Spectacle competing with Narrative

In movie world, there has long been a discussion over whether narrative has been displaced by spectacle.

“Spectacle is a quality offered by Hollywood in its attempt to maintain the distinctive appeal of cinema, of the big-screen event that is so important to its broader commercial interests. Spectacular imagery, of various kinds, sells. It is an intrinsic part of many of the properties on which the studios draw for their big franchise products.” (King 2002 – p178-9)

So, commerciality drives the film studios towards spectacle and some argue, this is at the expense of narrative. I agree and would cite the Pirates of the Caribbean series as a perfect example of films where the spectacle is all, and narrative, virtually absent.

Gunning describes this as the “cinema of attractions”:

“the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event ….. that is of interest in itself.” (Gunning 1990 – p58)

I believe the same thing is happening in stills photography, particularly in competitive, club photography and urged on by organisations such as PAGB (Photographic Association of Great Britain), FIAP (Federation Internationale de L’Art Photographique) and PSA (Photographic Society of America). Such organisations are themselves commercial and need increasing numbers of paid entries to their competitions (salons) and awards schemes in order to survive.

In pre-digital days, competition and award entries were prints or slides that had to be posted. This was expensive, so relatively few entries were made to each event and turnaround times much slower. Consequently, the event judges had longer to view each entry and spectacle was not the only criteria upon which images were assessed. Today, very few organisations hold salons or competitions for physical images. Instead digital images are now emailed, costs have come down and the numbers of events and the numbers of entries have multiplied many fold.

Judges and their time is now one of the most costly aspects of running such events and so their processes and their throughput must be maximised. From my own observations of salons, the time taken to assess and score each image can be as low as just 2-4 seconds. That is certainly insufficient time to look for any narrative in the image. Only technical aspects such as sharpness and a general appreciation of composition are possible in so short a time. Therefore, I would argue that spectacle is the only criteria upon which these images are now being judged.

In the world of internationally competitive photography, where images from many countries are vying for medals and accolades, again spectacle has an advantage over narrative, much as it has in the movie industry.

“It [spectacle] sells particularly well abroad, in markets where nuances of plot and dialogue might be lost in translation.” (King 2002 – p179)

Photographers from around the world now understand that spectacle has an international appeal whereas the nuances of a particular culture’s metaphor and narrative are impossible to read in just a few seconds.

The above are concerned only with the single image. Few organisations, the RPS (Royal Photographic Society) being a notable exception, accept and consider panels of images. With panels, a strong narrative is the essential ingredient and time should be taken to consider this along with the technical, artistic and other attributes of the images. Here spectacular images could be a disadvantage as they would stand out from the panel and distort rather than enhance the overall narrative. Except in the event that all the panel images are equally spectacular.

Of course, the spectacular image can also contain meaningful narrative but I would argue that the spectacle, by overwhelming the viewer with visual treats, the wow factor, actually inhibits the viewer from engaging at any deeper level. It is like being bombarded with visual noise and so unable to perceive any of the subtleties contained within.

However, I believe that, most often, high spectacle can be a just mask behind which there is very little content. The Emperor’s New Clothes perhaps!

So, for me, spectacle is noisy, it shouts for attention. My personal preference, in photography, and what I seek for my own well-being, is silence. I want to experience and to photograph silence. I want my viewers to feel the quiet and calmness that I experienced when taking my images. I try to achieve this by constructing photographs that have significant narrative potential. I want my mages to engage viewers’ imaginations. In other words, I hope the viewer will take time to ask what, why, who and how about the image and so be driven to make up their own narratives. The narrative they create may be nothing like the one that I told myself when taking the image but that is not important. It is the level of engagement between the image and viewer that is important.

The vast majority of my landscape images include a human construct, marks or other evidence that people live or have lived in a particular place. Evidence of human presence automatically raises the narrative potential of an image in ways that (now rare) “natural” landscapes cannot. That humans (other than the photographer) have been there raises questions of why, who and how and will hopefully prompt speculation and “story making” by the viewer.

For me narrative or narrative potential must always come first. If the image is also spectacular that can be a bonus except where the spectacular masks the narrative. The ultimate format for my images is the panel or series where the narrative of the whole predominates and where no single image shouts for more attention than any other.


Gunning T. The Cinema of Attractions in Elsaessar T. Early Cinema: Space frame Narrative. London BFI Publishing 1990, p58

King G, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, I.B Tauris, London and New York 2002, p. 178-179.

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