Monthly Archives: September 2019

Photography and the Visual Image

Photography and the Visual Image

This week we will be looking at visual storytelling through images and photography. How does one make a good photograph? This year I have amassed a huge collection of family photographs. Literally hundreds of photo prints made by different members of my family over the years.

We really like picture-taking in our family but if I am brutally honest, most are mediocre, unremarkable snapshots. (My mom was a big fan of double-prints too, so often there’s twice the amount of prints too.)

What is the difference between a snapshot and a composed photograph?

Bill's first home with several people sitting on the front porch.

Snapshots are made by people with no formal training and lack having a natural eye for composition. In the snapshot above, there are some things I like and some things I don’t care for at all. I can see a front view of the first home I purchased (we no longer live there). On the porch is a gathering of my siblings, and I see a stroller/bike trailer on the sidewalk.

I can see my wife’s birdhouse collection and my family, but no details on either. In a composed photograph, the photographer identifies the key subject and emphasizes it. The photographer composes the frame and decides what to include and exclude. That is the job of the photographer — to tell the viewer what is important to see and what is not. (By the way, this fact is foundational to being media literate. All media are constructed. Media creators include and exclude things based on their tastes, preferences and biases. To be media literate, we must realize this fact when we view the work of others.)

What is the main subject of the above picture? It is hard to tell, isn’t it? Is it the house? Is it the decorations and landscaping of the house? Is it the family on the porch of the house? The bicycle and bike trailer? There is a lot going on here and the photographer decides to try to include everything; that is wrong! Well not wrong if you are making snapshots, but wrong if you want to make memorable photographs. I would much prefer to see faces up close, or certain interesting features of the house, or even the bike and trailer. I have literally hundreds of snapshot pictures and maybe one out of ten or twenty strikes me as really interesting to look at.

This next picture (below) is also from my vast collection of family photos. Although technically, this too is a snapshot made on what was undoubtedly a less complex camera than the previous photo (a Brownie camera perhaps?), it seems the photographer who made this one was more conscious of design elements that make a good photograph, or at least they lucked into using them.

The very first thing that strikes me in this photograph is the use of the Rule of Thirds. Notice how the subject, the two women, are not placed exactly in the center but are instead more towards the left. This automatically makes a more interesting photo to look at. Placing a subject dead center is static, and boring.

The photo is likely from the 1960s and I love the still-vibrant colors in this outdoor scene. Many photos of this age have faded, particularly the blues and greens and many photos like this have the reddish hue of age. Not this one! It has probably been kept in a relatively cool and dry environment out of the sunlight.

The mother/daughter duo appear to be wearing clothing of a similar style, although not matching. The similar cut of their tops (look at the angled waist hem) makes me wonder if they bought these clothes while out shopping together. I like that it is close enough to see their faces, yet far enough back to include their entire bodies. It is obvious that the people are what the photographer wants us to see. The background is simple. Rocks, trees and sky, and they are standing in the middle of the road which tells me this is an off the beaten path sort of place without throngs of traffic.

This is such a fun photograph, I attempted to make a small watercolor painting of it. I will probably try the same scene again to see if I can improve my technique any.

To recap, to make a quality photograph you need to select a definite subject. Make it obvious. Don’t make the viewer have to guess what you are trying to show us. Then to increase interest, put the subject not in the center, but off to the side using the Rule of Thirds. Finally, consider the colors and lighting of the scene. In my second example photo, the lighting is strong and bright, which caused the human subjects to squint and to wear sunglasses. It also creates harsh shadows, which are often undesirable. If you make photographs on overcast days, or in the shade, or during the dawn and dusk hours when the sun is low in the skies you can get really interesting results with your natural ambient light. If you do these things, the quality of your picture taking will likely move from simple snapshots into the realm of true photograph.

Anna and her daughter

Watercolor painting of two women standing in the road in front of trees

Getting into watercolor again. It is a tricky medium. Hard to control, it goes where it is not expected to and so forth. There are some technical things I would like to improve with this. One thing is the proportions of the two women are not quite right. Also, the girl on the left has a random dark mark on her chin I didn’t intend. There’s not much you can do about that after it has dried. I’m not really satisfied with the way that face turned out and prefer the one on the right better. I think the trees have too much going on and it is pretty muddy in the background. It might be better to use less paint and more suggestion there.

The picture is only 3.5″ square, so the area for the faces is pretty tiny to begin with. It is difficult to get any details that look good at that scale and with the brushes I have. My eyesight is getting pretty bad and I might need to invest in a magnifying glass if I keep working on things like this.

I would say my favorite things with this piece that turned out reasonably well are the women’s trousers, especially the darker one on the left. Also the woman’s hair on the right. It is a good first effort and I may try to re-do this scene at some point.

Cartoon Drummer Drawings

I found this assignment from Lynda Barry about drawing a puppet in motion from this video:

She said to choose one of the band members, divide a page into four quadrants then make four different drawings in different poses of the same character while watching the video in motion without stopping it. She said to set a timer for 2:00 minutes in which to make each drawing. It is a challenge, but it is supposed to be a cartoon so it could be more interpretive rather than a fully rendered work of art.

Here is what I came up with…

four drawings of a cartoon drummer

I like how I picked up on specific elements to feature in each drawing. Like the bottom left one, I noticed his head was thrown way back so you couldn’t see the top of his head at all, only his nose sticking way up in the air. I think my drawings became progressively more successful as I became more at ease with trying to draw a moving subject.

Early Billgx Drawings

In a box of family treasures I recently inherited, I found this homemade birthday card I created for my grandfather Art Genereux. I’m guessing I made it during my middle-school years, around age 11 or 12.

Homemade birthday card with picture of fire truck and a cake with many candles.

I don’t think my usual drawing ability has advanced much beyond when I was 12. I know how to draw in a more detailed style, but I still prefer the cartoony look above all else, mostly because of the time involved in making drawings.

Hand written golf jokes

I can remember from early on not enjoying the process of writing words on paper. I always pressed too hard with the pen or pencil and my hand got tired. I’m quite surprised to see all of these anecdotes written out. But I loved my Grandfather very much.

After he retired from farming, he took up golfing, which came as a surprise to everyone who knew him. It was great fun to go golfing with grandpa. He had a golf cart and we would put around in what was essentially a cow pasture with sand greens. You had to drag the sand with a tool that made a smooth path for you to put on. When you were done, you raked the sand so there were no tracks left behind for the next golfer.


Cost of Things in the 1980s

This week I’m digging out some tools to help get some context of how things were in the 1980s. One fun thing I’ve found in my online research is the Wishbook archive of Christmas catalogs. This archive has scans of printed catalogs prepared for the holiday shopping season extending back into the 1930s.

For a quick reference, I’ve created a list of all of the Christmas catalogs from the 1980s in a single post. Another tool that I’ve found is this online inflation calculator that converts the prices from years past into today’s US Dollars.

Let’s dive into the archives and see what we can come up with. For this post, I am exploring the 1980 Sears catalog.

I found this stereo system that is similar to the one I bought used from a classmate about 1980.  I think I probably paid $50.00 for mine because mine only came with an 8-track player, not a cassette. New in the catalog this stereo was $149.95  That is $467.00 in today’s dollars, about the cost of a middle to high end smartphone.

1980s stereo system with turntable, cassette tape and 8-track.

One thing you have to realize that for me as a teenager in the 1980s, this stereo system was my ticket to good music and entertainment. This stereo has microphone inputs as did mine, and I used the microphones to make my own recordings and mixtapes. Young people today carry this capability around in their pocket, but my first “recording studio” was in my bedroom. Unfortunately none of the recordings I might have made back then survive today. I eventually sold my stereo and all of the 8-track tapes I had at a garage sale.

Here is another fun item that I only had infrequent access to through my school. A portable VCR with color video camera. In 1980, to record home video, you needed two separate devices, the recording capability was not built into one machine.

portable VHS VCR and camera

You could purchase the camera and VCR for around $2,000 which in today’s dollars is about $6,200. One thing that I have learned by living through the 1980s is not to buy this year’s model of technology. You’ll pay a premium and next year there will be something much better that makes you regret paying so much for what you have.


Huey Lewis and Copyright

It was 1983 and Huey Lewis was at the top of his game. His smash hit single I Want a New Drug was at the top of the charts. Columbia Pictures wanted him to create a theme song for an upcoming movie called Ghostbusters, but he declined. The next year, when the Ghostbusters song was released, it was so familiar that Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. and Columbia for copyright infringement. The songs were just too similar.

Here are the two songs in question. After all of these years, I’d been unaware of the lawsuit and the similarity of the songs.

Here is the Ghostbusters theme song

and here is I Want a New Drug

What do you think? Would you rule that the Ghostbusters song was a rip-off?

Ultimately, the dispute was settled out of court and the details were to remain undisclosed. Interestingly, when Huey Lewis spoke about details of the lawsuit on VH1 Behind the Music, Ray Parker sued Lewis for breach of confidentiality.


Christmas Wishbooks of the 1980s

A while back I came across a Wishbook website that has archives of several retailers’ holiday Wish Book catalogs through the decades. Since my students and I are working together to get a sense of how things were back in the 1980s, I thought this might be a good way to become familiar with what kinds of consumer items were being sold as Christmas presents in the 1980s. For convenience, I will link directly to the relevant catalogs here:

1980’s Catalogs

Sears catalog VHS camcorder for $995

I liked this VHS camcorder in the 1989 Sears catalog, although I’m pretty sure by that time I had access to one of the JVC VHS-C models that were quite a bit of a smaller form factor. At $995 it seems a little pricey (over $2,000 in today’s dollars).

What are some of the favorite things you found in the catalogs? Use the Inflation Calculator to see what these things would cost in today’s dollars.