 Andy Richards

As I thought about this, I wondered how reach that emotional “chord” in people? And as I thought more, a plausible answer came to me. Does the image cause a visceral or emotional response in me? If so, there is a pretty good chance it will create that response in the viewer. And if not, is the image worth making?

Thanks for reading

7 Responses

  1. Andy, for the photographer, should the emotion be generated when you make the exposure or when you see the photograph on your computer screen or when you learn of someone else’s emotional response to the photo? I think that is a fair question because you may recall when you made the photograph at the top of this blog piece, you weren’t too impressed with what the location offered. As I recall, you told Rich not to join us.


    • Al: Not only a fair question – but thought provoking. I think the answer, in my own smart-ass way, is “yes.” :-).

      Seriously, it may be a bit of all three. Something made you and I both scramble down that very steep bank, knowing we had a bit of a climb to get back out (if I recall, part of the reason was to find “the shot” you had made some years back, which was being elusive that day). And something made me compose that shot and make the image. I “saw” the colorful rocks and the white water in the background and the swirling reflections in the foreground. Interestingly, Rich and I rarely make the “same” images and usually “see” different things. My comment to Rich was based on my conclusion – after I had made the exposure – that it just didn’t warrant the climb down in – for him. I don’t regret doing it myself.

      Also, your question really touches on another thought that I did not address in the blog. The “intensity” of emotion or visceral reaction. Sometimes I make an image with great excitement and anticipation, only to view it on the “light table” (computer screen) and be underwhelmed, and other times, I take a shot that I believe is “worth taking” but have no or low expectations of, that turns out to be a very nice image – and sometimes compelling image. I guess, in that case, it was more when I later reviewed the image on the computer screen.

      You may recall that the image was the subject of a three part blog by James Moore, analyzing the composition and suggesting that there was an improved composition there, on the scene. I think the learning process moves us in the direction of better “seeing” and “composing” on the scene – something I am personally working on.

      There are certainly multiple reasons why we photograph. For me (and you, I think), a great part of it is the so-called “thrill of the chase.” But the emotion or visceral reaction in the viewer is obviously important as an end. I can’t think of a case of this, but I am sure we all have images that don’t “move” us, only to have others be very moved by them.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking comments!

  2. Andy, I’m on the road between workshops and doing some R&R this evening. IMHO there are two answers to the question you pose: long and short. I could talk for hours about the long response and perhaps convey some of the things that help in this quest.

    However, the short one must do for this space and venue. I hope to keep it relatively concise albeit off the cuff.

    Perhaps I am an artist who has developed very tough skin since I really don’t care much what other photographers think of my work–I’m not creating it for their approval. I create to satisfy myself and for the enjoyment of folks who appreciate good art or good photography–even those who know nothing about art or the medium, but instinctively like a piece becasue it strikes a chord that resonates within them. It took me several years to distill a broad artist statement that describes what it is that I seek to do with the medium: “I believe that creative landscape photography is not about a strict documentary record of a scene; it’s about how a scene looks photographed, imbued with the photographer’s thoughts and feelings. My intent is to capture the beauty of the natural world as I perceive and experience it. My goal is to create inspiring images that are experienced, not seen.”

    I attempt to achieve that goal in a pure and simple manner: if the scene does not excite me I don’t waste my time or the light–I’ve got thousands of pretty “snapshots”, each carefully composed and exposed. I don’t need or want any more and I certainly don’t have the years left to spend the light so foolishly. I must be deeply moved by a scene or, more specifically, overwhelmed with how the light is painting the scene before I can distill its essence and simplify the composition to maximize the emotive effect..and just maybe create a decent photograph worthy of more than a few glances. During that process I am seeing with all of my senses and allowing them to play upon the strings of my heart and soul; then, I selectively eliminate all of them one by one until only the visual input remains so I can see the scene as the camera does.

    Here’s a more “objective” test that has never failed: I always run what I consider to be my “best” images destined for a portfolio past my wife’s eyes. They must pass her approval first. More than a few potential portfolio images have been eliminated in this manner. As a non-photographer and non-visual artist, it’s always surprising to me what she sees and how she reacts to an image. I try to remember what her specific comments are, and what she is attracted to in each image, and then try to employ her comments during my image making opportunities.

    Bottom line: YOU must like the scene a great deal to preserve its moment in time and light and color and thereby attempt to create a great photograph. To clarify, I describe a “great photograph” as an image that one never, ever grows weary from observing; or, one that is always revealing something new with each look; or, one that can be so elegantly simple in aesthetic form and meaning that it transcends time and space to transport the viewer into a state of contemplation and appreciation. In other words, a photograph that can be displayed for 20 years or more and never, ever grow weary of seeing.

    Remember this though: be patient and keep honing your ability to see both photographically and aesthetically. Such images are not the norm; rather, they are the exception. I am trilled when I am able to create 3-4 good images each year.

    BTW, photographers are, as a group, lousy customers: they rarely purchase the work of their peers. It’s a shame because a great deal about the artform can be leaned by intimately studying the fine prints of good photographers.

    • So, Jim, my question to you is, if you are R&R’ing, why are you on my blog? :-).

      Thanks for your always informative and thoughtful insights!

      • I appreciate your confirmation of my post Andy. For me, R&R’ing includes doing things I enjoy, like reading your thoughts. I enjoy reading the thoughts of good photographers as they contemplate the medium and their pursuit of image making–it gives me fresh perspectives to mull over. The writings of master photographers are important but they’re certainly not the only informative voice.

        R&R’ing also includes being a dumb-ass couch potato with no lucid thinking involved. Today is a rest day with work too–I’ve got several consecutive online mentoring sessions beginning now…’bye.

  3. Andy, I posted a response but received a notice about a WordPress account?? If you received my reply, please let me know. Thanks.

  4. As I was writing this blog, I was thinking about a series of photographs by my very talented fried, and professional photographer, Ray Laskowitz. This recent photograph of his on his blog illustrates what I mean by a photograph evoking “emotion” in the viewer.

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