On 21 October 2021 Kris Anderson zoomed in from Brisbane to present his private work on illustrated storytelling to the Melbourne Camera Club. Recognising that as photographers we are above all else visual communicators he described his modus operandi with many interesting examples drawn from his work.
You may follow Kris’ work by visiting his web page: imagesbyanderson.com or follow him on Instagram. His performing arts images many be found on: @imagesbyanderson, and his art photography on: @imagesbyanderson.art.
Based in Brisbane Kris Anderson is a Master of Photography with the Australian Institute of Professional Photography. A computer nerd during the week Kris specialises in performing art photography as an additional commercial pursuit. In this vein he creates promotional images for theatre companies and individual performers for their portfolios.
His technical and musical background informs what he wants to achieve in depicting the beauty and athleticism of his subjects in motion. Anticipating that climactic moment in a dancer’s performance and preparing for that moment with the right lighting, and in-camera settings allows a seamless path to post production in creating the images he is well known for.
But it is his empathetic attunement to others in his life that informs his more personal work which he described as “illustrative composites”. In creating this work Kris might overlaying a number of images and/or add textures, smoke or fire, for instance, in Photoshop to create the visual story he wants to tell.
Kris is known for his pictorial stories. Although personal they are human stories that we can recognise something of ourselves in. They depict his examined response to what catches his attention and curiosity. For him this falls on the more melancholic side of the ledger. The shadow side, if you will. He said: “I tell stories that mean something to me … I want to take you out of your own head and make you feel the way someone else feels”. To achieve this Kris will attune himself to his subject’s dilemma – wether they themselves are consciously aware of it or not.
For example, one image began with a sketch of what Kris imagined it would be like to be his wife tossing and turning in anxious restlessness during the night while he slept peacefully beside her. His wife acknowledged that his sketch got it right and Kris went about making the photograph. The resulting image made visible all the anxious thoughts (in the form of falling books, traffic lights outside the window …) that crowded in around his wife as she lay awake in the gloom of their bedroom.
Kris’ approach to storytelling raises a number of important questions that we often ask ourselves as photographers.
A. How can I make the viewer feel something, and even change the way they think or act.
Importantly Kris reminds us that as photographers we are “visual communicators”. Whether we’re into composites, single shots or making abstracts most of us want to share our work with others. “Each image we make is an opportunity to form a relationship with a viewer.” So the art of photography boils down to the aesthetic decisions we make in order to draw people into considering our work.
B. What do I need to bear in mind to tell a good story? (See 22 Tips on the Pixar Storytelling Formula.) Kris highlighted five that are important to him.
- Keeping things simple by distilling the key story elements from our grand ideas. If our photograph is too complicated it may distract the viewer.
- Creating the possibility for the viewer to emotionally connect with our image by giving them room to bring their own experience to it.
- We need to know who our viewers might be to ensure they can relate to our work. Although Kris’ images sit more in the realm super realism people can see something familiar in them. “If it is familiar enough, you will take the viewer there,” Kris remarked.
- Even so it’s important that there is the touch of the novel not only to evoke curiosity and interest in the viewer but to communicate the curiosity and interest that we ourselves felt in the first place. We might include an element that’s out of place or slightly off, or in Kris’ case the unfolding of a story within a single image. Equally you can loose the connection if the image is too unusual and confusing.
- We need to be authentic and true to our original concept. If it’s an authentic story you can keep the narrative on track. Kris added: “I draw on my own experience so I make intensional choices and to stay true to that story. I make sure my intent is consistent all the way through.”
C. How do I generate new ideas
The emotional hooks for Kris are the psychological issues that he acknowledges in himself and others around him. Fear of loosing abilities like playing the piano, being a good enough dad for his son, on-line bullying, noticing a friend who is there for everyone but no one is there for her are grist for the mill for Kris. He asks himself if there’s a story he can tell in a photograph. “Be open to these ideas and follow those trails when they appear – even if you have no idea how you would make them. And write them down or draw them, “ Kris advises. A tool he uses for his sketches is an iPad app: Adobe Fresco.
D. What planning do I need to do?
When we examine our images after a shoot we can always discover things that need to be fixed – lighting, posing, composition… But to fix these problems after the event often comes at a cost in terms of time, money and client goodwill. So Kris’ advice is to minimise potential difficulties in advance. Kris makes prototypes (sketches and test shots) before a shoot so that when he is in the field he is clear about what he is doing and can communicate his intension with authority. While “… planning is important it is also important to let an image guide you and take you where it wants,” he added.
E. What aesthetic principles do I need to be concerned with?
In terms of the photograph itself Kris is highly attuned to the aesthetic principles that guide the viewer on where to look. “If you can control the order in which your image is read you are more likely to reveal the story effectively”. Noting that in western cultures we tend to read from left to right, top to bottom he highlighted some familiar techniques (guiding with light, creating areas of high contrast, using leading lines, and subtle vignettes to stop the viewer escaping the edges). Importantly, he reminded us of some of the old tried and true ways of see something we’ve laboured over with fresh eyes, such as flipping the image upside down, using the ‘squint test,’ or converting our image to black and white and, of course getting feedback from others.
Although his private work provides excellent material for competitions and publishing as a photo book, Kris admits that at the end of the day they do not tend to sell as well as his long exposure dance and landscape images. Given his predilection for dark and sad subject matter in his private work he said referring to one of his images: “Who would want to buy a photograph of a father neglecting his family because he’s on his phone”. This is the difference between images you make for yourself as opposed to commercial images. But both are important in keeping one’s creativity alive.
By Helen Lang
The video will available on the Members Video Library page