A noun waiting for a verb

(10/20/05) The sun rises in the east as a tractor discs a field along Highway 4 near Hollenbeck Road between Stockton and Farmington. The addition of the bird adds a feeling of serendipity to the photo. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

Last year my son Christopher took a photography class taught by Randy Allen at Sacramento City College. Allen’s not only a great teacher and photographer but also a good friend that goes way back to the days when we both were SCC photo students ourselves. Christopher told me something that Allen said during class that made sense to me in a way that I hadn’t thought before.

(4/15/01)
Shawna Kleemeyer of Stockton, passes a mural of an owl’s face on a fence surrounding the construction site of the Hotel Stockton renovation in downtown Stockton as she walks home from work. The woman helps to bring context and scale to the photo. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

He said that some pictures are “a noun waiting for a verb.” Perhaps to some of you that may sound like a grammar problem, but to me it made perfect sense.

(11/8/18)
The sun, seen along the Calaveras River bike path in Stockton, turns into an orange orb as it shines through a layer of smoke from a wildfire near the Chico area. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

(11/8/18)
The addition of the pedestrian helps to give some context to the photo and a relatable human element. CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

The noun would be a scene that, at first glance, may seem perfect. It could be a landscape, a sunset or a street setting, but upon looking at them more closely there is something missing. That would be the verb. For me, that usually means a person, but it also could be a bird flying by or a cow or horse in just the right spot in the frame. This things can give an overall scene a sense of scale or context or even a destination point for the eye to go in the composition. It can also give a bit of sense of something going on rather than just a static picture. It’s that one little thing that can compete the photo’s composition.

(11/27/12) Clouds are reflected in the water of the turning basin as the sun sets over the Port of Stockton. The boat helps to give the reflections a sense of scale. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

This is sometimes called the “fishing technique” because photographers would find a scene then wait for a subject to enter the frame at the right place to complete the composition. Like fishing, both scene and subject could happen right away, almost simultaneously, but more often one has to wait, sometimes for a long time, for everything to fall into place. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all and you have to give up and come back another time.

(2/10/19) A horse stands in a snow-covered pasture along Highway 4 on Sunday after storms left several inches of snow in the Mother Lode town of Douglas Flat, elevation 1965′. The tree and snowy landscape are pretty enough but the addition of the horse help to put things in scale and balances out the composition. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

One of my favorite photos is by the famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, titled “Hyères, France,” taken when he lived in that city in 1932. It’s of a narrow street scene taken from slightly above. A winding staircase is in the foreground and just beyond is the curve of a cobblestone street. Perfectly placed in the upper left corner is a cyclist speeding by. Now you have to remember this was a time before fast motor-driven cameras (which Cartier-Bresson would have probably eschewed anyway) where one had to time their pictures carefully. Any sooner and the cyclist would have been obscured but the stairs railing, any later then he would have been out of the frame. Cartier-Bresson called this the “decisive moment.”

(2/10/09) Delta College track team member Aamir Khan is greeted by cloudy skies as he practices his triple jump at Delta’s DiRicco Field in Stockton. The athlete is a relatable human element in the photo. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

Allen’s “noun waiting for a verb” phrase is just as descriptive. It takes a lot of practice and patience to recognize a scene that needs that “verb” and even more to be able to time it just right.

(8/3/07) Nine-year-old Candace Jones of Stockton, carrying her four-year-old brother Kyle, cools off in the jest of water at the interactive fountain at the Weber Point Event center in downtown Stockton. The children are a point of focus in the frame. [CLIFFORD OTO/THE RECORD]

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