(All photographs copyrighted by the Estate of Diane Arbus)
My current book in progress is about an urban explorer with a penchant for dangerous locales and getting the perfect shot. She chooses to take photos in decrepit factories or homes throughout the city where she lives. So my research of late has been engrossed in crawling inside the mind of photographers and urban explorers. Specifically ones that have to put themselves out there in order to get those shots.
Let me take a step back and explain what I mean. To go out on a regular basis and do photography at decrepit, abandoned, often condemned locations takes quite a bit of courage. You are sometimes risking your life for a few incredible shots of a place most people wouldn’t dare enter. Some places require masks so you don’t breathe in the mold, others may have dangerous people, and others may be dangerous just to reach. You have to really believe in your work in order to take these kinds of risks. My protagonist is only a teenager, but she loves the challenge. She’s starting down the path to become a professional photographer someday, and I want to have a strong grasp of her motivations.
If you’ve read any of my writing, then you know I’m keen on the weird. I’ve had several stories take readers by surprise with weird twists and turns. So I guess it isn’t surprising that I came across Diane Arbus’ work. Arbus was a photographer before my time, but her eye is incredible. She took simple, square, black and white photos of marginal people who were sometimes seen as either ugly or surreal. In the quotes you read of hers, you can feel her love for it pour through.
Here she talks about textures within the photos:
“In the beginning of photographing I used to make very grainy things. I’d be fascinated by what the grain did because it would make a kind of tapestry of all these little dots and everything would be translated into this medium of dots. Skin would be the same as water would be the same as sky and you were dealing mostly in dark and light, not so much in flesh and blood.
But when I’d been working for a while with all these dots, I suddenly wanted terribly to get through there. I wanted to see the real differences between things.
I’m not talking about textures. I really hate that, the idea that a picture can be interesting simply because it shows texture. I mean that just kills me I don’t see whats interesting about texture. It really bores the hell out of me.
But I wanted to show the difference between flesh and material, the densities of different kinds of things air and water and shiny. So I gradually had to learn different techniques to make it come clear. I began to get terribly hyped on clarity.”
People do strange things when they find out you’re a photographer apparently. Perfect strangers would invite her into their homes, invite her to dinner, then allow her to take photos. She would stop people in the street to get a particular shot. It takes quite a lot of gumption to do that sort of thing.
I stumbled upon an excellent article about Arbus’ photography and a bit of her method:
11 Lessons Diane Arbus Can Teach You About Street Photography
Although these lessons are for photographers, we can easily apply some of these to writing as well.
Go places you have never been.
I’m going to say just live life. Experience new things, explore new places, and don’t be afraid of making a mistake.
The camera is a license to enter the lives of others.
Or rather… the pen! (Or the keyboard…)
Gain inspiration from reading
Really this is a given, right?
Utilize textures to add meaning to your photographs
Since we’re talking about writing here, use all the senses to add meaning. The more unique sensations the more engrossed your reader will become. Not that we need a play-by-play of temperature changes in a room, but you get the idea.
Take bad photos (aka Write bad stories)
This. Write inconsistent characters. Get all of that out of your system on stories that will never see the light of day. Make these mistakes so that you will be able to recognize them later.
Sometimes your best photos aren’t immediately apparent (to you)
This has taken me a while to understand and to really appreciate. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for a novel, I work on it straight for several months, I finish it or get mostly through with it, then I realize that it’s not what it needs to be. The story is too choppy, the plot is all over the place, or my main characters aren’t interesting. Even though the entire package is ultimately scrapped, there are pieces there that I can use elsewhere. Maybe you made a really interesting group of characters that you can pick up and take with you to another story, maybe there’s an old building in another book that is actually the one you came up with in the scrapped novel, or maybe your boring characters don’t quite have the personality they need to handle the plot they deserve.