Using Gesture

Lunchtime Ritual

Using Gesture to tell the to the image’s story and to create its mood, emotion, and purpose.

What is gesture? The English dictionary gives us two very useful definitions:

  • A movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning
  • An action performed to covey one’s feelings or intentions

In art, gesture is used more abstractly to include the line of a strong graphic element. As I explored in my last post, gesture just might be at the root of all great images; whether achieved with a human (or animal) gesture or just a strong graphic.

Henri-Cartier Bresson’s concept of Decisive Moment is about finding that moment when all the compositional elements line up, just right, to tell the most compelling and emotionally involving story. Simplified, this involved finding the peak of the action, but also finding the right relationships between object.

Jay Maisel teaches “gesture over graphic”. What he means is that if the action is happening, but there is still crap in the background, just take the image. An image with great story-telling gesture with crap in the background is better than a perfectly clean image with no story. (Yes, we should try to optimize both).

For a more subtle understanding of gesture, study the work of Sam Abell. Sam Abell talks about micro and macro composition, but he too is waiting for the gesture and waiting for all the gestures to line up just right. A good example is this video of Sam Abell produced by the National Geographic where he talks about his book The Life of a Photograph.

Gesture is emotionally involving.

As I think about gesture, I think about passive and active gestures. Passive gestures are waiting or preparatory gestures, coming often before and after the story. You want to capture the active gestures. Here are a couple of examples:

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Passive PoseWith his head down, the story is simple “I’m reading the paper” Active PoseWith his head up and looking out of the frame, the story has more intrigue. “What is out there?” “What interrupted me from reading the paper?”

Another example

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Passive PoseA simple story of a woman reaching into her handbag. She has an interesting look and there is nice color combinations in the image. Active PoseIn this pose we get more action with the tilt of her head causing her hat and head to be at different angles. Also we see her hand then details that it unveils with the her rings. It tells us more about the subject and more specifics about what she is doing.

One thought on “Using Gesture

  1. Mark January 9, 2015 / 7:07 pm

    Hey Nancy,

    I heard your interview on TCF and enjoyed your story. This is an element that I really need to work on with my street photography. Thank you for posting this series on gesture. I look forward to reading, digesting and hopefull implementing these into my shots. Cheers.

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