It’s been a productive but visually quite unexpected year. This became clear after spending the last few days picking the top 10 images of 2019. As many of you know, I try to do this every year. The longer I do it, the more convinced I am that it brings tremendous insights to my photography and seeing.
It is never easy choosing the top 10 images. Please note that unlike the Instagram top 10, I am not looking for the most popular images but rather my personal top 10 – the images which I believe are the strongest work based on my current state of seeing, my visual proficiency and ability to curate. I am quite confident that if I listed the most popular top 10, maybe one or two images would overlap and the rest would be replaced.
One reason I pursue this highly personal route is because I don’t want the popularity of certain visuals to skew my selection or, even worse, determine my path in the future. I want to mould my own seeing and decide which way to take it.
What is remarkable is that many of you support me in this journey of seeing and allow me such visual indiscretions, a gift for which I am incredibly grateful.
What are the conclusions based on the top ten images of the year?
My seeing has certainly matured but I don’t think I‘ve been as creative and experimental as in previous years. Having said that, I’ve become more articulate and thoughtful in my visual language. I find it a good thing. My photography has shifted from the never-ending anxiety about crafting new and disruptive images to crafting something much more articulate and purely mine. I overcame the temptation to destroy everything I saw and turn it into the bizarre and unknown. This time the process of decomposition of the elements in front of me has become much more thoughtful and introspective.
One of the side effects of this careful approach has been the galling frustration of seeing so many photographic opportunities but choosing to pass on them because they didn’t present enough fresh visual elements to build a sophisticated frame, the building blocks of every great image. I just saw great images and even many popular images but more often than not, I decided to pass on them.
In other words, it was a year during which I was incredibly (photographically) present and observant but selective in transferring my observation to the final image. Visually and personally this was my greatest personal achievement this year. The ability to curate what I see BEFORE crafting the image has been on my radar for many years.
Being able to apply this preliminary demand has allowed me to avoid clichés and repetition, some of my own making. Ironically, I found that putting such restrictions upon myself is a sign that my seeing has become more individual.
I want to make another observation while looking at my own top 10. After searching for a clear visual narrative and navigating through multiple genres of photography, my seeing and “storytelling” has revealed key characteristics. My seeing is clearly being led by line, light and perspective. Composition and arranging elements within the frame have always been my forte and have now become the DNA of my seeing. By observing, connecting and arranging unrelated elements within the frame, I am striving for a visual balance or “a quiet stability” as described by Canadian visual genius, Ned Pratt. This is where an attentive and thoughtful arrangement of carefully chosen elements creates a visual whole.
Some of you ask me, “Where is the story?” And to be honest with you I am quite surprised and, to be frank, irritated by this question. Aren’t we bombarded by photos telling stories? They reveal the story without demanding much involvement or conversation: Someone seated in a cafe or a passerby with an umbrella or maybe a couple kissing in the park? This imagery might be appealing, but over the years (and especially this year) I found out this is not what triggers my seeing at all. I want to start a conversation with the viewer at a much earlier stage—maybe before the person arrives at the cafe or the couple even meet. I want to ask questions. I want to trigger a visual conversation by creating tension and mystery. I want the viewer to interact with a beautifully crafted but “unfinished photograph.” A story without an end.
This is where I am going as a photographer. I’m realizing what could have been the greatest revelation of 2019. You, my dear photographic friends, have supported me in this search, for which I am grateful. I appreciate your kind comments on this blog, in social media or by email. Thank you so much.
Let me now get to the top 10 images of the year.
Chair by the Window
I had no doubt that this image would make it to the top ten. The simplicity of the image might be deceiving as it implies the ease with which the image was crafted. But it’s not true. In fact, I find simple imagery always the most difficult to craft. This image is special because it was crafted live in front of my students during the Visual Poet Experience Workshop in Melbourne, Australia. I was trying to make a point about the importance of light as I navigated toward the greatest source of light in the hall outside our classroom. As I did so, my eyes were drawn to the subtle light falling on the back of the chair, hugging it beautifully. Together with the window frame, this gentle but defining light created an amazing visual waiting to be discovered.
As we left the airport in Melbourne, I noticed the rich elevation of the building. I paused and arranged the lines and textures into one cohesive visual piece. We have so many great visual elements around us, but we need to take time to stop and see them. Many times, I have shot my favourite image where l least expected it.
Dimensions of Light
Did I need to go to Australia to shoot this image? Of course not, but this is where the light led me. As we were preparing for the workshop and walking the streets of Melbourne, I noticed a stream of light leading to the short sidewalk bollard. As I looked into my viewfinder, I noticed the beautiful play of light in front of us. By blocking the right side of the frame with the white wall I created a third dimension, completing this unconventional image. It quickly became one of my favourites.
This image was taken not in the middle of a city but on a back street in the middle of industrial warehouses. One of the owners was working on a wood construction outside. Once I noticed it, I was able to visually match it with the lines and shapes of the building and even the truck parked nearby. Crafting this image was a challenge and such a joy. I went to the same spot the next day and the wooden structure in the left of the image had already gone, along with the great light.
This is another image taken during one of my workshops, this time in Vancouver. As a group we went inside a local eatery and everyone spread out getting something to eat. Then most of us sat at a long wooden table by the window. At the end of the table, by the wall, was a tiny table with two chairs. As we were eating, I noticed a strange and haunting light radiating from the chair as if the person seated there before had left their visual fingerprint. With this bizarre thought I grabbed my camera and took a few frames. Later I showed this image to my students and most of them asked me, “Where did you see this light?” We were sitting so close to it. Seeing and photography never stops.
Often between my street sessions, I like going back to travel and landscape photography. I often find street and travel complementing each other and helping me see better. This image was taken during one of my road trips, north of Whistler, British Columbia. The lone cow in the winter scene provided such a beautiful and offbeat canvas. The fact that the animal is looking directly at the camera makes this image especially appealing and one of my favourites.
The Red Bus
The image was taken on the central station in Amsterdam, which I photographed a day before the Visual Poet Experience Workshop I ran along with Tomasz of Fujilove. The red contours of the bus against the dark background reduces the frame to a simple geometrical equation and provides a great visual playground to the rich action inside. If I had included the entire bus and the sidewalk, the image would have lost its visual appeal, revealing too much too quickly. This is another example of less is always more powerful.
Boring, mundane and common—the Holy Grail of photography. Such visuals always pose a challenge but with hard work and patience, images like this often bring the most satisfaction. The streaming light turned this yellow sidewalk curb into a three-dimensional object emerging from strong shadow. Two pockets of light accompany the yellow curb and provide a much-needed visual balance. It was a matter of arranging all three elements in a way that would complete the visual verse. A simple yellow curb in beautiful light—it cannot get better than this. It’s simple yet evocative, rich yet humble and quiet.
Take a boring glass window and turn it into a frame to provide a stage for my subject to walk into. I spent at least 40 minutes crafting this image and waiting for a person to walk into the stage. Many people did but none of them completed the narrative. Then the girl with red lips left the ice cream shop and, unaware of me, stopped for a few seconds in the exact spot I had prepared to try her newly acquired ice cream. Yes, I did it—I whispered to myself after capturing the moment.
This is an unusual choice for me. This visually rich and complicated image has so many elements in it, but it definitely tells the story of a small village. Logs and stumps sprinkled with snow. The basketball hoop placed among them. The gravel yard surrounded by indeterminate buildings and beautiful scenery. There are so many layers of visuals strangely foreign to each other but somehow working together in this bizarre but beautiful capture. The image doesn’t strike awe right away but after spending considerable time with it, I embraced it as something deserving of my choice. I want to take more images like this one in 2020.
In Part 2 I will share some thoughts on my key activities in 2019—the things I am most proud of but also my challenges and failures. I will also post images that haven’t made it to the Top 10.
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