The value of a good editor

Finding someone else to help with editing our pictures and choose our collections can prove useful. It works in other fields; why not photography too?

I’ve written before about how it can be useful to simplify our pictures for maximum effect. One way of approaching this is by removing elements from the image so we are asking questions rather than just giving away the whole story.  Alternatively, we can take steps to make our images more ambiguous by disguising meanings.

This process works just as well on a series as it does on a single image. It’s an editing process, paring away at what we see to get to what is important.

We’ll use this editing technique to select a series of images to tell a story leaving the viewer to piece together from photographs which ultimately are fragmentary “snapshots” in time. Selecting just the right images can be hard!

Whichever activity we are involved in – taking photographs, processing them afterwards, choosing collections – it sometimes helps to get someone else to cast an eye over what we’re doing.

Choices, choices

Given a dozen candidate pictures, you may well find yourself selecting a different set of six for a portfolio, an exhibition or a website article. So on this website, I’m currently rebuilding my Manchester gallery – try picking six from this bunch: where would you start? (Discarding the lot of them is an option, but just humour me for a moment!)

I’m finding this a tricky exercise mainly because I’ve been looking at the pictures for so long I’m losing any sense of their impact on a viewer. I see things in them that only the photographer would: reminders of how I felt at the time. The delight at seeing that chequered bonnet cover. The sense of vertigo looking up that glass fin on the office block. The certainty of identifying the light reflecting off the curved bridge girders and how it would look in monochrome.

And, to an extent, I’ve lost track of the reasons why I’m reconstructing the gallery. So not only can I not decide which pictures I like and why, but I don’t even have a guiding light of an overarching set of intentions for them.

Is the connection Bricks? 

None of this is of particular interest to other viewers of the images. But somehow, if I want to share the images, I have to find a way of disconnecting my own emotional response as a photographer while retaining my response as a viewer. No wonder I’m finding it difficult.

Is the connection Low viewpoint? 

Sometimes finding someone else to help with this editing process can be useful by providing an external perspective. Simply asking awkward questions can help. This person needs to be someone whose opinion you trust and who has some idea of the direction you’re seeking to take. You may end up heading a different direction altogether as a result of their probing but that too can be a benefit.

Is the connection Exposed metalwork?

Which to choose? Why not all of them?

Parallels in literary editing

To my surprise, I recently saw this same editing process at work in the field of poetry. A N Wilson’s recent BBC4 documentary Return to TS Eliotland has a section where he discusses Ezra Pound’s involvement with Eliot. Specifically, how Pound helped Eliot edit down the original version of The Wasteland to something far more incisive:

From the very first page, you can see Pound’s influence on The Wasteland. … when you turn to the opening passage of the poem, The Burial of the Dead, Pound put his pencil through the first 54 lines so now it begins with the immortal words: “April is the cruellest month …”

And by the end, Pound had culled several hundred lines from this poem.

What he was doing, Pound, was removing the element of simple story, the narrative interest. He was trying to make The Wasteland more fragmentary, more mysterious, and as a result, it’s so much better

A N  Wilson in Return to TS Eliotland – BBC4 documentary 

Letting go

54 lines! In the original proofs, this was the whole of the first page of the poem. Would you, as an originator of a set of images, be prepared to discard so much of your hard-won work? It’s so easy to get emotionally attached to an image, especially one that was particularly difficult to make. But if the picture doesn’t work, either by and of itself, or as one in a group of pictures, then go it must.

Ancoats Canal Bridge, Manchester
This image of a canal bridge in Manchester is a great example of a picture I am attached to. But does it fit comfortably with the set of more architectural photographs in the group above?

Consider again what Pound as editor was aiming for: more fragmentary, more mysterious. As with photographs, it’s sometimes difficult to detach yourself from the bare facts of a scene. Eliot’s rejected lines described a night out on the town. He clearly felt he needed to set the scene, and did so at length, and in comparison to the next few lines, in a more literal way. Pound, with a detachment from the effort involved in writing the words, felt the section gave too much away for free.

One of the original versions of the last image – much too literal for its own good. It took a few of these to refine the final picture.

(Other comments by Pound refer to lines he rejects as “photographic” which he clearly felt was perjorative. He just can’t have been a visual person.)

Engaging your audience

In photography too: often a less literal, more oblique approach pays off especially if you are aiming for an emotional engagement with your viewers. I’ve discussed before how making your viewer work a bit to understand your images can be a crucial tactic. This was exactly Pound’s objective with his suggested edits for The Wasteland.

Chad. No! A study of brick walls in Manchester
Chad. No! A study of brick walls in Manchester. Layers of years of change and dilapidation.

In Wilson’s description of the editing process, we can see an editor explicitly setting out deliberately to obscure the message  (or make it less obvious, at any rate) for artistic purposes. We also see an artist both trusting the editor and also willing to make the cuts. Although a more careful reading of the editing notes also highlights areas where Eliot pushed back against his editor’s suggestions; the artist can’t relinquish all control.

Is the connection Uncertain destination? 

By now, if you have been following the selection of pictures in this article, your head will be spinning as fast as mine. Now’s the time to phone a friend and get another set of eyes working on it.

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