On Narrative (Part 1)

Strange though it might be to say, it often seems as if the terms we use most frequently to talk about photography are precisely the ones that are the least clearly defined. Of course, it might be argued that this makes a certain kind of sense. After all, if a term is too rigidly defined its usefulness is to an extent diminished; the flexibility of a given definition is a practical response to a medium that is spread across a broad range of contexts and also changing rapidly. At the same time, one of the key concepts of contemporary photography – narrative – seems like it could stand a closer look, both in terms of what we mean, or think we mean, when describing a body of work in that way, and also how ‘narrative’ (or a specific narrative) might function in photography. It is a term widely, if perhaps somewhat imprecisely used, then, not least because it can mean different things in different contexts and because many people seem to use it in different ways. Obviously, those different uses and meanings are not always incompatible, but it is exactly for this reason a little questioning of what ‘narrative’ might be and what limitations our understanding of the term itself might have would be worthwhile. Specifically, what I want to address is the way – or ways, rather – that narrative ‘works’ in photography.

These questions are perhaps best answered with regard to an actual example of photographic narrative, but first, however, it might be a useful to outline some general considerations that apply to how narratives work. Most often it seems that a ‘narrative’ is simply a sequence of pictures – that is, a group of photographs in a particular order to be followed by the viewer from the first image to the last, a progression that is defined by the photographer as the ‘author’ of the work. The situation that this most obviously applies to is the photobook, which most people tend to view from start to finish and the format of which generally assumes that no single image is more important than the whole (though, of course, some may be more important than others). It can also be applied to the way in which images are arranged on the gallery wall, were a linear progression is usually maintained, but that also can take advantage of the added dimensional space to create arrangements or groupings that still fall under the rubric of narrative, though with an added degree of complexity. This conception of narrative-as-sequence is largely distinct from the idea of the photo-story as popularised by the golden age of magazine photojournalism and the illustrated press, a distinction perhaps best explained by the simple observation that while ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ are roughly synonymous they are not entirely interchangeable.[i]

Although the photo-story and the photographic narrative proper are both often centred on a specific subject, which the pictures examine from different perspectives, the latter can more easily accommodate different subjects and even styles while still remaining thematically coherent. It doesn’t just tell a story, but creates a world – or a view of the world – within its confines. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of photographic narrative is the scope it offers to explore the contrast of different images, making use of this contrast as an effect in the work. The photo-story is a mode of narrative, its most basic elaboration, rather than all that it can be; there are, of course, as many types of narrative as there are photographic projects conceived in this way, but they all share enough in their basic outline for us to see what narrative, as such, might be and to say something about how it functions. A photographic narrative, then, is a progressive sequence of pictures in a fairly precise (if not always fixed) order determined by the photographer, that builds around a single theme – or themes – where the significance of the whole is more important than any one of the images that make it up. In fact, the narrative is a kind of unified work; the meaning of the whole depends on the relationships that are created by its constituent elements.

While it might seem a rather hair-splitting distinction to make, it is precisely this aspect of photographic narrative that separates it from a photographic series, which is a group of pictures that may be thematically linked but that do not need to be placed in any specific order for them to function, even though they still share a stylistic vocabulary and have certain preoccupations in common. Obviously, this work does benefit from being seen as a whole, but the main point is that it does not need to be – meaning isn’t primarily located in the relationship between the images. There is admittedly something quite intangible about this relationship; it can often be hard to say why a particular sequence ‘works’ and another does not, but most photographers (as well as viewers) will agree that this is indeed the case. The reasons are often more intuitive that analytical. There is also a practical distinction to be made here between the editing of a photographic work, which is the selection of the images that will make it up from the total that the photographer has produced, and the finished sequence itself. The edit defines the scope of the work, while the sequence puts this into a ‘readable’ form, one that can be followed and interpreted by the viewer, though it is not one that can have either the progression or exposition of a more conventionally narrative form.

If it isn’t a story, then, and lacks the comparative advantages of something like a novel or the cinema, how exactly does a photographic narrative function? The best answer to this question lies in the fact that, as I have said, narratives are most often centred thematically, while still allowing for a range of subject-matter to enter into the pictures; photographic narrative is, essentially, a set of variations on a theme. This is often established at the outset, perhaps by how the work is contextualised, for example by a title, though it doesn’t have to be, and then expanded upon through the progression of the work, having at the very least a point where we enter and a point where we exit, by which time the viewer will hopefully have reached a particular understanding of the work’s central themes. This understanding is a projection of the artist’s intent in making the work, which is not a single meaning or even an interpretation, but something that the narrative does. Each picture builds upon or modifies our understanding of what has come before, and also modifies our understanding of what the work is ‘about’ as a whole; even if each picture in the sequence has a different subject, the thematic frame remains by virtue of the precise relationship between the images. What the pictures are of might well be the theme of the work, but then again ‘theme’ and ‘subject’ are not interchangeable terms either.

The way in which these elements are made to relate to one another is perhaps best compared to the principles of montage in film-making. Once the basic themes of the narrative have been established (the work of editing, as we saw) these must be placed in a sequence, one that is most often – if not inevitably – defined by the framework a book or a gallery exhibition. The basic idea here is to shape a rhythm from the images, one that facilitates an unfolding of the concerns that underlie the work, progressing from an initial conception of what those are that is modified during the course of ‘reading’ the sequence until some kind of resolution is achieved. Of course, even within a presumptively linear structure there is plenty of scope for diversions and tangents; the best narratives use these as a strategy like any other to make a point or create a mood. Again, this isn’t a totally analytical process, but one that demands a certain measure of judgement or intuition, while undoubtedly resting on a firm sense of what it is that the work should achieve. The sequencing of the images is the action of the narrative itself. The subjects of successive images may be widely different (as variations on a central theme), but they can still move the narrative toward a resolution because of how they modify our understanding of what the work is ‘about’ as whole. There are not many fixed or conventional forms for photographic narrative, as there are with novels, for example, but given the ‘variation-on-a-theme’ structure of (most) photographic narratives, such conventions aren’t really needed.

The tension created by the push/ pull between – and, more importantly, across – the images is what holds the narrative together, within the general framework of its presentation. The action of the narrative is not continuous between the pictures, either in terms of subject or the moment(s) in time that they depict, but nonetheless a sort of unity is formed on the basis of whatever narrative ‘voice’ seems to be at work, how the sequence elaborates an overriding thematic concern – in short, the way it narrates. This unity depends on how the images are sequenced, pacing out variations and contrasts throughout its length, but leading us forward as each new picture progressively builds on and modifies our sense of what has come before. In many ways, by being obliged to actually make these implicit connections, the viewer becomes a protagonist in the narrative, occupying the space (apparently) left vacant by the photographer as the figure at its centre who was present at all of these photographed moments, but who features in them only as a kind of strategic absence. The photographic narrative is, then, the experience of that narrative unfolding.[ii] The spaces between the pictures, what they don’t and can’t show, are bridged precisely by the unity of this – shared – narrative voice, where it overlaps between the photographer-as-author and the viewer as a surrogate protagonist. The coherence of the narrative (or the lack of it) is just another choice to be made, and one that helps to shape our sense of the work’s thematic base; how the work is ‘put together’ is fundamentally related to what it means – or rather, to the meanings that we can take from it.

In summary, then: a photographic narrative is a sequence of pictures in a particular order, whose overall meaning is determined by the precisely calibrated relationship between them. The basis for this relationship can be a similarity of subject matter, but more usually the subject matter (what the pictures are of) is fairly diverse and so instead the narrative depends on a thematic consistency being maintained throughout the sequence, the ‘theme’ of the work being, most simply, what it tells us about the subjects of the pictures – and, consequently, what the work is ‘about.’ Meaning is dispersed through the work by the use of thematic variation, where different motifs in the pictures modify our understanding of the narrative as it progresses, usually within the sort of linear framework provided by a book or a gallery exhibition.[iii] The narrative doesn’t depend on the significance of any one picture, but certain pictures may have more effect in terms of stating (or modifying) the overall theme of the work than others. How the pictures are related to one another in the sequence – juxtaposition, pacing and so on – is determined by the kind of narrative it is; each has its own unique ‘voice’ that creates a particular experience for the viewer, who also becomes a participant by connecting these different elements together. Of course, the principles that have been broadly outlined here might well be implemented in different ways for different cases, but it seems to me they are the basic building blocks of any photographic narrative.

(Part 2 can be found here).


[i] We might also add Jean-Luc Godard’s typically contrarian remark that a story needs to have a beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily in that order. It is perhaps an unfashionable influence to admit, but I have been somewhat guided here by Susan Sontag’s writing around narrative, particularly in film, from her essay on Godard (where she quotes the above remark) and also on Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona. Both appear in the collection Styles of Radical Will, Penguin, 2009.

[ii] Compare this to the distinction that John Berger makes between a photo-story and photographic narrative. See his essay Stories, first published in Another Way of Telling, reprinted in Understanding a Photograph, Geoff Dyer (ed.), Penguin, 2013, pgs. 99-105.

[iii] Naturally there are exceptions to this format, predominantly those cases where the space of the page – or wall – is used to create arrangements of different images, but the idea of photographic narrative I’ve elaborated here doesn’t depend on it unfolding in a straight line, just that the relationship between the pictures fundamentally determines our sense of what the work is about. Obviously, that applies as much – if not more – in the case of such arrangements or installations.

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