Art Is About One Thing

Photo: Insanity Loop by Flamingclaw.

I think I’m qualified to speak for all visually impaired, of-necessity, part-time, shanghaied and drafted graphic artists, writers, and photographers.

Yes, like you, I tremble at the prospect of having to design a web header. And yes, like you, I’ve had to do it over and over.

I’ve managed to creep along with the aid of a principle I learned 43 years ago. Are you curious to know my secret? Are you ready? Right, here goes:

Art is about one thing

I moved to Ananda Village in 1976. I’ve lived in the Ananda communities ever since. Initially I was offered a job in the publications department — my first assignment was to create a monthly magazine that would be sent free to our mailing list.

I panicked because I didn’t know squat about graphic design. But I was fortunate to stumble on a decent book for beginners.

I’ve never forgotten the principal idea I gleaned from the book: when creating layouts with multiple photos,  always make one photo larger than the rest to guide the reader’s eye.

Another important principle: choose just one font to be used for all headings, and another font to be used for all text. Do not give in to the misguided urge to mix it up and give the readers some visual variety, because this never works. Your layouts will look like bird poop. What you want is to give your magazine a look that is restfully uniform.

Whether you’re working with photos or text or words or watercolors or film, it’s always about one thing.

At the publishing house where I acquired the small bag of editorial skills I brought with me to Ananda, I had the good fortune to have Joe Henderson, the founding editor of Runner’s World, as a mentor.

Joe was a writer’s writer — he wrote with a former newspaper journalist’s clean, efficient style. He never used big words.

I’ve noticed this about great stylists — Robert B. Parker, H. L. Mencken, P. G. Wodehouse, Michael Connelly: they accomplish a great deal with simple language. They tell great stories with one theme — everything else is subordinated.

When I worked at Runner’s World I served as a staff photographer for our five magazines. As part of my work, I was in charge of the company’s photo file. It was a highlight of my job, because we regularly received prints from some of the world’s best sports photographers.

I remember a game the publisher liked to play. He would wander into my office, open a photo file drawer, and take out a thick handful of prints.

“I bet I can go through all of these photos and name the photographers without looking at the captions,” he would say.

And he proved it: “Rich Clarkson, Mark Shearman, Stan Pantovic, Stan, Stan, Tony Duffy, Mark, Rich, Jeff Johnson…” (Yes, Nike co-founder Jeff Johnson was a part-time sports photographer back in 1972.)

I hardly need mention that I spent a lot of time looking at prints. And although the photographers’ styles were extremely different (except that they all shot on Tri-X), there was one thing they all did. They would only very rarely send us a photo that wasn’t about one thing.

If a photo needed to show multiple runners — a sprint hurdle race, for example — the main focus was always immediately clear. They never sent us gooey, amorphous crap photos that had no focus of attention.

As the publisher said, their photos had “impact.” By telling us where to put our attention, they had drama. Mark Shearman’s photos were wonderful, whether he was shooting the World Cross Country Championships or the Olympic Games. There was always one main thing, portrayed from the best-chosen, most dramatic angle.

And that’s a point that needs to be made. Mark worked hard at creating his seemingly simple and effortless photos. I’m sure, though I never asked him, that he would arrive early at the venue and put in a great deal of thought and shoe leather to find the best positions to shoot from, so that the background, subordinate scenery, and composition would all say, “This photo is about one thing; don’t bother looking here or there — let your eye rest on the main subject and enjoy the comprehensive impression.”

How do we, as creators, get to one thing? I can only speak for myself. I love the photos of artists who can do it intellectually or with a strong design sense, but I get the greatest impact from photos that subordinate considerations of jazz (design and mental cleverness) to themes of the heart and soul.

I get hints of what’s needed by looking at the work of photographers like Jakub Ostrowski. Jakub is an astronomer in the Physics Institute of the Pedagogical University in Kracow, Poland. In his free time, he does photographic portraits of strangers he meets on the street, of vegans, and other self-chosen subjects.

His photos are simple, the poses are straightforward, nothing is forced or unnatural, just straight-on head shots. Yet the results of his photographic interactions with his subjects are revealing. You can view samples on Jakub’s website.

The photos are, of course, about one thing, yet they say much more. They support the notion that deep focus can yield unexpected riches.

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