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Advice to Mentee: Learning from the Tain, about rhythms and music in the photo sequence.

I sent an email in response to the work of a grad student I am mentoring, and afterward I thought that it might be of interest/use to others. (I could learn from it myself.)

So I've had a look, and I have some thoughts and questions and so forth.

I don't think I can talk meaningfully about individual pictures at this point until I get some sense of your ideas for the where it is going overall. I don't just mean what will ultimately be  the architecture of it, I also mean the inner flow of it.

Maybe thinking of it as music might be useful. In a sense it is like having a lot of songs, and they're all about love, and now you have to make an album of love songs. So which ones stay and go, and most importantly, how do they order in such a way that they build?

Your project is very much not  a story, so narrative is out. What are the alternatives?

Music is again a good signifier. It is not that the photos "represent" specific things, but they can evoke particular energies, and once you can start to feel them in that way you can start to FIND an order, not of photos but of the energies and experiences.

On a mechanistic level, you might want a high energy thematic statement, an opening number, so to speak. Then some things that slow a bit but are still energetic, then a ballad, then a reversal, then a resolution and  a finish. I once showed my idea for a movie to a screen writer, and he encouraged me to break my line down into 48 "beats", which would be scenes in which some definitive change happened, arranged at different heights along an arc.

I didn't do exactly that, but I really understood the concept he was trying to make me see and it really helped me structure the story.

So maybe that's where you are now. I think it is time to think about that arc. No, not think about it, wrong term. I think you have to find an opening for the sequence and then look for where that jumps to and what image it lands on, and then where that points you, etc. It is perhaps a matter of looking for rhymes between images and rhythms of sequences, of things that move along easily or dissonantly. Not about making it fluid, and in fact there are reasons to have it be spiky in places.

There might be some temptation to rely the name of your project (Tumultuous and Tranquil), but you've got to be specific and to make the work,  not the association in the words, do the lifting.

The guy who really took sequencing to the nth degree was Minor White, and if you can get hold of one of his books and look specifically at the relationship and development of the whole line of images it might be useful.

I don't know if I sent you the name of this guy Mitch Dubrowner ( but there's something you might look at there. I saw some of his work in Santa Fe, and one thought I had was that it was waaay too much…at least in terms of classical photography. But I learned years ago NOT to dislike things, to set aside my precious opinions and just hold all doors open. So my next step was to look closely and see that he was skillful and that he was really seeing what was before him and expanding on it, not making it  happen in an editing program.

I don't think that you should do anything at all this extreme, but I think that when you get some of the initial narrowing down of your sequence you might take a few images and find the eye-path through them, then do some playing around to emphasize that.   You could feel free to take it too far. I had a director who urged us to push things in early rehearsals because, he said, if you wait until the end you will see your work needs something and you just over inflate what's there. Push it, then back off, was his approach. In the end he got very subtle  but very powerful work out of actors, and they loved him for it.

Loose thought: you might vary the sizes of images and the spaces between them, might cluster things too.

I'm also attaching something I came across that is interesting. It is from the Tain, a long Irish 8th century legend. It is mostly straight narrative story telling, but every once in a while it goes into this very impressionistic, imagistic style, and it is very powerful for that shift. I've never encountered just this kind of shift, and my English teachers would have flunked me if I'd tried it, but I think there is something to learn from it, particularly about the uses of inconsistency and variation.

As as example, I'm attaching a page from the Tain, an ancient Irish poem. It narrates fairly straightforwardly, but often lurches into a short piece that is very impressionistic and feragmented. This abruptness shifts the atention and really wakes things up. There's something to learn here.

So that's my response, for what it's worth. I think you should do some looking for the real power of the images.

Don't rely on the subject do the work.


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