Monday, February 25, 2013

Photography Inspired Writing

Today's post comes to us from Hank Kellner - a veteran of the Korean War and retired educator who has served as an English Department chairperson at the high school level and an adjunct Associate Professor of English at the community college level. Hank is the creator of many photographs and articles that appeared in publications nationwide; the author of extensive reading comprehension materials for a publisher of educational materials, and a former contributing editor to Darkroom Photography magazine. He is the author of  Write What You See: 99 Photos To Inspire Writing and, with Elizabeth Guy,  the co-author of Reflect and Write: 300 Poems and Photographs to Inspire Writing. Born in New York City, Kellner now lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Visit his blog at

Inspiration from Photos and Paintings

Show a photograph to a child and the youngster will point to it, trace its image, and respond with a variety of emotions. Show another to an adult, and you get a frown, a smile, or a gesture—rarely will you draw a blank. Then show a photo, or a series of photos, to people at any level, and you’ll have more responses than you can handle. 
Why do people respond so enthusiastically to graphic images? Here’s one theory. Early humans drew pictures on the walls of caves. That’s visual orientation, the kind of communication that doesn’t depend on the written word. Then along came paper and ink, and along with them, word orientation. Meticulously copying texts, monks labored for centuries with this kind of mindset. True, they also embellished these works with colorful designs and images, but the text prevailed and the visual orientation of the cave was slowly being edged out by attention to the written word.

Then came the printing press, followed by machines that could set type and reproduce images that would have astounded the medieval monks who labored in their cells. Later, during the 19th Century, innovators discovered how to capture images on film, and still photographs and motion pictures were born. During the 20th Century, images transmitted by television captivated viewers of all ages worldwide. Finally, the digital revolution created a tsunami of images that floods the senses and is virtually impossible to ignore.

Often maligned but never out of sight, these visual images captivate us. For those who recognize the potential photographs have for inspiring writing, the rewards are great.  Show a group of people an image of waves beating against the shore and you’ll be amazed by their responses. Some will recall memories of seaside childhoods; others will visualize sea stories, shipwrecks, mysteries of the deep, and more. Still others will venture into the abstract—the world of simile, metaphor, and personification—perhaps transcribing a bit of themselves.

Of course, images other than photographs can offer many possibilities for stimulating creativity and inspiring writing. A teacher of English, drama, and creative writing at Lake Forest High School in the suburbs of Chicago, Karen Topham has been indulging in her passions for writing and the arts for thirty years. Here’s how she responded to Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting, The Scream.

Scream (after Munch)

what rawness then
what orange blue intensity
what whirling winding nightmare
infests your soul
when like a man possessed
you turn your back on
the sweetness of the day—
the harbor rich with spreading sails
the sunset rolling waves across the sky—
and staring into empty space
or at some demon gnawing at your mind
you lift your hands to your face
hold tightly to your melting
frameless form
and wait to hear
the heavens
when they scream

 Munch’s painting and Topham’s poem provide an excellent example of the power of images to trigger creative responses. Whether you’re seeking inspiration for your own writing, teaching students at any level, or conducting workshops or seminars for others, you’ll find that photographs and other images are powerful aids to eliciting creative responses and inspiring writing. 

(Scream originally appeared in Reflect and Write: 300 Poems and Photographs to Inspire Writing by Hank Kellner and Elizabeth Guy (Prufrock Press, 2013). See sample pages and buy now at  


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