Magazine article Communication World

The Photo Essay: When Pictures Add Up. (Photo Critique)

Magazine article Communication World

The Photo Essay: When Pictures Add Up. (Photo Critique)

Article excerpt

I'm often asked to explain the difference between a picture story and a photo essay. Though both attempt to tell a story using multiple images, they are entirely different forms of visual communication.

A picture story is usually narrative in form and relies heavily on text and captions for context and meaning. Text is written first, and pictures usually show the very things the story talks about.

A photo essay, on the other hand, is more interpretive and symbolic in form. It cumulatively adds up the meaning of multiple pictures to communicate an even stronger point. Text and captions are written after the pictures are related and displayed. Words offer context, but the images in a photo essay express considerable meaning on their own. Effective photo essays can be long or short--ranging in size from a page to an entire book. The photo essay, rarely seen these days, offers great potential as a visual communication medium. It is a sleeping giant waiting to be awakened.

As a theoretical example of a short photo essay, I'll use four of my own pictures taken on a recent visit to Alaska. I chose industrial subject matter--the remote and isolated historic mill town of Kennecott, which once processed the output of the United States' last and largest high-grade copper ore mine. Now a ghost town in Alaska's vast Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Kennecott thrived from 1911 until 1938, when the nearby mines were depleted. For more than 60 years, Kennecott's buildings have somehow endured. Today they offer us a haunted look into another era.

If I were to publish these four images in an actual photo essay, I would need three spreads (six pages). I would open the essay with a two-page spread carrying only a full-bleed picture of Kennecott's spectacular power plant. (A headline and subhead would be placed in the sky.) The patterns created by the sunlight striking the rooftops of the vast structure symbolize the glory days of early 20th-century heavy industry. As I was framing this shot on the display screen of my Canon G2 digital camera, I thought of the words of Charles Sheeler, an American painter who interpreted the great factories of the Roaring '20s in a stark, geometric style. "Our factories," Sheeler said, "are our substitute for religious expression." Cropping the image tightly within the frame to intensify the energy of the rhythmic diagonal roofs and vertical chimneys, I saw before me an industrial cathedral. …

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