The Life Magazine Formula for Visual Variety in the Photo-Essay

I've had a long-standing fascination with news and photo-journalism, and as well as numerous Magnum books, I have a battered copy of the seminal 'Pictures on a Page' by Harold Davies that I picked up in a charity shop for a couple of pounds. That book has hugely influenced how I take pictures even though I am not a news or documentary photographer. However, somewhere along the line (I don't recall where), I read about 'The Life Magazine Formula for Visual Variety in the Photo-Essay'. I immediately wrote it down for reference in my notebook and it's something I use, albeit subconsciously, as a framework for documenting the places that I visit.

For many years I struggled to find any more information about it (although there is a little more since I originally blogged about it in 2009), but Michael Freeman does a good study of it in his 2012 book 'The Photographer's Story', using the classic W.Eugene Smith essay 'Country Doctor'.

I should emphasise that this is very much a starting point for my documentation though. Bear in mind that this was developed for photographer's doing wide ranging human interest photo stories and not prats like me wandering round the industrial landscape or exploring mongy old mills. However, with a little intelligence, the framework can be applied to many different situations and definitely lends itself to the likes of wedding photography. It doesn't have to be adhered to slavishly - it can be adopted and adapted over time to suit your unique requirements. I'll illustrate my approach with some recent photographs of Brierfield Mill.

For a human interest story, see part 2:

1] Introductory or overall – usually a wide angle or aerial shot that establishes the scene.

I don't have a drone (or access to a helicopter), so an aerial shot was out of the question, and it's such a big site that there isn't a vantage point that allows you to get the whole place in. Sure, I could have taken several different ones from different perspectives (I did in fact), but I felt that this one has the most context. It shows the large size of the place, and it shows it in the context of the local environment - canal, gas holder, etc.

It doesn't have to be a particularly unusual or creative view, just one that sets the scene or gives context to the overall set. It is the whole, the other pictures are the parts.

2] Medium – focuses on one activity or one group.

In the above shot, I opted to photograph just a part of the mill, but a different part to what I photographed in the initial opening shot. I'm starting to narrow down the focus of attention.

3] Close Up – zeroes in on one element, like a persons hands or an intricate detail of a building.

This is taking the idea of close up to extremes, but the mill was almost entirely empty, and the most interesting bit of the stuff that remained was the clock. This is the wooden support for the clock mechanism which in itself isn't very interesting, but on it were carved the names of all the apprentices who had climbed the tower to maintain the clock, dating back to the 1950's.

4] Portrait – usually either a dramatic, tight head shot or a person in his or her environmental setting.

Not an easy one to interpret in this context, but I gravitated to the clock and its tower as being the focal point of the site and included it in many of the photographs. This is my portrait of that clock!

5] Interaction – people conversing or in action.

Nothing for this one due to a lack of people or action! But in other contexts, this would be easier.

6] Signature – summarizes the situation with all the key storytelling elements in one photo – often called the decisive moment.

I'm always looking out for signs, and this juxtaposed nicely with the empty shopfloor behind. I wanted to illustrate the idea of before and after, where once there was noise and activity, now there is silence and emptiness. Note the composition where I have effectively split the picture in two to give equal precedence to both.

7] Sequence – a how-to, before and after, or a series with a beginning, middle and end (the sequence gives the essay a sense of action).

Again, nothing in this context, but it shouldn't be too hard to think of hot this could be applied in different situations. For example, I produce an annual photobook of all the photographs we take as a family every year (almost like a photo-essay of our year), and one of the things I do is photograph my daughter opening her Christmas presents - from a big pile of wrapped boxes, though the smiles and gasps of surprise through to her playing with the new toys afterwards. 

8] Clincher – a closer that would end the story.

I partially included this because it was my favourite image of the set, and partially because it has a certain strength to it, far more so than the images of the same scene taken in landscape format. Why is this the closer? I think because of its strong composition - the diaganol lines of the foreground roof, as well as the rooftops on the tower and the building below it all seem to point to a single point which I regard as a form of full stop.


As I said at the start, this is a framework that forms the starting point of my documentation - I certainly don't stop when I've got images that satisfy the criteria, and neither do I carry the list round as a physical checklist to tick off. Rather, it's become an instinctive guide that I carry round mentally to show as many different aspects of a place as possible. Why not give it a try?

References and Links

Part 2 of this series:

The Photographer's Story on Amazon