Shoot Adjectives, Not Nouns

In a recent podcast, Harold Davis, noted photographer and author of many excellent books, advised photographers to “shoot adjectives and adverbs, not nouns and verbs.” What in the world did he mean by this, and what are its implications for photography?

I can only give my take on his meaning. I believe his intent is to shift the focus from things (nouns) and actions (verbs) toward qualities (adjectives and adverbs). This implies concentrating photography on concepts and meanings rather than on objects or events.

Yes, these nuts and bolts are objects and thus nouns, but they also represent the concepts of hardness and strength.

Following his advice could bring an entirely new dimension to photography. By placing emphasis on abstract concepts, ideas, and values, photography would be more open to introspection and interpretations. It would help engage thinking about the meaning of the photos at a deeper level of appreciation than simply being a pretty picture.

To me, this gently rippling water reflects calm, which can be both a noun and an adjective, the way I am using it here

Adjectives, of course, modify nouns and express qualities of the objects to which they relate. At a simple level, adjectives help define the physical features of a scene: large or small, heavy or lightweight, wide or narrow, light or dark, wet or dry, rough or smooth. But as we look more deeply, they become more conceptually interesting: for example, strong or weak, beautiful or ugly, quiet or loud, separate or joined, safe or risky, crowded or solitary. Each of these adjectives, along with others you can readily imagine, can become the object of pursuit in photography. Imagine, if you will, a photo essay on the concept of strength or weakness as one possibility.

The adjectives wet or damp define this close-up photo of a water-spattered CD

Adverbs are somewhat more elusive. They modify both verbs and adjectives and express such things as number, place, time, frequency, degree, and level of certainty. As such, they convey how, when, where, and to what extent something is the case. Examples are such terms as some, often, frequently, and seldom. You might think of photos that portray progressions or repetition as means to reflect the adverbs that define a scene, as one example.

These feathers reflect lightness or gentleness

The samples I’ve given here are simple ones, at an elementary level of conception. More subtle and complex subjects can also be addressed and if so, they would bring an even deeper level of meaning to photographs. Often, these will relate more closely to the human condition. For instance, consider the anguished look in the face of one who has lost a friend or relative to Covid, or the harried expression of another in a quandary about financial difficulties brought on by the pandemic. But they can also relate to impersonal scenes with human implications, such as a dark and moody street corner. Illustrations like these will require more introspection and a contemplative approach to scene selection and technical treatment. However, they can also be more rewarding to the photographer and the viewer alike.

I like Davis’s advice and I intend to apply it to my own photography. Not only will it help me delve more deeply into conceptual meanings and thus add depth to my images, but it will also give me a goal, a purpose, a target for the creation of new images. And that, I think, will kindle a new fire of excitement for my photographic passion.

Published by Norman Reid

I worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 27 years in the field of rural community and economic development. I retired a few years ago and have been devoting my time to photography and writing. I've been a semi-pro photographer for more than 25 years and sell my work on the Web. I live in rural Virginia not far from the Shenandoah Valley.

One thought on “Shoot Adjectives, Not Nouns

  1. Norman, thank you for the wonderful story and images. In fairness, I must observe that the trenchant observation about photographing adjectives rather than nouns originates with my friend (and author) Bryan Peterson, I just passed it along. Very best wishes, Harold

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