Tone of voice?

What is the “tone of voice” of a photograph? or of a photographer?

What role does composition play? or treatment (processing)?

Perhaps it is easier to understand what a quiet “tone of voice” in photography might be if we consider its opposite: a strident, or emphatic, tone of voice…

I am a sucker for photographs that are self-captioning. Saturday night is the favourite time of the people grouped in the photos on the hoarding below. It was also the subject of a documentary photography project that I pursued for two years along with my friend and colleague, Stephen Griffin. We used an extensive photoblog, which we called HEADROW (click to view), throughout the project. But what about the following “evening” photograph?

I think this is a “good photograph”. At least, I find it satisfying and I find it eloquent. In it I hear a new tone of voice, rather more subdued than when visited this same area five years ago in order to track its rapid re-development.

The composition here is rather obvious. The viewer is able to read the hoarding and assess the way photography is being used there to talk up city centre living in Leeds (Leeds, Live it, Love it is the familiar slogan in the circle next to the photos on the hoarding). The hoarding has been set in the context of the quiet summer evening, the fairly unremarkable (old) buildings, set off by beautiful evening light.

Just around the corner was another hoarding with a slogan and photos that I wanted to record. The light made it more difficult. I only wanted a record. I put the resultant image through Instagram and the result was the image below.

Doesn’t this image form an interesting contrast with the one at the top of the page. Surely a different tone of voice? The peculiarity of the lovely evening light has been transformed into a screaming contrasty colour scheme. A square crop (the original had the same format as the photo above) has put the figure on the left in direct relation to the slogan on the hoarding. The top of the hoarding directs our eyes to his and highlights his unsmiling stare at the camera. The loose tie, the two bags suggest that this is not his favourite time in Leeds city centre.

One might go further, his path seems to take him ‘downhill’. The hoarding has completely obscured the horizon. But the angles here seem to ‘amplify’ the slogan. It has been given a more strident, emphatic ‘tone of voice’.

Propaganda? I am interested in propaganda. Many of my photographs are reflections on the propaganda of modern marketing. I often use angles and diagonals in quite an extreme way. Here my photo of the hoarding was intended to remind one of the superbly designed propaganda images of the past such as the Soviet poster for OVMED state broadcasting (left).

Recently I have been using a number of tools to re-appraise my approach to photography. Instagram has provided a kind of sketchbook for thinking about a variety of new ideas and notions. (Reading Gerry Badger’s essays in The Pleasures of Good Photographs has been another stimulus for this re-appraisal.)

So let me finish off this post with two versions of my approach to (the path that led me to) the hoardings in the two pictures at the top of the page.  

The Instagram version of the scene is a detail cropped from the photo below. Instagram has intensified the colours and made its own sense of the contrast between light and shadows.

Below I have offered the uncropped image as processed by me in Lightroom. It was a difficult edit. I am happy with this result. Perhaps later I will try it in black and white.

Is it a “quiet” photograph? I don’t know. And I don’t know if I care. It was a photograph taken in the quiet. It is a photograph about the quiet. It is a quiet I wanted to listen to and ¬†respond to. It is a photograph of a space in which I wanted to be quiet, to put aside for a moment, worries money worries, personal anxieties.

I knew that I could return later, and that I would have time to reflect on the patterns and rhythms of human life and development.