What I Have to Say: Oli Sansom

OliSansom_TheDefineSchool
(header image by Eric Ronald)

As a lazy musician, I’m fascinated by the dynamics of sound. By dynamics I mean volume and tone, and how they contribute to completing the story of a song. They make us feel something and require differing levels of listener effort to be properly appreciated.

I think music and photography are connected in important ways that aren’t often talked about. Understanding this connection can impact the types of images we deliver to our clients, contribute to creating our point of difference, and also help in developing our own photographic voice.

Let’s use a jazz venue as an example.

When you step inside a legitimate live jazz venue (which might resemble a cave, might be poorly signed, and will probably be pretty inaccessible), it’s soon apparent that the audience have to invest themselves in the show as much as the performer, through attention and respect. At some venues it’s even taboo to order from the bar mid-song.

An artist playing this kind of gig might liberally use that dynamic that’s usually taken for granted: volume. Instruments take on a completely different flavour when played- and then enjoyed- softly. The notes aren’t just quieter – they are of a completely different colour and character, and it helps give a better context to more intense parts of the song.

Usually, it’s only live that you get to enjoy this kind of musical storytelling at it’s best. Commercial radio just won’t play tracks that haven’t been heavily compressed to the same volume, because a Justin Bieber fan (sorry, beliebers) won’t sit there waiting for something “more exciting” to happen.

In removing that entire dynamic of volume and intensity, you lose colour, character, and context. It’s all thrown right out, and all three of those are so important to creating a deeper level of storytelling.

We can apply the idea of sound dynamics to photography, especially in the way we treat the viewer, and the way in which we approach dynamics: particularly light, mood, pose, and any other of the tools in our picture making arsenal of doom. We can make an image more layered and perhaps more complicated to work out, but then far more rewarding once the “code” has been cracked.

Older era painters were great at exploiting the more subtle dynamics in their work, when things were less disposable. What subtleties are we throwing out from our images in order to please everybody? What trends are we following that make us present easily digestible images instead of ones the client (or anyone for that matter) can look into deeper? So many fine-art images now are dodged and burned into pseudo HDR oblivion instead of being treated more delicately.

What if we gave everyone looking at our stuff just a bit more credit and encouraged them to approach and explore an image we’ve created?

We can actively choose to treat our viewer with a bit of respect by making them work to really “see” an image, instead of handing everything to them on a platter in the most dumbed-down way possible.

It’s not about making “dark” images- though sometimes, turning down the camera is a good start. It’s about developing a curiosity in all the different forms that light can take, how it’s affect on textures, skins, and expressions can be so drastically different by embracing experimentation and avoiding the default position of “this image must be instantly self-evident and leave nothing to chance.”

Throw out the term “correct exposure.”

Replace it with “correct exposure for the story I want to tell.”

Throw out the question, “What presets are you using?”

Replace it with, “What processing tools do I already have that I haven’t yet experimented with enough?”

It’s about what you’re seeing. By being more curious I really believe you can supercharge your eyes, and by extension, the kind of work you’re able to produce.

This is something that I’m still trying to work on for myself. I try to view as little imagery as possible (usually without much success) that comes from the wedding photography industry because there are way too many talented and awesome people producing work in styles so opposing to mine. It’s hard to look at them without feeling small or like I’m going about things the wrong way.

And that’s a real poison, because those thoughts wrongly distract you from letting your own voice come through strongly in your work.

Part of this piece might have sounded like I’m against imagery that’s super karate in-your-face, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth: I’m just trying to zero in on dynamics that please me and work with the stories I want to tell.

And the best thing you can do is work out the same. There’s so much more that can be done.

– Oli

Ps. hi mum.

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17 thoughts on “What I Have to Say: Oli Sansom

  1. Oli – I, too, am a musician/photographer and your words resonated with me in the musical/visual experience. I’ve contemplated (many times) the differences and similarities between the two mediums. Both are art forms but one exists on a ribbon of time and the other is frozen in time. The complexities of music both intellectually and emotionally I find I look for in a photograph. You translate that well in your photography. I appreciate that deeply. My growing belief that art is a process that is a trigger for an experience (not an object) (quote credit to Roy Ascott) is spreading into my work visually and musically. And there is where the two meet. Thank you for sharing your process so clearly!

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