Primary school English classes always drummed it into us: A story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In literature, even non-linear narratives follow that format, albeit in a less simplistic way.
While that rule is all well and good for written or spoken tales, does it work when you’re telling a narrative visually? How do you tell a story in a single image?
It sounds like a complex conundrum, but it’s something most of us are doing every day. When we send an emoji, or a response as a gif, we’re not simply sending an image, but a story. The dancing red dress woman isn’t implying that we’re off to flamenco class – it’s saying that we’re happy, excited, sassy, or going out. Preceding conversations imbue her with a narrative that’s simultaneously personal and universal.
Meme culture is a vast and ever expanding tool in our visual cultural lexicon. Again, that’s because even one image (with or without that omnipresent black edged, thick black all-caps type) can make us think of such specific people or situations, while resonating with so many of us at once. Just look at the ‘Distracted Boyfriend’ meme that rapidly did the rounds last month: A stock image reworked countless times to apply to pretty much any situation imaginable, whether it be to relationships, politics, the eclipse or the Great British Bake Off. As Guardian journalist Martin Belam summarised, “it has begun to feel like there is no cultural phenomenon that cannot be twisted into the photo’s narrative.”
Photography is a medium that has been concerned with narrative long before flippant memeification. It’s a natural human impulse, surely, to see an image and consider its ‘beginning’ and ‘end’? Consciously or not, we ponder not only what’s in the frame, but what’s outside of it – what might be through the windows of the house, how its subjects got there, their relationship to one another, and their relationship to the personal wielding the camera.
As David Campbell, director of communications at Amsterdam’s World Press Photo Foundation points out, narratives “have to be constructed by participants and observers”, though this doesn’t negate the fact that interpretations will always clash. He continues: “simple-minded appeals to ‘the facts’, ‘objectivity’ or ‘the truth’ are themselves narrative claims that have to be argued and justified.
“In photography, narrative is related to the idea of context. No matter how complete or comprehensive a narrative appears it will always be the product of including some elements and excluding others. Inclusion/exclusion is part of what construction is all about, but knowing what is best included or excluded requires an understanding of context.”
One of the best exemplars of narrative photography is Gregory Crewdson, whose Cathedral of the Pines exhibition is currently showing at London’s Photographers’ Gallery. His images are frequently described as cinematic, and are imbued with dramatic tension. This is helped by his famously intense production values, often using large crews and organising photography shoots like movies. His work is often compared to that of the painter Edward Hopper; a master of visual storytelling and condensing seemingly complex tales into a single frame. Crewdson’s notions of narrative are crystallised before the image-making itself via written descriptions of his images with creative partner Juliane Haim.
“It’s a limited story,” he told us in an interview earlier this year. “It’s very restricted to description, there’s no attempt at motivation or plot or backstory, and the reason for this is I want all that to remain a mystery. All my pictures are very evocative, they’re not direct, so I want it to be open-ended. I want them to remain a mystery in some way.” He added: “An art photographer first and foremost is telling a particular individual’s story that is only possible through that particular lens, that view of the world.”
Jake Green is a London-born and based photographer whose observationally-driven work manages to tell stories through individual images as well as the series they most frequently form part of. “I’m always conscious of a narrative,” he says. “When it’s a standalone image, it’s more to do with trying to communicate an emotion or some sort of presence. If I’m making a portrait series, I try to include incidental images to set the scene in some way and try to communicate what I’m feeling in that space.” He adds: “I’m always thinking of images in a narrative form, whether that’s as an exhibition or a book.”
One of Green’s most powerful recent series is The Celestials, which documents ‘The Celestial Church of Christ’ in East London. One thing he came up against when telling others about the project, before he’d made or shown the images, was people’s prejudices towards his subjects.
As a photographer, all you have to change people’s minds, or to persuade or tell a story, is the image itself. So how best to do that? “A lot of it comes down to passion,” says Green. “You have to try and convey that in an image. Emotions are hard things to control, and I can’t always control how I feel about a project before I shoot it. If I don’t feel anything when I’m shooting, it’s hard to expect other people to feel something when they’re looking at it.”
Naturally, branding agencies often speak of working on ‘storytelling’ as a key part of their strategic and design work for brands. One of the most vocal in doing this is London-based Aesop, which describes itself as “A creative agency powered by narrative thinking”.
“For us, storytelling is a way of ensuring the essence of a brand stays all the way through,” says Aesop creative director Stephen Lynch. “It’s about creating an ongoing narrative that brings consistency to brand communications in everything from the way it looks on-shelf to promotions and television ads.”
Lynch cites writer Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a touchpoint for how his agency treats narrative. In brief, the book puts forward a theory that almost all important myths share one fundamental structure, the ‘monomyth’: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” It’s a structure most famously endorsed by George Lucas, and one that once read, can reduce movie-watching into a frustratingly knowing, and slightly pedestrian experience. But, it seems, it works. “Our narrative director had a brainwave and realised this was a really clear way of defining a brand,” says Lynch. “You have to say what a brand is about, and what it’s standing against. There’s a lot of creativity found in that tension between what’s held sacred and what’s profane.”
Once that brand story has been mapped out, Aesop writes a ‘narrative synopsis’ that becomes a ‘manifesto’. It then creates a ‘narration board’ using “images and texture about what the brand would look like, taste like, and the action, and choose a palette of colours that feel like a story,” says Lynch. Increasingly, agencies are turning to resources such as Adobe Stock to help pull these narration boards together. So how does this story manifest itself in the actual design work? “We look at the creative work and ask if it feels like the world we’ve created in the creation phases,” Lynch explains, “that then guides us to the typefaces, the colour palette, images, whether it’s an illustrative brand or photographic brand. All of those things come into play.”
He adds: “A lot of what we do is very strategic, so the story isn’t necessary visible to end-users but might be in a tone of voice, colour or character. You don’t have to tell the story in every touch point.”
So how do you really get to the crux of a story, or capture complex things like people, and lives, and emotions in a single image? For Green, a lot of it comes down to the edit. “You might choose a picture of someone looking aggressive. You have to be really sympathetic to your narrative and your feelings for that project,” he says. “What do you choose to focus on? How do you feel about that project – are you disgusted by those people or embracing them? Are you part of what they do or a voyeur who walks away?”
In a world where more imagery is available than ever before, and we are exposed to more messages than ever before, the skill of discovering and choosing the right image has never been more vital. As humans, we will always be profoundly moved by the power of a single image that invites us to construct our own story around it. The story starts with the right picture.
Adobe Stock offers a highly curated collection of inspiring and visually impactful content sourced from the world’s leading assignment artists, stock artists and agencies – perfect for designers and visual storytellers who are looking for exceptional ways to tell authentic stories.
This diverse marketplace of royalty-free assets is uniquely and natively integrated within Creative Cloud, saving you time and enabling uninterrupted creativity so you can search and license high-quality assets without ever leaving your favourite apps. Stock like Only Adobe can. Get 10 free images at: https://stock.adobe.com/uk/