Some of the inspirational motivation for my planned and upcoming “Just Three” photo challenge goes directly –and with all due credit– to cartoonist Scott McCloud. I’ve been re-reading his quasi-instructional cartooning book “Understanding Comics” and my simultaneous search for a photographic pursuit crossed paths with his piece on the six types of comic transitions for effective story-telling.
The idea is somewhat simple and though you’d need to hunt down a copy of the book to get the fuller explanation, the concept boils down to a premise that the different types of stories are told through series of images –in McCloud’s case comics, in mine photographs– that have different kinds of transitions. McCloud writes about these in detail (and in an awesome graphic-novel-style you should check out) and much of what he describes translates quite nicely to photographic story-telling as well, mostly because pictures are pictures are pictures… y’know drawn, snapped, or however you make or take them.
These six types span progressively longer periods of space and time, and are:
Perhaps better thought of as “flip-book” style. If I were to create a moment to moment story with a series of photos, it would be fair to say that those three photos might not differ very much. In fact, this could be (arguably) one of the easier forms of story-telling in three pictures. Not easy… just easier. After all, pointing the camera and taking three photos at one second intervals of, say a person walking down the street or a car turning a corner, these are sequences of images that illustrate the moment to moment, second to second style implied by this particular transition. Of course, the series of images might change in a way that is either subtle (to imply something deep or small) or overt (to imply motion or speed). Perhaps it’s just three quick clicks of a shutter and –voila– story.
You could also call this “step-wise” style. This transition is probably something more familiar, particularly when thinking about stories. Why? Because we’ve all seen the idea of a step-wise sequence that illustrates one subject changing over a series of steps. For example, going back to that idea of a person walking down the street: where as the previous moment-to-moment style might capture three steps or three different facial expressions, the action-to-action might be a series of photos of the same person passing three different shoppes on the same street, or that same person passing a shoppe, waiting at a traffic light, then taking a step across the same street. The idea is to imply a step-wise change in a subject across time, and those steps not just implying a passing of time but of changes across that time.
Another way to think of this is as a “storyboard” style. This style, as I understand it, broadens the scope of the previous style just a little more, and is arguably the same style but incorporating more than one subject interacting with each other in some meaningful way: again, but slightly different, rather than the idea of a step-wise sequence that illustrates one subject changing over a series of steps, we have two or more subjects relating somehow over a series of steps. So, back to that idea of someone walking down the street: we might show someone walking and approaching a traffic light, cut to an image of a person in a car seeing the same street light, then a final image of the car slamming on it’s brakes as the original person steps out in front of it. Thus, more than one subject, but all tied together in the same scene to tell a little story.
McCloud also refers to this as a kind of “deductive” style. Things here begin to move a little bit away from the clear story-telling style of a self-contained scene and instead can span space and time (and thus multiple scenes) to create a broader and more complex story. Back to our trusty example: so rather than three steps in the same scene, our first shot might be of someone crossing the road, the second of a phone ringing, and the third of a completely different person dashing towards the front doors of a hospital emergency room. Here, the implied story spans minutes or hours… or maybe days, and we are shown at least three different locations that compose a series of events.
This style is a lot more abstract but the images are still tied together to create a kind of “theme” style that conveys a mood or some other broad impression of something. So rather than being images that convey a simple linear story, these kinds of images might be more linked by a place or a plot than a step-by-step concept. One more shot at our example takes us back to that same scene of someone walking down the street: perhaps the first shot is of bumper-to-bumper traffic, the second of raindrops clinging to a close-up of a traffic light, and then the final shot might be someone peeking out from the curtains of a shop on the street. You can probably imply that this is all part of a scene of which we’ve been discussing for the last few paragraphs, but it has little to do with an actual story and is more of an abstract set of feelings or glimpses of atmosphere.
With this last style we get really “abstract.” In creating a non-sequitur series of images, the audience (particularly if that audience were unaware of the style as a choice of style) may not see the story within a simple series of three images. In one way this is the least challenging in that any old three images spanning space, time and subject would fit the bill. But in another way, this is a deeply challenging style, at least if an artist (or photographer) is to do it well and actually convey a story-kind of meaning with those images. Why? Well, unlike aspect-to-aspect transitions the three very different images can’t risk being too obvious about their connection to each other –in fact, technically cannot have a connection to each other at all– else they risk falling back into the otherwise-defined aspect-to-aspect transition. After all, non-sequitur, as McCloud states “offers no logical relationship between panels whatsoever!” From our example, and it’s very tough to give something that makes sense to our “person walking down the street example” the three images could simply be three completely unrelated shots of anything… a kind of life-goes-on set of images, or snapshots from elsewhere… just not connected. Does that make sense?
Hopefully over the 28 days of my challenge I’ll have a chance to demonstrate examples of each of these six transitions to create an interesting collection of three-photo stories. In other words, there are going to be some very abstract and very different styles to play with over those four weeks. And some of those stories might take a little more explanation than others.
Actually, I’m getting kinda excited about this whole thing!