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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Art & Craft Of Modern Storytelling

How to make a compelling photo essay in the Internet age


This Article Features Photo Zoom
Michael Freeman is a virtuoso of the photo essay. In this article, we show several images from his project on tea. It's destined to be a full book, but editing down to a smaller group of images makes for a very compelling photo essay. Above: The leader of Baja Akha village on Bulangshan tea mountain, near Menghai, Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China, rolling tea leaves that have just been panfried.


The photo essay came of age in the heyday of the large-circulation, general-interest print magazines, like Life, Look, Picture Post and Paris Match. 35mm handheld photography was relatively new, and it enabled photographers to work fast and loose around almost any subject. Circulations could be huge—Life at its peak was printing more than 13 million copies a week—so there was money to put into commissioning and into developing how these stories were presented. For at least 70 years it has been the engine that drove editorial photography. Dramatic, shocking, humble, workaday, innovative, the photo essay became for the print era the model for packaging a story and delivering it to an audience. What hasn't happened, however, is that the photo essay is going down with the ship. The big magazines have either gone or are on their way down, but the photo essay itself has an independent life—and an interesting, different future.

What makes a photo essay or picture story (the terms are interchangeable) is a sequence of photographs that all together tell a story to an audience. A photo essay can't exist without an audience, which is worth bearing in mind when it comes to crafting one. If you simply want to show your best images, the place to do that is a gallery wall or a gallery feature in a magazine; it wouldn't qualify as a photo essay.

The Fundamental Structure Of A Photo Essay
A photo essay always has a theme, a reason for being and a carefully thought-through sequence of images. It's never just a collection of images thrown into a folder and up-loaded to make a scattering of images in print, on a gallery wall or in a slideshow. I don't mean this as throwaway advice, but as a way of introducing the idea of structure. The photo essay evolved, particularly through the 1940s to 1960s, as a way of telling a story mainly through pictures, and the heart always remained the "story."


A horse caravan passing the Bending Building in the 600-year-old town of Heshun in southwest Yunnan, China.
Storytelling is one of the oldest ways in which people communicate ideas and entertain, and it has its own basic dynamics, whether using words, pictures or sound, or any combination of these. There's much to learn from nonvisual ways of storytelling, right back to the storyteller by a campfire. It turns out that there's a very basic structure that's common to just about every tale. It works in three acts and has, in addition, a climax or two. I call it three plus one.

3+1
Look at any good photo essay—and there are many great examples from the history of magazine feature photojournalism—and you'll see that it has a clear structure. There's the opening shot, the body of the essay and the closing shot. These are the three. In addition, there will be one or maybe two high-impact images somewhere within the story. These are the "key shots," the one in three plus one. This structure forms the basic building blocks of any photo essay, and it also forms the basic structure of other narrative and artistic forms like the short story or music. Naturally, there are variations and complications that can be played with, but if you follow this fundamental structure, you're following a dramatic outline that works. Each photograph has a defined job to do.



 

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