Form versus Content

Form vs Content

My friend Jeff suggested that we both write a blogpost on the same subject. Jeff is a French Street/Life photographer and a very good one it has to be said. You can see his work and the corresponding blogpost  here -

We both thought of writing a post defining "What is Street Photography?", however it was decided that it would be way too complicated and contentious. I suggested "Why do people take photos of pigeons?"! Jeff, being of a much higher intellect than me came up with this - Garry Winogrand and his famous quote :" a photograph is a battle of form versus content". I have some views on this, however I still did some research and read through half a dozen articles. I hope I'm not accused of Plagiarism, but others have written far more eloquently on the subject and have come up with some excellent examples. I suppose we learn from others and soak it up, therefore my apologies if someone says "hang on a minute, I wrote something similar".

I could get this over with very quickly by saying "yes it is. I entirely agree with your statement Mr. Winogrand", but perhaps it's worth discussing what it means. Art, Photography and even Writing use form and content. For instance, what we write and how we arrange those words. There is a very famous example of this from Hemingway; no need to write a novel Ernest, forget the "form", all those pages, chapters and ink just for a moment, give us some "content" in six words that tells us a story and will make a reader think. Here was his answer - "For sale: baby shoes, never used". Now that is extremely sad, powerful and thought provoking. A lot of questions asked and pure genius by Mr Hemingway. Now, here's a photo in way of demonstration purposes of how Not to do it; some baby boots, in fact made by my wife simply because she likes crocheting - 

There is some form here (believe it or not!). I selected a lens, exposure, aperture, composed the frame and placed the shoes on a bed with some light. The only content is the boots themselves and it is in fact simply a photo of some baby boots on a bed, it conveys nothing whatsoever. To expand on that we would require more content, an empty cot for example or a mother with her head in her hands in the background. This would give us a story. Okay, I'm not only far too lazy, but also I fear that this could get very depressing very quickly so we'll move on. One of mine that I know Jeff quite likes which possibly combines our two warring elements - 

Or perhaps this of two brothers tree climbing from one of my recent client Family Shoots. I have my content and form, all those lines from the boys arms and hands I think tell a story, a bond between them -

Writing and photography are similar as far as this subject is concerned. I could perhaps write a string of words  - bird, dog, the, at, media and boredom. They're meaningless, the form is there, spelt correctly and technically fine, but without content. The same with photography, I'm thinking of those clichés - zebra crossings, people emerging form tunnels, images that are totally black with a tiny piece of white light and someone standing in said light. Beautiful to look at and I've done them, however I don't think they'll stand the test of time because there is no real content, they don't tell a story. What they do get is plenty of "Likes" and unfortunately are forgotten in a second. All of those well known photos from the past by the great photographers involve both, occasionally though it's just content, the form is somehow irrelevant. Here we have a couple of shots - one where I was thinking of the form and the other where I just saw the content, a guy and his pickpocket shadow which possibly may be more memorable -

It really is a battle. Shooting Street should perhaps be about seeing something interesting (the content) and all the rest (the form) should come afterwards, a secondary thought? Maybe not. If I’m shooting portraits then it’s certainly reversed, I look for a good location, nice light, choose my lens and the mood I want to create...then I place my subject (the content) in that scene. 

It's very easy to ignore content for the sake of form. Photographers often worry about all the technical stuff and forget to include some content. Of course we need to think of framing, light, lines, geometry etc, but... Should we ignore content for the sake of form? Everything has to be composed and yet often there's no story to tell. Content gives meaning to what otherwise would be a very stylish, beautiful and yet totally boring photograph.

Style over Substance is essentially what we're saying here. There has to be both, common sense tells us that, our eyes love all that style, but our brain isn't engaged in the slightest. If I was a half decent photographer then I would litter this blog with images that prove Gary Winogrand"s point...alas getting more content in my Street Photography is a work in progress, I went into the city of Bath the other morning in an attempt to do just that, as with most of my Street/Life Photography jaunts, nothing much materialised, here's an example;

Nice backdrop, a girl on a bench reading her book (better than a smartphone), a couple of people walking by...all style and no content (arguably not much style either!). I suppose what we're after is a good photograph, it's a battle on all fronts, not just Form and Content. There's so much that needs to come together. Anyway, fed up I retired to the pub and tried one there too; awkward lighting and my Leica doesn't always cope well, but I can at least look at the content and wonder what it was they were thinking -

I took a look through some of my photography books, a lot of the standout/famous photos involved both style and substance, form and content. Some were more about the content, no matter if they were out of focus, the lines weren't leading anywhere, the subject was compelling enough without the need of any real form. That said many were staged which made the inclusion and victory over this battle a whole lot easier (Cartier-Bresson and Capa were known to have done just that). So it was that I finished by looking through my own work to find something to use as an example, practically impossible since we know that I'm not always a big fan of my own photography. I decided that this shot from a few years ago might just cut it -

It's always subjective, but if nothing else it could evoke childhood memories for some viewers. It also shows that sometimes we just throw things out there and see how they fly, kites and photographs included. Actually the photo of the two brothers is a better example, but I'd already written the previous sentence...

As much as we discuss, debate or analyse, the battle that Gary Winogrand suggested rages on.... it's more like a war of attrition, my plan is to throw everything I have at it, keep firing away, shooting with my unlimited ammo (digital allows for that) until I wear it down and win this and the many other battles that contribute to a good photograph.  

I'd like to thank Jeff for the suggestion, which has caused me to pause for thought and proven more difficult to write about than I first imagined. I'll be fascinated to see what he has come up with on this subject, full of insight coupled with inspiring images I suspect!

As usual I would be delighted to read any comments and my sincere thanks go to anyone taking the time to read my blog.

All images can be opened by clicking on the thumbnails and are taken using a Leica M with either a Summicron 35mm, Summicron 90mm or Noctilux 50mm lens fitted.