Against Narrative

Article main image

There can be no doubt that the current trend of narrative-based photobooks has led to an increased understanding of what photographs do when they are placed into a context designed to communicate a larger story. In the most extreme case, a photograph might do more than one thing. It might communicate something on its own. But in the company of others, it might take on a different meaning.

In light of the latter, placing photographs next to other photographs to explore their communicative potential always is a good idea. Even as comparisons of photography with other forms of art are problematic, given that superficial similarities might deceive one to misunderstand one’s photography (see all the comparisons to poetry), maybe we could say that placing photographs next to other photographs is comparable to exploring resonance in music: will, and obviously I mean this in a metaphorical sense, another photograph be able to make this one vibrate, possibly in ways previously unforeseen?

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the narrative approach to photobook making has now gone too far. Over the past few years, I have been receiving regular questions along the lines of “do I need a narrative?” These questions typically come from photographers who have been quietly amassing their work, only to be confounded by how the photobook itself is currently being discussed.

For those of us who are older and who have seen more than one fad come and go, it’s easy to dismiss the question. Of course, you don’t need a narrative in your work. But imagine being a young photographer, fresh in school. Imagine that you’re photographing landscapes or maybe portraits. Or maybe you’re making abstract work. Imagine the excitement of looking into the potential of photography, possibly for the first time in your life having your heart go faster — only to realize that seemingly everybody is using pictures in ways that yours won’t work in. Then what?

I think you can see how this poses a pretty large problem for these photographers. It’s one thing to have ample experience with books and to be able to navigate the various pitfalls created by them. It’s quite another to be such a young photographer. This is someone who experiences photography’s creative potential in a way that us old hands simply (and sadly) don’t get to enjoy any longer. But this is also someone for whom the number of possibilities are bewildering, someone in need of gentle and useful guidance towards a deeper understanding of the medium.

Please note that I’m using the term “young” mostly in a metaphorical sense. Even as many of these photographers are biologically young, someone whose experience with photography starts at a much later age might easily experience the same confusion.

The most immediate solution to the problem is simple: as critics and especially educators, it’s our responsibility to carry everyone — and not just those who happen to follow along the idea of narrative-based photography and photobook making.

At the same time, there is another problem with narrative-based work. Especially if you focus too much on your supposed narrative before you have even finished photographing your work, you run the rather large risk of shoehorning your work into a very predictable and usually very shallow corner. After all, the nearest narrative is always only a few obvious pictures away, possibly after some short and equally obvious snippets of text plus some vernacular materials have been added.

Thus, what we’re currently witnessing is not only a fad. We’re also witnessing a deluge of very simplistic photobooks that work well enough but that — let’s face it — nobody needs to look at more than once. I won’t given any examples, I’m sure you can easily think of many on your own.

Working with narrative can thus also be a trap for those attracted to it: easy solutions — in fact: solutions that are too easy — make themselves available too quickly and too conveniently. A narrative-based approach too easily shortcuts the true creative potential of photography. It offers the simple and easy solution one can think of at the very beginning as a good outcome, allowing for the work to follow a simplistic and shallow script.

Instead, though, good photography arrives at its conclusion only after a typically large set of trials and errors. “Fail again,” Samuel Beckett decreed,  “fail better.” That process isn’t necessarily enjoyable — at least not at every point of its journey. But it is only through this type of process that more complex narratives as much as more complex narrative-free photography projects are developed. You’ll have to allow for your own work — the pictures you take — to outsmart your own ideas.

How do you do that? Well, you don’t think about narrative at all when you start your work. Narrative is the great attractor of simplicity when it’s being placed at the beginning of the creative process.

And again, as critics and educators, but also as photographers, it’s our job to discuss the work we’re made to see in a fashion that will call out those simplistic solutions for what they are — instead of mindlessly celebrating each and every narrative-based book (especially if it comes wrapped with the usual design- and production-based bells and whistles).

In the end, the lack of criticality that I perceive in the community hurts us all. It makes the job of those young photographers much too hard when in fact it should be our collective duty to help them develop their work. And it also makes the fad of narrative a lot more shallow than it needs to be.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

Thank you for your support!