Beyond the Frame: More than a Photograph – Finding Inspiration from Cubism

Beyond the Frame: More than a Photograph – Finding Inspiration from Cubism

“Because of the many pictures I have of my father, he eludes me completely. In my outrageously disloyal memory he does not exist in three dimensions, or with associated smells or timbre of voice. He exists as a series of pictures…
I don’t have a memory of the man, I have a memory of a photograph. I rush upstairs to the scrapbooks and there he is. I’ve lost any clear idea of what my father really looked like, how he moved, sounded; the him-ness of him. I only have this.
It isn’t death that stole my father from me; it’s the photographs.”
~ Sally Mann in Hold Still


I went to art school to learn to paint. To me being a painter was being an artist. Painting began with drawing and I excelled at that, BUT… I soon learned the limitations of a two dimensional image. I don’t know that I ever thought it through or would have been able to verbalize it like Sally Mann did in her book, but when my art history teacher explained Cubism to me, I knew I had found the concept that could battle the emptiness and futility that I was already feeling as I created. I didn’t particularly like Cubist paintings. I enjoyed the stories about Picasso and his quirky personality, and I could appreciate his images, but I didn’t necessarily want my work to look similar to his in any way. What I did want was to accomplish what he always strove for—portraying multiple moments in time and perspectives in a single image.

I wanted to let my art stand in the stream of time. I wanted it to get tumbled and turned by the flowing current, roughened by rocks and sand, worn smooth by the lapping water, and waves. I longed to catch the sights, smells, tastes and sounds that I experienced, not replace them with a two dimensional substitute that could never do them justice and would by default rob my memory of them. I wanted to share what I felt, not just what I saw.

Cubism showed me that I didn’t have to just draw or paint a single moment, static on a canvas. It showed me that I could find ways to capture myriad moments and smash them together, layering one on top of another, piecing and weaving them together as our actual experience does - a rich tapestry of sensory experience that forms our memories, the depth of our souls. And when after having children I traded my pencil and paintbrush for a camera I brought this same vision and way of working to my photography.

Sharon McKeeman

Here are some ways to explore and experiment with capturing more than a two dimensional image and share what a moment felt like in addition to what it looked like.

These are the strategies Picasso employed…

  • Looking at a person, object, scene or event from multiple perspectives.
  • Combining those diverse viewpoints into one artwork.
  • Allowing time to be evident in the imagery.
  • Embracing AND poking fun at the limitations of art to depict reality.
  • Combining representational imagery and symbolism to make a statement.
  • Using color to evoke emotion.
  • Finding abstract shapes and creating a composition out of them.

These are some ways you can incorporate those ideas into photography…

Film Double Exposures

Create double exposures intentionally on film by shooting a frame and then shooting it again. This is especially easy to do with Polaroids, OR you can shoot an entire roll of film and then reload it into the camera and shoot it again to achieve a more random result. Remember that each time you shoot the frame you will expose it more so it’s a good idea to shoot each frame a little under-exposed.

Digital Double Exposures

You can create in-camera double exposures on many DSLR’s. Also you can create double exposures digitally in Photoshop by layering one image on top of another, just make sure the top layer’s opacity is set to less than 100% or you won’t be able to see the bottom image There are a lot of great tutorials online that you can find specific to the camera you own and the effects you want to achieve.

Movement and Slow Shutter Speeds

In order to show a sensory impression of what you experience, especially during an event with action, set the shutter speed slower than you would in order to stop-motion. You could set a very slow shutter speed and then walk all the way around an object or person, investigating them from multiple perspectives and leaving an abstract document in one image of this exploration. Or you could invite your subject to move (or enter a busy scene or event) and stand still with a very slow shutter speed that will capture the action occurring over several seconds - allowing various positions of your subject to be collected together in one image. You can do this with either a digital or film camera, it even works great with instant film. Of course you have the most control and ability to fine-tune your results when working digitally.

We work in a saturated market as photographers and the only way we can distinguish ourselves is to constantly push ourselves to explore and adventure, creating unexpected images that have impact. These don’t have to make their way into our client sessions, they can become the basis for our own personal projects or just the fuel for our creative fire. One thing I have learned though is that as you share these photographs you will cut through the noise as your viewers notice images that reach outside the norm, awaken their senses and stir their hearts.

Sharon shares more strategies for capturing and documenting the essence of a person or experience in her online class The Art of the Unexpected. Many of her students have incorporated these ideas into their traditional photo sessions and their clients have been ecstatic about receiving a few photos that truly feel like fine art along with their day-in-the-life or portrait session images. In her classes, students study some of the most influential and revolutionary visual artists and  apply their vision and techniques to photography with some incredible results.  

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