One Word Photos

IMG_5742In my last post, I talked about learning to critique your own photographs.

And, I promised to share an exercise that I’ve been doing that can help us begin to express our experience.

In Chapter 10 of Sean Kernan’s book, Looking into the Light, he talks about asking students in his workshops to respond to images (their own or others) with just one word. He then chooses the words that come closest to the subtle essence of the image and they discuss further.

I’ve been doing this with some of my photographs recently and am posting them on Instagram with the tag #onewordphotos. Note: I use the “Quick” app to do this but there are certainly many others that can do the same thing (tell me which apps you use to add words to images).

I find that it’s good to go with the first word that comes into my consciousness. This is usually the word that comes closest to what I felt.

The photograph above is one of my favourites. Whimsy means playful, quaint, or fanciful. To me, the curved stems randomly surround the big, colourful leaf, almost as if they’re dancing. It’s like one last party before winter arrives and the large leaf is just shining.

Here are a few more examples below (the one, bottom right, should just say “alive”).
You can then explore the word and image further through journaling. What does the word mean to you (especially in the context of the image)? Elaborate. How does it express your experience of the moment? How does it express something in your life right now?

Try it yourself, and please post your images to Instagram or Flickr and tag with #onewordphotos.

Remember that you can do this with any visual image, not just your own – a painting at the art gallery, an image posted on Flickr or Facebook, or your kids’ artwork. It will help you tap into the emotional energy you felt at the time.

And, if you’re interested in learning more about visual journaling, please go to this page to learn of an exciting new workshop coming up in 2015 – Once Upon a Time: Photographs have Stories to Tell – a collaboration between myself and Sally Gentle Drew.


Sean Kernan Website

Looking into the Light

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The Perils of Photo Critique

“Who can you count on to notice things in your work? Well, mainly yourself. If there’s something there, viewers may respond, but usually inwardly. And, if the vision is not fully realized, responses will be even muddier.” ~ Sean Kernan, Looking into the Light

There are all kinds of places online (and in photography workshops) where you can get critiques of your photos. I visited one such site and clicked on an abstract image that had eleven replies. Each reply was totally different and very subjective.

So, what does a photographer do with this information?

I have nothing against getting feedback as long as we put it in its proper place. In this post, I’d like to share some ideas on critique and suggest that you already know inside what feels good or not so good about your images.

Tara Mohr, in her book Playing Big, says:

“Feedback doesn’t tell you about you. It tells you about the person giving the feedback. It gives us facts (information) about the opinions and preferences of those giving the feedback. It is vital not because it tells us about our own value but because it tells us whether we are reaching the people we need to reach.” ~ Playing Big (Chapter 4, Unhooking from Praise and Criticism)

In other words, when it comes to a photograph, the feedback doesn’t tell us if it’s good (or if we’re good), it tells us whether or not it resonates with that particular person.

Sean Kernan, in his book, Looking into the Light, also has a chapter (10) on feedback. He says:

“The trouble with asking people what they think of your work is that they tell you. You need to listen to people very carefully, and to your own voice most of all.”

The most important response is your own. Take in external feedback but don’t make it the most important thing.

I believe that we intuitively know how to compose (especially with practice) and we know if we’ve been able to express what we saw. Some photographers will say that the photographs that they took “didn’t turn out,” meaning the images didn’t reflect what they saw. In some cases, it probably wasn’t possible. In most cases, they didn’t take the time to really explore how to do it or to clarify their intention.

Those who’ve taken my online workshops know that I’m not big on photo critique. My main goals in the workshops are:

1. That participants will photograph daily and broaden what and how they see. This requires practice and an openness to play and making mistakes.

Critique often shuts that down.

2. That they will learn to trust their instincts about what they see and why and gain greater self-awareness in the process.

They learn to critique their own images.

3. That they have a safe space to express and share their vision with others.

They’ll feel free to post without worrying about harsh criticism.


In the online world, interaction is fraught with misinterpretation and misunderstanding. When someone posts an image, they are sharing a little piece of themselves. Therefore, critique should be minimal and constructive.

I prefer to focus on the positive – whether their intention or vision comes across and to point out what does work.

I encourage participants to write about why they are posting an image and what decisions they made in the creation process. To me, this is by far the best way to learn – by analyzing our own images, writing out our intentions, and seeing how others do the same.

For example, in the photograph at the top of this post, I was drawn by the constant movement of the water towards the right. The sun was setting and lighting up the autumn trees on the far shore. By intentionally setting a longer shutter speed and panning my camera to the right, I was able to show the colour and feeling of movement – in other words, my experience of the moment. The longer shutter speed did overexpose the image, and I’m not thrilled with the white band at the top. Overall, I’m happy with the way it turned out. And, that’s what matters most.

It’s not easy to express what one saw and felt in a photograph. However, it’s a good practice to develop. In my next post, I’ll share an exercise I’ve been working on to do just that.

Sometimes, it’s not possible to say it in words and the image must speak for itself. I think that these are usually the best. (Read: Guy Tal on Visual Fluency.)

What are your thoughts on critique? Have you had an experience that shut you down?


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Wassily Kandinsky and Abstract Art


The “blue” of Lake Ontario

“The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural… The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.” ~ Wassily Kandinsky (via Brainy Quotes)

I’ve wanted to write about Kandinsky for awhile now because he’s considered the father of abstract painting. Recently, I saw some of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in an exhibit titled The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection (1910 – 1918).

“The Great Upheaval spotlighted the dynamism of this fertile period — as artists hurtled toward abstraction and the ultimate “great upheaval” of a catastrophic war — while presenting some of the foundational modern masterpieces that shaped the art of future generations.” ~ The Art Gallery of Ontario

I believe he has much to teach us about the purpose of creative expression, the power of colour and design, and the importance of the emotional aspects of art.

Who Was Kandinsky?

Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) was born in Russia and studied law and economics in Moscow. He didn’t begin painting until the age of 30. After studying and teaching art in Germany, Kandinsky moved to France in 1933, where he produced much of his well-known pieces, and lived there until his death in 1944.

Read more at Wikipedia.

Kandinsky WWI.jpg
Kandinsky WWI“. Via Wikipedia.


The Purpose of Art

“The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.” ~ Wassily Kandinsky (via Brainy Quotes)

Kandinsky saw art as a pointing towards the spiritual or universal. He believed that everyone had a spiritual longing and that this could be expressed through art.

The Power of Colour and Design

“Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” ~ Wassily Kandinsky (via Brainy Quotes)

Kandinsky was not only an artist, he wrote extensively about art theory, especially colour and design.

Wassily Kandinsky - Points - Google Art Project.jpg
Wassily Kandinsky – Points – Google Art Project“. Via Wikipedia.

“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for color, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.” via Art Quotes


The Emotional Aspects of Art

“Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions.”

Kandinsky often interpreted art through emotion. Emotions give meaning and they can be expressed through colour and design.

More on Kandinsky and Abstract Art

Kandinsky via Brain Pickings
Kandinsky book – Concerning the Spiritual in Art
Website on Kandinsky
What do Abstract Expressionism and Graffiti have in common?

Abstract photography is different than painting because we are abstracting from a literal source something that is not literal – expressing a feeling or quality of the source itself or from the photographer.

But, like painting, it is an art form that is not necessarily understood, but felt. Abstract photography can teach us to tap into the emotional aspects of our work, which can be carried over into all of our images. Composition is as important here as it is in painting.

Going Abstract, a four week online workshop will begin November 3rd. Learn more here.

David duChemin’s book, The Visual Imagination, is another helpful resource for abstract photography.


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