Interview with Bruce Percy

I recently had a very enjoyable, extended photographic conversation with Bruce Percy.

It was interesting to hear about Bruce’s methods, thinking processes and to contrast them with my own, so, I thought I would share some of the topics that came up.

Spatial Cognition and Intuitive Composition

We have both noticed (and been told by our photo-holiday customers) that we seem able to identify good starting compositions, almost instantly, upon arrival at a new location. Up to now I have been calling this “intuitive composition”. However, following our conversation, I wonder if a large part of this “intuition” is actually an ability to use our spatial cognition, even as we approach the location. By spatial cognition I mean an ability, to easily picture the viewpoint, arrangement of elements, parallax, etc., from another position based solely upon what we are seeing from our current location. I am not talking about small differences in position but starting to imagine the scene from several miles away (assuming an open field of view), then iterating towards a final composition as we get closer.

We are building compositions in our minds long before we have actually seen them. This will include, rejecting some locations, on the basis of what we imagine the composition will be, as well as driving us towards other potentially good locations.

In doing this, are we unusual, amongst photographers? Surely, everybody has these abilities but does everybody use them to the same degree? I can imagine that someone skilled at flying model aircraft or remotely controlling a vehicle must have similar abilities that are likely even better developed than our own.

Consequently, I now believe that Bruce and I are using our spatial cognition as we approach our location and that this accounts for our ability to go directly to a point with a potentially good composition. Perhaps, the remaining “intuitive” part is in our being able to relate our imagined composition to other locations, images, experiences, etc., that we know have worked in the past.

Emotions and Narrative

After our first meeting, I had decided that my key compositional driver was narrative, using metaphor to encourage viewers to create their own stories. However, Bruce’s key driver is emotional. He uses tones, shapes and graphical elements to create dream-like images and evoke emotional responses in the viewer. Stories versus emotions appeared to be very different motivations.

Following our discussions, I am now persuaded that narrative and emotion are not discrete characteristics. Instead they are just different points on the same continuum of “story”. An image narrative is based upon consciously creating stories, in the present, that are external to the self and based upon the knowledge of the viewer. An emotional response to an image is unconsciously created, from internal stories (memories), that result from the viewer’s personal history and experiences.

Consequently, both the narratives and the emotions created by an image are just different forms of “story”, one consciously created and the other unconsciously.

Unicorns and Space Ships

As Bruce was discussing simplifying compositions, he paraphrased one of his photo-holiday guests, by saying:

“I like dew on the grass, that river here and that cloud there. This rock is good and I must include that unicorn. And, there’s a space ship.”

I know exactly what he means. I have often seen multiple elements, all of which, I want to include in the image. Each element probably has its merits but including them all in one image is unlikely to create the best composition. Not thinking deeply enough about what to include, and why it adds to the composition is, for me, one of the most difficult things to do on location. But waiting until later is too late to achieve the best compositions.

This is why I particularly like fog, snow, overcast skies, calm days, anything that reduces the complexity of a scene for me. Photography is all about simplification. We should be eliminating everything that does not directly add to the narrative or emotional content of the scene.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Bruce Percy”

  1. Like Bruce Percy, Colin Prior said to me when we were having a chat that the starting point for the photographer is emotion and the photographer needs to find a way to convey it.

    As a point for discussion, you say “An image narrative is based upon consciously creating stories, in the present, that are external to the self and based upon the knowledge of the viewer.” The question I would like to ask here is: what is the trigger for the conscious decision that leads eventually to the creation of a particular story? It does not just happen, there has to be a starting point.

    I believe that consciousness comes into play second and emotions first. Emotions are not thoughts, e-motions are found in the body, and there are sensations that are sometimes so very subtle that they are not noticeable, unless we put some work into feeling them and then understanding them. It is the photographer’s own history (what associations does he or she makes when they are in a particular visual situation?) that triggers the emotion. And then there are metaphors. What does a lone caravan in the middle of a vast empty landscape mean to the photographer and what emotions does that picture generate in them?

    Then the conscious work begins.

    1. Hi Claudine. Thanks for the feedback.

      I agree with what you say when talking about the photographer and their motivations for making an image.

      Possibly, I did not make it clear but I was writing this piece based on the reactions of a viewer, not the photographer. If the viewer has an emotional connection to an image it will have been based upon their previous experience and history. But, if the viewer has no emotional connection to the image, but approaches it solely from an intellectual perspective, then all they know is that the photographer deliberately chose this composition, these elements and placed them in a particular way. In that case the viewer has only their own conscious knowledge and understanding of metaphor with which to deconstruct and or interpret the scene.

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