The Concept of "Gesture" in Photography

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I included my blog post here, in its entirety as a way of having a discussion on photography and less on the gear.
Based on the great discussions on this thread:
Somebody Tell Me What I'm Missing With This Photographer's Street Photography

I hope this is one of many discussions we can have that will bolster photography. I know that I've been posting a lot of "Review and Shootout" posts here lately, and that is really to just help increase the library of posts there from my archives. I've already had them published. So, not being hypocritical, but I did want to explain the apparent anomaly.

Now, the the post! Gesture...

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Back in 2013, I posted some of my thoughts on words of wisdom from Jay Maisel. Ever since I first saw "A Day With Jay Maisel" on KelbyOne, I've been fascinated by Jay Maisel's work, thoughts and ethos.

So much of our thought processes are the same, yet he has a way of explaining it through his words and his images that just hit home with me. He is one of those photographers that I go back and re-read and re-watch often when I am in a rut or need inspiration.

One of the things that I did not cover in the original post above was the concept of "gesture". I think it had more to do with the fact that I did not truly understand the concept as Jay talks about it until recently. Below is a link to a video where Jay explains the concept way better than I ever could. I'm going to attempt to give my thoughts on it, but better that you get it from the man himself before I possibly butcher it or go awry through my attempt.

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Jay Maisel on Gesture

Like many, I thought that "gesture" was something that only a human or living creature could possess.

For me, gesture is not only the way that someone moves, but the air they put off by the way they move, stand, walk or interact with anything. That something unique about what they do, and finding a way to capture the essence of that in a single fragment of time - that one single photo frame.

If you watched the video linked above, you'll soon learn that gesture is much more than a human or living creature concept. Just about anything can have gesture. For me it is about the feeling that that object conveys to you. A tilted leg on a table may give you the impression of unstable or imperfect.

Then you can take those individual pieces and possibly you can get lucky and have multiples of them in the same image.

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This concept goes way beyond the science and technology of photography. Forget f-stop, shutter speed, aperture. No longer care about the 12fps of your motor drive or electronic shutter. Today, marketing is more important than ever and the public is fed that the camera or the lens that has the most technology jammed into it is the one that is "best in market".

Bullshit.

Best in market is the gear that gets out of your way to allow you to get to what photography is all about. Best in market is what is best for you and you alone. Capturing the "decisive moment", if you like to use the Henri Cartier-Bresson term. Immortalizing the gesture of someone in that shot that will most likely never repeat itself again. Sharing the feeling that you had at that moment or that the subject of the image had; finding out that a crack in a pane of glass, the color and shape of a vase in a specific lighting scenario can make you FEEL something.

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I often wondered why after going through all the iterations of high tech DSLRs that for portrait, personal and enriching photographic activities, I reach for the Nikon Df or the Olympus PEN-F. I won't make you guess, I will share it with you.

I know my photography basics. The gear I pick gives me access to use some of Nikon's awesome legacy lenses. The Nikkor 200mm f/4Q, 105mm f/2.5 just to name a few. Put those on the Nikon Df/PEN-F and walk around. Just me. A shutter release. A manual focus lens. So simple, so organic, so inexpensive now. Much less between me and the subject and just a good, honest capture.

I look more for the color and gesture and shape of something. How it makes me feel.

So at the end of the day, what does all this do for me, or for you?

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Introspection, self improvement, learning. All those things cause growth. Growth is life, stagnation is death. Finding the gesture in something is finding what makes it sing, gives it life and makes it interesting, what makes it unique to everything else out there. That is not bullshit. It is an epiphany or an awakening that every image maker hopes to have eventually. Sadly, once you have the awakening, you can lose it. We often lose sight of the vision we had. We stop looking for what makes things alive and fall back to the shiny bells, whistles and lights of the newest thing out there.

That is when we need to pull ourselves back into introspection mode and ask ourselves, "why am I doing this?" Start that journey of growth again and move forward. It is a never ending cycle.

I love photography because it allows this once shy, awkward nerd from a small Pennsylvania town to share what I see and feel with others. It allows me to go beyond what is in front of you and dig deeper into the world. Nothing should ever be judged solely on the depth of its skin, but on a grander scale of the potential it has.

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I dare say when one presses the shutter button to capture an image, one is seeing something interesting or beautiful or that stimulates a feeling of some kind. Most of the time, no one would simply decide to capture an image without cause.

IMO, whether one names the cause gesture or miksang or whatever else, reflects one's knowledge and cultural frame of reference more than the image itself.

The resulting image however exists independently and may or may not recreate the feeling that was there as shutter was pressed. Further, the feeling that different people get, the message that different people see, of the same image, will only rarely coincide. Only when many people reverberate with the same image, over a period spanning years, does it become great.
 
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I dare say when one presses the shutter button to capture an image, one is seeing something interesting or beautiful or that stimulates a feeling of some kind. Most of the time, no one would simply decide to capture an image without cause.

IMO, whether one names the cause gesture or miksang or whatever else, reflects one's knowledge and cultural frame of reference more than the image itself.

The resulting image however exists independently and may or may not recreate the feeling that was there as shutter was pressed. Further, the feeling that different people get, the message that different people see, of the same image, will only rarely coincide. Only when many people reverberate with the same image, over a period spanning years, does it become great.

That is very true. One thing that a photographer cannot account for is what the viewer brings to or lack of experiences to the point in time that we are looking at the image. That is why some people will see some photo or art and think nothing of it....but years later, they have a whole different experience to it.
 

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Good video. I especially appreciated his comment about trying to reveal something about a subject that people didn't see. Or might I modify to say "reveal something that people did not expect to see"?

--Ken
 

agentlossing

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I enjoyed the video, but it left me with a lot of questions. I think you're right in invoking the decisive moment, as that's part of it, but when he was talking about the vendor in front of the wall, I thought, why "gesture" for the character of the wall? Or the table of knickknacks? Is it just a way of mentally tying the gesture of the man to the character of the other elements? If that's the case, I see the intent behind getting everything to come together (though the vendor/wall photo sounds like more of a happy accident from the way he described it), which is very close to the decisive moment a la Cartier-Bresson.
 
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I enjoyed the video, but it left me with a lot of questions. I think you're right in invoking the decisive moment, as that's part of it, but when he was talking about the vendor in front of the wall, I thought, why "gesture" for the character of the wall? Or the table of knickknacks? Is it just a way of mentally tying the gesture of the man to the character of the other elements? If that's the case, I see the intent behind getting everything to come together (though the vendor/wall photo sounds like more of a happy accident from the way he described it), which is very close to the decisive moment a la Cartier-Bresson.

I feel it is a way of seeing things differently. All too often a single word, especially in English is often insufficient to describe a concept. In this case, I think "gesture" comes the closest to conveying the precept. In that example, I think he was wanting to get across that he initially thought that the star of the show was the seller. While it certainly could be, there is ample interest there in juts him alone...the realization that the paint, patina, cracking of the hundreds of year old wall behind him also had a life of its own.

Jay is a classically educated art person, and I think that helps him come to grasp with the concepts quicker than someone like myself would. Everything I've learned about art or art concepts have come at my own learning/pace.

I agree, as well, that it is a very HCB type concept, but very much expressed in a different way. Something that perhaps is more accessible to the modern photographer.
 
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Andrew, thank you for making this thread and for the well thought out and reasoned post.

Gesture, it's the hook that grabs you and allows you to find the nuance that conveys elegance, gravitas or humor. Gestures need not be huge or grand to work, and sometimes barely there works best.

What you see is based on who you are, where you come from, the books you've read, who your friends are, what you're interested in and what your point of view is of the world and the people in it. We each learn to see the gestures that have meaning to our own selves, and hopefully to others too.

To echo Andrew's thinking, a worthwhile exercise to engage in every so often is to ask yourself why you made a photo, wait until after the fact so you don't get in your own way while shooting. If you can't come up with a good answer other than it looks nice, even if it's a good photo technically or visually, then perhaps you need to reassess what you're doing and work on finding more worthwhile subject matter that you can connect to on an emotional level.

Too often, photographers are only interested in photography but have nothing to say about what they see. To be able to connect how you feel about what you see to the photographs you make, you need to first be cognizant of where you fit in, and what you'd like to say.
 

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Years ago I took a photo of my mother and grandmother sitting on a porch swing after a funeral. My mom has never made good photos. She tenses in front of the camera and comes across very stiff. But in this photo she wasn’t that way for some reason. The photo was very special to me. I shared it on the Fred Miranda site in the portrait thread. Someone commented that it was nothing more than a snapshot and should not be considered a portrait and was not up to sharing. I was really taken off guard by that comment. I thought it was a wonderful portrait of someone I loved very much. The experience made me very reluctant to share anything else for a very long time. It also taught me the very basic lesson that my experiences make me view a photo from my own perspective and others my not see in a photo what I do. Of course it works the other way around as well. I don’t see in some photos the beauty others may. I think the masters are the ones who consistently take photos that seem to touch people universally. I am not one of those. I don’t understand street photography. I couldn’t begin to critique any street photographer. It’s just not in me. But that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying photography. A man’s just gotta know his limits. And I have learned my concept of beauty is definitely not universal.
 

agentlossing

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I shared it on the Fred Miranda site in the portrait thread. Someone commented that it was nothing more than a snapshot and should not be considered a portrait and was not up to sharing. I was really taken off guard by that comment.
I've started to get really up in arms when people refer to a snapshot in that derogatory sort of fashion. It's precisely those unposed, unplanned (but not unfelt or unintentional) photos that stand the test of time, in my experience (and also some of the most interesting when viewed in a historical context). This is not to say that the snapshot should not show technically correct execution, which after all is part of our pursuit as photographers, but that the moment ought to be pure, that the connection between what is seen and the desire to fit it into a larger context (of what is expected or considered popular or compelling according to the photographic community) should be removed altogether.
 
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Years ago I took a photo of my mother and grandmother sitting on a porch swing after a funeral. My mom has never made good photos. She tenses in front of the camera and comes across very stiff. But in this photo she wasn’t that way for some reason. The photo was very special to me. I shared it on the Fred Miranda site in the portrait thread. Someone commented that it was nothing more than a snapshot and should not be considered a portrait and was not up to sharing. I was really taken off guard by that comment. I thought it was a wonderful portrait of someone I loved very much. The experience made me very reluctant to share anything else for a very long time. It also taught me the very basic lesson that my experiences make me view a photo from my own perspective and others my not see in a photo what I do. Of course it works the other way around as well. I don’t see in some photos the beauty others may. I think the masters are the ones who consistently take photos that seem to touch people universally. I am not one of those. I don’t understand street photography. I couldn’t begin to critique any street photographer. It’s just not in me. But that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying photography. A man’s just gotta know his limits. And I have learned my concept of beauty is definitely not universal.

Not every "master" touches people universally. And also at a certain point you have to learn to disregard the opinions of others and just do the work that is special to you. If you make photos to please others, you're doomed to mediocrity, unless you're shooting to make money. At that point you're just doomed in every possible, unless of course you make work just for yourself too. Also, be aware of the people who pass judgement, many of them suck as photographer, and as human beings too. Love that photo, and don't give a damn what anyone says about it.
 

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I've started to get really up in arms when people refer to a snapshot in that derogatory sort of fashion. It's precisely those unposed, unplanned (but not unfelt or unintentional) photos that stand the test of time, in my experience (and also some of the most interesting when viewed in a historical context). This is not to say that the snapshot should not show technically correct execution, which after all is part of our pursuit as photographers, but that the moment ought to be pure, that the connection between what is seen and the desire to fit it into a larger context (of what is expected or considered popular or compelling according to the photographic community) should be removed altogether.
That snapshot actually hangs on the wall in several of my relatives homes. They saw it and asked me for a copy of it. I think they knew my mom didn’t make good pictures normally and recognized it was an unusually good one of her. But if you didn’t know my mom, wasn’t one that would be especially outstanding to you. But it also wasn’t a technically bad photo either. Anyway, enough about that. It has made me try to be as nice as I can to others about their photos.
 

Gerard

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The best photo I ever took didnt get much 'likes' on fb, instgram or here. My best photo!
Is something wrong with my taste? Or everybody else's?
None of i think.
For me it is my best photo because it has a story, that only I know.
So it is not relevant what other people feel about it.
Its like that stupid tune that is always in your head, whilst the song never ever hit the bilboard 100, not even a week, not even in Liechtenstein. But you hum it all the time.
 

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I suppose there is somewhat of a line somewhere between what we like and images that "reflect our vision", and I suspect its location is determined in part by what others think of our body of work as a whole. Not that there is anything wrong with the former, but it is the latter that is somewhat of an enigma to me at times. I see works by established and known photographers that I would think might fall into the former category if nobody knew them, but are considered otherwise. Then again, there are established and known photographers that I know who produce works that I really appreciate, and that others may not.

Nobody likes everything and nobody creates work that is liked by everybody, but that large gray area in between is interesting in how it gets defined, and by whom it gets defined. Photographers like Sally Mann and Mary Ellen Mark came to my mind when Dan described the photo of his mother. They are both well known and established, yet they have produced some images that I would find hard to distinguish from what some would call snapshots. Yet, we tend to judge these pieces within the context of their body of work as a whole. Perhaps when Dan hits the big time (now that he has a Nikon D500 I am sure it is only moments away :biggrin:), and reposts his photo on FM, it will be received differently.

Yes I am being a bit tongue and cheek (and am only kidding about the Nikon Dan), but the line between misunderstood genius and snap shooter sometimes seems arbitrary. Remember, nobody really thought anything of Vivian Maier's work until after her death. Personally, I'll just keep shooting what interests me and hope that somebody else finds interest in it, preferably while I am alive.

--Ken
 

DynaSport

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I think some of this discussion is very dependent on the genre. I have tended to be interested in the less ‘artistic’ forms of photography. Years ago I was into sports photography and more recently I have been interested in wildlife and bird photography. While their is an ‘art’ to both those types of photography, there are also fairly established standards as to what makes a photo successful. I think many other types of photography are more subjective. I equate it to the difference between track and field and gymnastics. And I have found it easier to accomplish the technical aspects of capturing photos with my Nikon, but it hasn’t enhanced my artistic abilities one bit.
 

Replytoken

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I think some of this discussion is very dependent on the genre. I have tended to be interested in the less ‘artistic’ forms of photography. Years ago I was into sports photography and more recently I have been interested in wildlife and bird photography. While their is an ‘art’ to both those types of photography, there are also fairly established standards as to what makes a photo successful. I think many other types of photography are more subjective. I equate it to the difference between track and field and gymnastics. And I have found it easier to accomplish the technical aspects of capturing photos with my Nikon, but it hasn’t enhanced my artistic abilities one bit.
True, I guess I was speaking less on somewhat more concrete subjects, like BIF and sports, and more on somewhat less concrete subjects, like casual portraits and humanistic photography.

--Ken

P.S. I see you have a new Avatar photo. A selfie with the D500? ;)
 

DynaSport

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True, I guess I was speaking less on somewhat more concrete subjects, like BIF and sports, and more on somewhat less concrete subjects, like casual portraits and humanistic photography.

--Ken

P.S. I see you have a new Avatar photo. A selfie with the D500? ;)
No, a shot from my annual motorcycle trip to North Carolina. Likely with my iPhone.
 
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I think some of this discussion is very dependent on the genre. I have tended to be interested in the less ‘artistic’ forms of photography. Years ago I was into sports photography and more recently I have been interested in wildlife and bird photography. While their is an ‘art’ to both those types of photography, there are also fairly established standards as to what makes a photo successful. I think many other types of photography are more subjective. I equate it to the difference between track and field and gymnastics. And I have found it easier to accomplish the technical aspects of capturing photos with my Nikon, but it hasn’t enhanced my artistic abilities one bit.

The big rub on that is that often those things that go outside the "standard" or the generally accepted as good often turn into the next big thing, fad, or someone being heralded as the next great artist. Art - the most subjective thing on the planet. I think it has been the impetus of more online flame wars than there have been actual wars. In stead of people arguing about someone's taste in what they do like, I find it better to have a meaningful conversation with them to try and understand what it is about the piece they do like. You still may not have the same appreciation for it as they, but at least you'll (a) have had a positive conversation with another human being, (b) get an understanding and potentially and appreciation for what and how another person thinks.

Artistic ability is just like every other skill. The more you intentionally practice it, the better you get at it. I always tell the students I have or the people I mentor when they get frustrated is that they have to go in waves. Before they master the basics, they get frustrated because they don't know how to make the images they want. They don't look like the ones they see elsewhere. Once the basics are mastered, then you have the skill to concentrate on better compositions, looking for the gesture or that perfect scene. then, because they are not worried anymore about what f/stop, shutter speed or ISO to use or if they do or don't want motion blur or how shallow the DOF should be, they can put all the effort into the artistic side of the images. There is truth the HCB saying that your first 10,000 images are your worst. I'd fathom to say that my first 50,000 are my worst. I'm a slow learner sometimes. :D
 
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