narrative, record and graphic pictures

Before we say anything else, it is worth saying that we do not intend to erect a mighty intellectual edifice to come between you and your pictures: there are already plenty of theories, theses and polemics that you can turn to if you want an excuse to stop taking photographs. Rather, we want to lay out some tools that we have found moderately useful, so that you can borrow them and use them if you want, or ignore them if you don't.





Boy with gun, Levoca, Slovakia

A narrative picture. Make up whatever story you like. There is some graphic redemption in the second figure, but this is mostly 'about' boys and guns.

Motorcycle parking, Austria

A record shot -- taken, it must be said, for the wonderful graphics of the motorcycle, but a record shot nevertheless. You probably wouldn't want it on the wall.

Wall and sky, Pecs, Hungary

A graphic shot. Yes, it tells you a certain amount about architecture and Southern Europe, but essentially it is a collection of attractive shapes and colours.


To a considerable extent, the difference between narrative, record and graphic pictures is artificial. Any photograph is a record; few photographs are so devoid of narrative content as to be purely graphic; and many successful narrative pictures are graphically pleasing.



On the other hand, the important thing about the distinction is that it can help you to think about what prompts you to take a particular picture; and why; and how to take it. Also, and this is at least as important, thinking in terms of narrative, record and graphic shots can help you decide how and why a particular picture, after you have taken it, succeeds or fails. This can be a very useful tool for analyzing and (constructively) criticizing both your own work and that of others.


Adulteresses' Cage, Levoca, Slovakia

Levoca was founded some eight centuries ago around a nucleus of German colonists. One of its less expected attractions is this ancient iron cage in which adulteresses were locked up as punishment. At this point, the main incentive to take the picture is split 50/50 between record -- this is what it looks like -- and narrative: this is what it is (though you do need a caption for the latter).

Except, of course, that it is very hard to photograph: most shots of it are inherently pretty dull. Frances solved this by using a 15/4.5 Super-Wide-Heliar on her Voigtlander Bessa-L (loaded with Ilford XP2) and making a strong graphic pattern of the bars. They must have looked somewhat like this to those unfortunate women who were incarcerated on the inside.

Strangely enough there was no equivalent cage for adulterers.

It is perhaps easiest to consider pictures that are mostly record shots; then to go on the ones that are mostly graphic; and then the ones that are mainly narrative. But even before we look at record shots, it is worth saying a little about technical quality and intention.

technical quality

In what follows, adequate quality must taken for granted: a picture with excessive technical shortcomings can at best be an aide-memoire, a snapshot. There's nothing wrong with snapshots, and he is a dull dog who does not take them. Arguably, indeed, snapshots can be the purest records or narrative pictures, regardless of how bad they are. But equally, pretty much by definition, an aide-memoire is not a means of communication. It is, as its name suggests, a way of jogging or augmenting the memory of the photographer, or anyone else who was there and paying attention to the same thing.

This is the first thing about record, graphic and narrative shots, then: there is an intention, whether consciously thought through or unconsciously acted upon, to take a particular kind of shot. And the question as to whether it is narrative, graphic or record is best answered by asking. "What is it about?"


Rural scene, Transylvania

The technical quality is barely sufficient -- it was a grab shot, blown up from perhaps one-third of the negative -- but the scene is so archetypal that it works,though it might be a good idea to add some sort of paper texture and pretend it was shot in the 1850s instead of in 2005.

Frances used her Voigtlander Bessa-T and 90/3.5 Apo-Lanthar on Kodak Tri-X.




record shots


A record shot is not necessarily dull or uninformative. For example, record shots are often needed to illustrate travel articles and the like, as a sort of visual proof that (for instance) there really is an adulteresses' cage in Levoca and to give visiting photographers fair warning about what to expect.


Something we often do when we visit somewhere new is to take a look at all the picture-postcard stands. If there are a lot of detail or night shots, we take this as fair warning that the Sights, whatever they may be, are uncommonly hard to photograph and the best bet may be to take the straightest, most technically proficient record shots that we can.



Pet Area

Some record shots have a certain amount of humour in them. This is no more than a snapshot, and not especially well framed; but it is hard not to smile when you look at it. Roger shot it with a Leica, probably an M4-P: lens and film are forgotten, probably 90/2 Summicron and Kodachrome 64.







Window grille, Levoca, Slovakia


You could hardly take a less complicated record shot than this: dead centre in the middle of the picture. Even so, there is a small amount of art in it. In particular, it was taken with the longest lens available to us (90/4 Makro Elmar on a Leica MP loaded with Kodak Elite Chrome EBX) in order to keep the sides of the window as close to parallel as possible.


A wide-angle shot, from closer and looking up, would have given strongly converging verticals that would greatly have detracted from the formalism of the window and grille. Yes, it is a graphic image, but it is hardly creative: it is a record of someone else's graphic skill.


Despite the picture's lack of pretension, there is however a modest narrative component. When was it installed? It is possible (though unlikely, given the use of the word 'Snack') that it goes back to the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


It is fairly likely that it was installed in the 20s or 30s, during the first brief independence of Czechoslovakia as it then was. It seems deeply unlikely that it was put in during World War Two, and only a little more likely that it dates to the long period of Soviet occupation after the war. But by the time Czechoslovakia was independent again, it would have been very old-fashioned indeed. Maybe it was installed after the 'Velvet Divorce' between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, by a Slovak with a sense of history.

Or maybe 'Snack Bar' replaced something else. But what?



Opening hours, Transylvania



It's funnier if you speak Romanian, but it doesn't take long to work out enough Romanian to see what they are saying, especially if you speak any other Romance language. This looks like opening hours, and they are. Luni-Vineri (Monday to Friday -- think of the French Lundi and Vendredi) 9 am to 7 pm (Romanians in common with most of continental Europe use the 24-hour clock), Sambata (Saturday, or Samedi in French) 9 am to 3 pm, Duminica (Sunday, as in the Spanish Domingo) closed (inchis -- and sorry, we can't think of any other close European equivalent, but it's not hard to work out from context).

Then INCHIS! We're closed! Go away!

As with the other window picture, above, this is as plain a record shot as you can easily imagine, but again it has a certain graphic quality: in fact, it is arguable that the simpler a record shot is, the more graphic it must necessarily be.

Frances shot this on Ilford XP2 Super using her Voigtlander Bessa-T and 50/2.5 Color-Skopar, then printed it (as usual) on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.




graphic images

Some graphic shots are much more complex than others. The one at the very beginning of the module, the wall and sky in Pecs, is fairly simple but part of its appeal, we think, lies in the tiles that cap the wall. If it were a plain white wall, it might be altogether too simple. The pictures that follow also illustrate this breaking-up of pure line.



Roof, lamp, door, Mertola, Portugal

This is clearly related to the Pecs picture at the beginning of the module, but its simplicity is still more broken up by the house number and the lantern. Of course it is possible to remove the house number in Adobe Photoshop but if you do, the composition is the poorer. And without the jutting lantern, of course, it's a bit of a non-picture. But it conforms to our definition of a graphic shot by being 'about' shapes and colours much more than 'about' Mertola -- though it is impossible to deny the narrative component of blue sky, warm sun and (for most people) summer holidays. Roger shot it on Kodak Elite Chrome EBX with his Leica M4-P and (probably) 35/1.4 Summilux.




Statue, Monument Park, near Budapest



We defined 'graphic' shots as 'pleasing arrangements of shapes' and it is the tiny aeroplane -- which really flew by, and was not 'comped' in -- which makes this shot.

The more you analyze this photograph, the more interesting it becomes. The statue, obviously, is standard Soviet Heroic, and 'celebrates' the 'liberation' of Hungary after World War Two. It is preserved at the Monument Park south of Budapest, a gathering-place for otherwise unloved and unwanted statues from the Soviet era. On its own, without the aircraft, this would be a fairly dull record shot.

But the aircraft is not only an instantly recognizable, iconic shape. It also recalls the war in the air; and the determinedly futurist philosophy of the early Soviet Union, when all things modern (such as aeroplanes, electricity and machine guns) were eagerly embraced; and, we do not think it is too fanciful to suggest. If this sounds overly pretentious and analytical, we apologize; but it is often worth trying to work out precisely why you like a picture, with the idea of replicating your success some day.

Frances used Ilford XP2 Super in her Voigtlander Bessa-T and 50/2.5 Colour-Skopar with a weak (2x) B+W yellow filter. The print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, sulphide toned -- another factor in the success of the picture, as shorthand for 'times gone by'.


Red filter



The genesis of this picture was pure accident: Roger actually was changing a red filter and saw this shadow. In that sense, it is a record shot. Its appeal, though, lies in its graphic quality, but since then we have unashamedly hijacked it to serve a narrative purpose. If you are talking about filters, and optical quality, and so forth, it makes a welcome change from the other options, which are 'before' and 'after' shots to show what the filters do, and pack or product shots of the filters themselves.

One of our publishers mislaid it for a while, and we re-created it using a white wall, but that wasn't as successful: the grey of the wall, and its texture, simply looked better. We had forgotten this and remembered the shot (incorrectly) as being against a white wall, which we 0thought would be necessary to make the colour stand out adequately.

We forget what we used to shoot the original (which is on slide film) but it was probably an M-series Leica and 90/2 Summicron: 75mm and 90mm lenses are useful with rangefinder cameras if you want to capture details, as most will focus down to around 1/10 life size on the film, which is usually close enough for most purposes. We are reasonably confident that it is Roger's hand and that Frances took the picture.



narrative pictures

Probably the clearest illustration of what we mean by 'narrative' pictures is given in the free Gallery section entitled Narrative Still Lifes. We decided not to use any of those here, because it would be too much like repetition, but the underlying principle is simple enough. A narrative picture is somewhat akin a book cover illustration, which tells you what to expect inside.

This is much easier with a still life than with the kind of scenes we have used here, but we think that the pictures in this module have a 'narrative' content, i.e. they either tell a story or invite you to make up your own.

Winter's Evening, Grand Central Station, New York City

How did it go: "There are a thousand stories in the naked city"? Something like that, anyway. People standing talking; people moving around, some so quickly that they are mere blurs; people going home, meeting lovers, planning takeovers, picking pockets, having their pockets picked...

Yes, the exposure could be better but Roger wanted to avoid 'blowing' the giant Kodak advertisement to a featureless white. A graduated filter would have been ideal, but he didn't have one with him and besides he was using a Leica (almost certainly the M4-P) so it would have been next to impossible anyway. Another possibility would have been negative film but he didn't think of it.

If you have any sympathy with 'people watching', it is hard not to make up stories about some of these people, or their imaginary counterparts. The fact that you cannot always see them clearly somehow makes it easier to make up the stories.




Couple, Montmartre


Again, it's technically right on the edge -- but if it were any clearer, it might well be too literal. Who are they? Lovers? A brother and sister? American tourists? Street-dwellers? All of the above?

Like the Grand Central Station shot, this is what we call an 'open-ended' narrative shot: you can project onto it whatever you want. They can be the two lovers in the Edith Piaf song, about to check into a cheap hotel to die together. They can be you and someone you have not met yet, or someone you knew long ago, but never saw Paris with.

There is a certain graphic component, it is true, but remove the two people and although there is almost no change to the graphic form, the picture changes utterly: this is a picture 'about' these two people, not 'about' the graphic shapes of Parisian architecture or a bald statement of fact.

It's a grab shot, of course, and Roger took it (as usual) with a Leica, the M4-P, and a 35/1.4 Summilux. Because the M4-P has no meter, and because it's a tricky shot to expose anyway, he guessed the exposure and bracketed +/- 1 stop. This was indeed the middle exposure. Any lighter, and the sky 'blows' and the flare is even worse; any less, and the shadows 'block up' even worse.


Mearle's Drive In, Visalia, California



This is a good deal less 'open-ended' than the other two: with a drive-in and a Corvette, one's thoughts are inevitably pushed in certain directions, usually involving bad 1950s movies with crew-cut young men and pony-tailed girls in bobby socks.


It wasn't set up at all: we just happened upon it one evening. Roger shot it (on Kodachrome 64, as far as he recalls) with a Leica, probably the M4-P but possibly an M2, and a 1950s Zeiss Biogon 21/4.5 with a Contax-to-Leica adapter.


If it had been set up, the other cars in the background would have been more in period. As it is, of course, one is tempted to make up other stories. Is this a middle-aged man with the car he always wanted when he was younger, and couldn't afford? If so, is he still married to his childhood sweetheart? Are they revisiting the haunts of their youth? Or has he acquired a 17-year-old girlfriend with a pony-tail and bobby sox? Maybe his son has borrowed Dad's car to take her out, while Dad is out of town on a business trip...




the bottom line

As we said at the beginning of the module, we don't want to get too precious and analytical about taking pictures, lest we find ourselves in the situation of the centipede who thinks about how to walk, and finds it all too complicated. But it can still be a good idea from time to time to think about what we shoot, and why; and what works, and what doesn't, and why.


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© 2006 Roger W. Hicks