Why do we forget certain tales, while others remain in our mind forever?
Around 1963, Julio Cortazar gave a talk called "Algunos aspectos del cuento" (Some aspects about short stories*) in which he analyzed the things that make a great story, separating them from those that simply fade away in the sands of time, along with the name of their unfortunate authors. Why is this relevant to photography? Because, in his own words, it is impressive to see that photography and short tale writers have a lot in common, and after drinking some tequila, I started to see his point very, very clearly.
Understand, first, that a short story must captivate and impress in twenty pages or less. It doesn't have the luxury of a novel, where you can establish transitions and turn of events with patience and detail. Every little word in a short story, from the very beginning, is aiming at those little creatures in our literary mind and hitting them with unsuspected skill. And then, suddenly, the narrative unfolds and explodes, and we see the incredible "picture" of the story with excitement and surprise!
How do they do that?
(and why is this similar to photography?)
It starts with the theme or subject. If you are familiar with Magic Realism, you will know that the theme doesn't have to be amazing or uncommon. Quite the contrary: nothing impresses more than the familiar, when seen upside down. How amazing it is to gaze at those little exceptions that break the rules of our conventionalism! The hidden universe of things, the dark life of a salt shaker. So the theme can be common, but it must be able to evolve in the mind of the reader, to grow and reach philosophical highs as far as the audience wants to take them. Borrowing words from Cortazar: Even a rock can be amazing if Kafka is writing about it.
Photography is no different. You take frames of reality. It is your job as an artist to show the amazing nature of everyday things. Go far beyond the rules of composition. Dive into the matter that makes humanity: thought, emotion, form, texture, light, color, shape, contrast of people, objects, ideas. Observe, select one. Pick something that expresses that theme in your mind: And there it is, the subject of your tale!
And then remember that you only have but a frame to engulf the audience and make them tremble.
So the next thing is the way you present it. A successful short story builds up tension from the very beginning. As we said before, there is no time for elaborated descriptions. Go right to the heart of the matter, trick, direct, divert, take the attention of the reader by the hand and throw him, head-first, into the fire of your literary incantation. See that we must do the same in photography: play with light, shape, and form to show exactly what we want to show. No time for more than a subject or theme, the most effective pictures are those that drive you right into that immensely strong idea. No room for dwelling around the frame. The eye is pinned right into it, and stays there.
And then your audience wonders about the abstract meaning of it all, but only after they felt the masterfully delivered emotional blow of your creation. You leave them wondering, you leave them feeling a tingle on the back of their neck. You changed something inside.
And that is the precise moment where you succeed.
I think the whole idea can be expressed thus: Create with tension, show with intensity.
From this perspective, why is somebody a good photographer? Because that person is able to see the theme, realize its potential, synthesize the idea, isolate and enhance it, and show it to the world in a frozen instant that, true as an arrow, says it all.
*Cuento, in this case, is better translated as "short story" although the direct translation is "tale"