How To Take Boring Photographs
Saturday 26th August 2017 8:17pm
The image above was my first conscious effort to take an irredeemably boring photograph. I saw the image, the mottled wall and unremarkable packing case, on my last day in a property where I had lived for over a decade. The wall stripped bare has little indications of the veneer of a life that it once presented; screw holes and rawlplugs, an old shelf's pencilled guideline. The simple packing case contained the anonymous accoutrements that had adorned the space. It struck me as a scene of mystery, a story of what is not presented, a hint, an intrigue of a life lived. I also liked the colours and the patterns. Just as the property had been stripped bare, this image is stripped of everything we normally struggle to pack into an image. There is no 'rule of thirds' at play, no leading diagonals, not much of anything in classical compositional terms - but it tells the story of departure in the strongest, simplest terms possible. And it shows us how less, can truly be so much more. It invites us not to read the image, but to explore the story.
Digital photography brings us incredible new techniques to create ever more stunning hyperreal imagery: High Dynamic Range, focus stacking, micro-contrast controls, true superzoom capabilities... the ability to see what the eye alone cannot - but technology alone cannot see, reveal, render narrative; cannot tell us stories. However proficient the camera becomes we still need the photographer for that, to understand human life. The hyperreal can become a blocker to this need to isolate and present the story. This article is an attempt to refresh our vision, to show what is possible when we strip our vision back to the bare essentials - to reveal the beauty of the mundane.
The Boring Photograph In Practice
"It was easy to creep down the stone stairway, no worries of creaking boards alerting anyone of my presence, but it seemed such a long way down the hallway to the door, to freedom. I could see the sunlight, pressed up against the window there as a beacon of safety, of normality, but it seemed a distant glow as if the world out there could not penetrate in to this dungeon where I had awoke. I knew not what lurked behind the doors that I must pass, but they stood like sentinels awaiting prey. The hallway is so narrow; if I am caught I am trapped. How many others have fled this way? Is it safe? Is it safe?.."
I find this photograph of an ordinary (and in fact quite innocent) hallway highly evocative. There is no strong dynamic composition, nor super saturated colouration common in contemporary digital photography. There isn't even any obvious 'subject'. And yet, for me, it is a very strong image. The effect is to place the viewer into the role of subject, and it is this that makes the image immersive. By subjugating the composition, the colours, the sense of subject, the photographer is removed from the mix - the image has no meaning in and of itself (it is a boring image); it only comes alive through the act of viewing, in the moment the viewer discovers it.
Here's a boring photograph, an actually boring image. There is no obvious point-of-interest and the colour pallet is highly subdued. In this case the rule of thirds has been followed, placing the horizon below the centreline, but it doesn't help because the image is so devoid of any detail to engage with. It isn't unpleasant but it is pretty forgettable. Perhaps it could be rescued by adding a point of interest, a ship or a bird maybe, but that takes us away from the concept of creating awesome boring images. I wanted to make the most of the vastness of the open sea. To get that point across the image has to be largely empty, but standard compositional rules just gives too much emphasis to the foreground; tries too hard to make the image interesting. To make it work, to create the right emotion, we need to squeeze out even more 'interest' by adding more 'emptiness':
Here's another example of the suppressed foreground, the use of 'emptiness' to evoke a feeling:
The dominance of the dark brick wall is reduced by pushing it low in the frame. It still stands as a very solid barrier, but you are left wanting to see over it to the bright land beyond, to see what this 'Gale Street' is actually like. This is not a photograph of the wall, but rather of what lies beyond - it is a photograph of the unseen.
Successful boring images emphasise what is not seen; the ships that have long since set sail or the things that lie beyond the wall.
Great boring images are the very antithesis of normal photography, they supress everything we normally seek to include and balance in a photograph. They don't have to be blank & white but they are likely to include a subdued or limited colour palette. This is a key concept in making boring, as opposed to bad, images. Perhaps to get the point, we need only compare the film work of Aki Karismaki to standard Hollywood fare. The former's laconic style draws you in to immensely warming human stories, the latter almost blasts you off your seat with its circus of CGI FX. Immersive experiences arise not from high-definition surround sound extravaganza blasting you from all directions; but from the removal of clutter, the sweeping away of everything that gets in the way of the immersion.
In this image it is the contrast between the two doors sharing the same number that is enough to tell the story; the colour versus the grey; the haphazard construction versus the rigid form. There is no place for anything else in the image. It is just a photograph of two doors. Doors and windows are always ideal subjects for boring photographs.
A boring window shot, including abandoned plant life...
This image has no balance in the composition; no main point of interest; no colour; no foreground and background separation; it has nothing more than a jumble of differently shaded polygons - triangles, trapeziums, pentagons and circles ranging from white to black. It is wholly chaotic. But the chaos works because so much else has been supressed. Successful boring images rely on simplicity, the removal of any extraneous concern. 'Simple' is a synonym for boring in many cases:
Much of the success of boring images lies in simplification, the suppression of as many concerns as possible - especially the 'point of interest', but also the colour palette, the dynamic composition etc... all to the purpose of liberating the narrative by removing the assault on the senses that prevent immersion in to the experience of the image. But there needs also to be a reason to explore, a hint or an intrigue; a 'what, why, who, where, when or how' moment. Boring images are all about portraying the unseen, largely by exclusion of some facet or other but also possibly by the closet of possible focus.
Just what is the green patch here in this last boring image, below?