Photography and writing — how you can use the universal language of creativity to improve your art

Wow, this time around I managed to write a title that’s almost as long as a post. I know they say to keep it short and sweet, but I wanted to make my title as descriptive as possible. So to hell with SEO and crawlers. A post should be written for readers, not for digital spiders of the web.

Photography and writing

Arts in general, an not only photography and writing share the same basic principles

Some days ago I was on Twitter doing some research for a story I’m writing. Well… to be honest, in reality I was loafing about, I was wasting time, postponing, putting things off. You get the idea.

This even if some time ago I wrote an extremely erudite and effective post–I hope not too riddled with spelling mistakes and strange turn of phrases–about how to avoid procrastination.

In any case, surfing and twitting away I came across a couple of interesting quotes.

Absorb what is useful, Discard what is not, Add what is uniquely your own — Bruce Lee

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see — Henry David Thoreau

Then, one of my friends called me on the phone, and we had a pleasant chat about his new camera–one of those that require you to learn a lot of technical stuff just to get a barely decent result.

All this got me thinking about the way photography and writing compare one to the other and the way a writer can learn about writing principles just looking at pictures.

Readily identifiable themes

This is the first step for every story. In fact, unless you have at least a clear theme you don’t really have a story. Only a collection of impressions. Bits of narrative that can go any which way.

For example, you can write a book whose subject is family life.

But then such a subject can be examined through many different sets of lenses, so to speak.

You could focus your attention on female roles; on the conflict between change and tradition; on the difficulty of growing up.

daisy in a meadowIt’s like setting out to take a picture of some flowers. Then deciding on which kind of flower. And then putting the subject in the most effective place and in perfect focus.

Of course, when I say perfect focus I mean it for the writer. In fact, even though in many books themes are perfectly clear and well developed, this doesn’t mean readers must recognize them at once.

After all, if you look at a great picture of a flower whose name you don’t know you can nonetheless appreciate the picture.

Stark contrasts

A good story must be charged with conflict. Nobody likes reading a book where nothing ever happens. Indeed, in fiction-land the old saying no news is good news is sheer blasphemy.

I repeat. In a book there must be a ton of conflict. Period. However this conflict can be portrayed in many different styles. You can range from gory details about how a long abused, exasperated wife ends up cooking her husband, to the mere and aseptic information of such a fact having occurred, exemplified below:

“She hadn’t had a dream. She had cooked him. For real. The lumpy garbage bag sitting next to the door of the garage was where she had left it.
Leftovers, she thought. Or remains? He would no longer bother her with his stupid tirades about grammar. Nor with what followed them.”

Black and white

In photography we can decide to use black and white for many different reasons. The same applies to creative writing.

For example, you can decide to use a dispassionate and journalistic style–what I equate to black and white in writing–because you want the story you’re narrating to shine through the words by itself, with the least authorial interference.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is an interesting example of this approach. The story she tells is so powerful that even if in the book dialogue is non existent and the style extremely sober and restrained, one can’t help feeling captivated by the raw power of the story.

Photography and writing – an endless discovery

Of course, there are many more examples than these. In the comments you’re all invited to add your own ideas about any other possible parallel between photography and writing.

In this way we might come up with a handy manual for learners who are especially visually oriented. A sort of manual able to offer its readers a general direction they can move toward to think about their stories in new ways.

I know, I came up with a sort of post that seems to be aimed at people with synesthesia. But while some forms of synesthesia are relatively rare, renown researcher V. S. Ramachandran thinks we all are, to a certain degree, synesthetic. We just don’t realize we are.

Pictures William DeRemer – ThomasWolter


  1. Hi Peter, I’ve never thought about the possible relationship between images and books.

    Since I’m not a writer, this post made me think as a reader. In particular the painings of Pollock came to my mind.

    They remind me of books with different storylines, like Kate Morton’s – or crime novels, if you prefer.

    At the beginning all these storylines seem to have nothing to do one with another.

    However, when you reach the end of the book, you find out that all these storylines are brilliantly interconnected, and the result to me is usually something very close to a masterpiece.

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