Matt Payne Photography Blog: Storytelling As An Art: Redefining Traditional Photography Styles

May 1, 2021

The phrase “traditional photography” can be hard to define. If you think about it, it is almost easier to define non-traditional photography. What would that look like? Strapping on a GoPro to go skateboarding, using a wet-plate process to document a beauty pageant, or taking your camera on a journey to document something deeply personal or intimate? Storytelling involves opening up to show an audience real things—real emotions, real fears, real vulnerabilities.

The Eyes are Watching (2018)

Wandering through the forests near Ohio Pass in Colorado, my friend Kane discovered this set of five Aspen trees growing up out of the ground together in one of the rarest and most interesting displays of nature I have seen in my time in the forest here in Colorado. I decided to render this one in black and white to really accentuate the textures in the trees.

The same principles apply to landscape photography. Traditional landscape photography includes photos of fields, mountains, rivers and the like - accurate depictions of different parts of the outside world. Many people see landscape photography as the documentation of iconic landmarks. If you want to shift away from the conventional, you need to step out of the familiar role of observer and move towards a more intimate relationship with your subjects.

The story in a landscape

People think of a story as a tale that has a beginning, middle and end In photography, we say that images “tell a story” when they allow a viewer to imagine the narrative behind the scenes in the photo. It is quite easy to conceptualize that with some types of pictures, such as street photography or documentary photography; however, with landscape photography, people have become accustomed to seeing visually striking representations of nature purely for the sake of beauty.

Leaf Dam (2020)

Here's something I've never seen before in all of the years of photographing fall in Colorado. Small rocks create just enough resistance in this slow moving stream to cause a build up of aspen leaves. Honestly, this is one of the coolest things I've seen in nature!

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

There’s nothing wrong with making beautiful photos for the sake of beauty; however, to take things a step further I believe that it’s necessary to shift our perspectives. On my podcast, I had a conversation with Ben Horne and we discussed his take on storytelling in landscape photography and how to use the natural setting to paint a picture in the viewer's imagination. Preconceiving a story in our image making process can be a crucial step to create images that are personal, creative, and unique.

Each person has a different story

The best stories are personal. Whether you’re writing a book, making a film, or creating artwork, the most powerful thing you can do is to put your soul into it. It might sound hard to do that with a photograph, but it really just requires a slight shift in mindset. Instead of looking at a scene and seeing elements of color, light and composition, you see those elements and something that brings the picture to life.

Bear Claw on Aspen Bark #1 (2019)

On a hike through the forest in autumn near Crested Butte, Colorado, I stumbled upon this aspen tree that had very fresh bear claw marks running from the base of the tree all the way to the top. I was fascinated with the way in which the bark curled away from the aspen tree juxtaposed with the fall colors in the background.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

When I created the photo entitled E.T. Phone Home (2017), I didn’t at first see the resemblance to the likeable extraterrestrial. It took other people to see it from that perspective. It’s quite easy to see the element of storytelling in a photo like this, which draws upon a well-known narrative, but some landscape photos tell a story that can be personal for each different viewer. For example, my photo The Dome of Silence (2017) can evoke different reactions from different people. I might see a pair or things—people, creatures—watching the distant stars with awe, while another person might have a totally different interpretation. In my conversation with Ben Horne, he spoke about capturing landscapes with this in mind and how that involves a subtle balance between planning shots and waiting for things to settle into the way they’re meant to be.

Telling stories in nature is very much like that. A small shift in light or movement from wind can open up a scene that wasn’t there a few seconds prior. I’ve also learned that from observing natural landscapes–the photo Strangers (2019) simply would not have been there if I’d been a few minutes too early or too late.

The elements of storytelling

It’s not necessary to have a metaphor in mind when you create a storytelling photograph. While a scene with distinct subjects (like E.T. Phone Home) can clearly project a deeper meaning to a viewer, a photograph with no clear forms can also elicit an emotional reaction through subtle details. Ben Horne’s photograph Approaching Storm (taken in Death Valley, California) doesn’t have subjects that could be interpreted as “characters” in a story. Instead, the space, color, and perspective create a narrative in the viewer’s imagination—each individual’s own narrative, but a clear narrative, nonetheless.

Squiggly Forest of Fun (2020)

Don't you just love finding trees like this? I know I do! They twist and turn up into the sky into a shape I like to call squiggly. I feel like aspen trees are somewhat unique in this regard, especially in the wind-shaped mountainous terrain of Colorado.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

In writing, a story requires a plot which depends on a moment or turning point to gain some sort of momentum. The story flows along with that momentum, following a direction purposefully. It’s the same with photography. Many landscape scenes are taken with the purpose of capturing a static moment for its beauty—depicting iconic landmarks in an attempt to convey their majesty. There’s nothing wrong with that, and many photos do a magnificent job of communicating that feeling. To actually tell a story, though, means looking beyond a single moment and discovering the movement of the natural terrain—movement so subtle that it takes time and patience to notice.

Unlike a written story, a photograph does not need a beginning, middle and end; it doesn’t need to bring a sense of closure to a viewer. The development of the natural world doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end. If it did, we would need millennia to witness the process—and we wouldn’t get any closure.

The San Rafael Swell (2021)
Geology has always fascinated me as a landscape photographer. One such geologic feature that really gets the creative and scientific curiosity juices flowing is the San Rafael Swell. The way that the layers of the earth form, lift, change, and erode over millions of years is something to behold and see in person. Here, ancient beaches form an anticline of sandstone, shale, and limestone that was pushed up during the Paleocene Laramide Orogeny 60–40 million years ago. Since that time, infrequent but powerful flash floods have eroded the sedimentary rocks into numerous valleys, canyons, gorges, mesas, buttes and badlands.

Seeing these massive formations lit up by the early glow of sunrise creates defining shadows in the rock and showcases the intricate textures found on the landscape.

Photo © copyright by Matt Payne.

The story told in a photo does not mirror the conventional kind, just as it doesn’t stick to a traditional photographic process. In a traditional landscape the composition might be the extent of the story, relying on anchor points to draw the viewer’s eye from the beginning to the end. A narrative photograph might also make use of anchor points, but with the purpose of uncovering another story, rather than making the image visually pleasing.

Storytelling requires participation

Professional photographers shoot with the knowledge that an audience will view their work online, in a gallery, or in print. This makes the process slightly different to someone taking photos for personal use only.

You might capture a scene that tells you a definite story, but the ultimate story it embodies could be entirely different depending on the imagination of individual viewers. This means that your aim is not merely to entertain and please an audience, but to provoke interest and curiosity. The art of storytelling requires active participation by both creator and observer—an ever-changing process of communication and inquiry.

Isolation
During my recent fall colors photo trip, my friends and I woke up to a huge snow storm and massive fog at our campsite west of McClure Pass, Colorado. My friend Kane and I decided to take a drive through this wild wintery wonderland and as we traveled west, we encountered even more snow. It made for many magical moments like this one, where the trees seemed to be huddled in groups to stay warn in the snow storm.
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