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How to Write Poetry Based on Pictures (Strategies and Examples)

Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.

A gray house in a field. An image that expresses loneliness and age.

A gray house in a field. An image that expresses loneliness and age.

Writing Poetry Based on Photographs

I've been doing writing prompts, lessons, and poems about a city I can't visit—Walla Walla, Washington. I find focusing on one city makes it easier for people who read my articles to follow along.

Today's lesson will cover how to write poetry based on pictures. This is really easy and convenient to do. You can find pictures on the Internet or in books and magazines. Perhaps you have some old pictures in a storage bin that could be your muse.

My poetry examples at the end will be from abandoned farmhouses in Washington state. I tried to narrow my search to Walla Walla, but it made things too challenging.

Finding Free Images

Some search sites you can use are Google Images, Flickr, Pexels, Pixabay, Pxfuel, Wiki Commons, and Unsplash. The public domain has a plethora of resources you can use for free.

To find free-to-use pictures on Google Images, hit "Tools" then "Usage Rights" and select "creative commons licenses." Make sure to read copyright agreements for any pictures you consider using.

Essential Poetry Writing Strategies

The following are my top tips for writing poems based on pictures:

  • When writing poems about pictures, you want to focus on descriptive language. Paint the picture in words for your reader. Focus on the details of the picture that stand out. Ask yourself what made you stop to look at the picture in the first place.
  • When it comes to descriptive language, you want to focus on the five senses. Consider what you could sense if you were in the picture: what you'd see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
  • When looking at a picture, you want to think of it as an art piece. Some of the most important features to consider are color, depth, form, line, shape, size, and texture.
  • You may want to ask yourself what kind of people would go along with the picture. Poems are not really for developing a full-on story with detailed characterization and plot. You only get whisps of character because poems for the most part are about brevity, a snapshot, or a mood. It's fairly uncommon now to write epic poems like The Odyssey, and we could argue that because of its length and storytelling that it's prose with poetic language, but that's a lesson to go into for another day... the differences between prose and poetry and when they overlap.
  • Adding characters to your poems can help ground your piece. It's easier for people to understand characters and their motivations than ambiguous concepts.
  • When you find a picture, look for any descriptions that might come in handy. Captions, dates, and historical references can be really helpful when trying to peg your poem and its setting. It's wise to look for articles that might pertain to the picture.
  • If a picture isn't inspiring any visceral language, move on to something else. Some pictures don't have striking features.
  • What is the date of the picture? What kind of things happened during that time?

Additional Poetry Writing Strategies

Listening to music that fits with the style of your pictures can be helpful. While looking at pictures of abandoned farmhouses in Washington, I listened to Feist, Johnny Cash, Cat Power, and Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton.

Try different strategies when it comes to writing poetry based on pictures. You may want to meditate and consider how you want to build the poem. Some people write better with intentional plans and strategies, others prefer to sit down and write off the top of their head. There is no right or wrong answer, just do what helps you to get writing.

One strategy I like to use is to time myself. I'll spend 2-5 minutes writing as much as I possibly can without any reservations. Whatever I want to write, I throw it down. Don't stop to edit what you're writing until the timer has ended. The spelling errors and obvious grammar issues may annoy you but leave them there until the timer has stopped. Focus first on writing and giving yourself a raw draft that you can polish later.

Sometimes I'll pick an exact format for my poem and/or try to use a particular rhyme scheme or meter. Sonnets can be lovely, villanelles are tricky, and haikus require precision. For a successful haiku, you need to go beyond the syllable pattern, you should strive to make it something meaningful that grabs people.

Photography Terminology

When it comes to writing about pictures, it will help if you know some of the techniques photographers use to create their art.

Here are some terms that might help you in describing your photograph:

Saturation: One of the most important and noticeable aspects of a picture is how much saturation it has. Black-and-white pictures have no saturation, meaning all the color has been stripped away. Sometimes you might have a picture that has no saturation except for one color. Oversaturation means the colors are bleeding over, and they're overly bright. Increasing saturation makes the picture look more vivid. Decreasing saturation makes the colors look more muted.

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Luminance: The amount of light emitted from, passing through, or reflecting off a subject.

Focus/Blurry: Consider whether the picture has blurry spots or great focus and clarity. Does the picture seem to really focus on a particular spot? Polaroids tend to be washed out. 4K pictures are going to look splendid with high resolution, rich colors, and precise focus. Technology changes, so you should notice differences in photography from the 1960s to now.

Head Room: This has to do with how much space the subjects in the picture have above their heads. A picture that has a lot of head room is perfect for adding font. Sometimes photographers will do something artsy where they crop out a person's head and focus on the legs or feet. Head room essentially addresses the vertical position of the subject within the frame.

Depth of Field: The distance between the closest and furthest objects that are in focus. A deep depth of field is when very faraway objects are still in focus.

Overexposure or Underexposure: This has to do with how much light is coming into the camera sensor. Overexposed pictures have too much light and look washed or blown out, giving them a pale look. Underexposed pictures look dim and dark and the colors are flat.

Chromatic Aberration: This causes pictures to have purple fringing. It's an odd effect when the lens struggles to bring the wavelengths of the colors into their correct hue. This is usually found in older and lower-quality photography. It is similar to a glitch effect, when colors distort or separate.

Bokeh: An intentional background blur. This is popular in portrait pictures, essentially pictures of people. Bokeh is the Japanese word for haze or blur.

Vignetting: Reducing an image's brightness around the border to intentionally draw the eyes to a brighter section of the photograph. It can make a picture look like it is being viewed through a telescope or hole.

Golden Hour: The period right after sunrise and before sunset. It is also called the magic hour. The sun is low on the horizon, so light takes on a redder hue as opposed to when the sun is higher in the sky.

Noise: There is visual distortion in the picture that looks like dots or specs. This can cause the picture to look messy or unclear.

Abandoned farm in Washington, Klickitat County. Photo was taken in 1939.

Abandoned farm in Washington, Klickitat County. Photo was taken in 1939.

Near the End of the Great Depression

Gray isolated spaces where love struggles

to preach her song—those plains and dreams

as stagnate as the cloudless sky. Hints

of a better tomorrow—hints

of a shorter sorrow—stagnate,

out of reach.

The preacher-man gives away his clothes,

he offers his flask to dry lips,

he visits poor folk


into limbo.

Living behind iron bars,

can't leave,

dust in the lungs.

Electricity lines

stretching across the field, a reminder

that we're all connected, energy

and topography unbroken for miles and miles

even into

faded memories, dust-covered siding,

rolling tumbleweed, hanging laundry,

and red barns with sliding doors.

There are no animals to tend

because the farmer can't afford.

Abandoned Farm House and Flower Stand, Kent Washington

Abandoned Farm House and Flower Stand, Kent Washington

Abandoned Farmhouse on Orillia Road

I went on a walk into the fields,

I hiked the dusty roads, my old

stomping grounds. I stumbled upon

a farmhouse I used to know.

It's abandoned, the front door off the hinges,

vines crawling on the roof, and worn-out siding.

The house, she sits at the end

of Orillia Road in Kent, Washington.

Years ago, the owners sold flowers;

they grew them in their yard.

The couple no longer live there,

the lot set to be leveled

for apartments and condos.

All these old charms set to vanish

as the new stewards of the land

come to settle. The changing

of the guard, say farewell,

say farewell,

say farewell to your corner

of the earth.

Date: October 2008. An abandoned house near Chesaw, Washington.

Date: October 2008. An abandoned house near Chesaw, Washington.

Forgotten House between Trees with Golden Leaves

Tall grass, pale blue sky, and white trees

with bright golden leaves. Those leaves

pop with color, the most stunning feature

in the rustic-scape.

A two-story farmhouse with no windows

and no doors. Just the frames cut

into the sides of the exterior.

The frames, like portals inviting

the traveler to explore the halls

and rooms and secrets within.

An abandoned house near Chesaw

with no lore, no hint of its past owners.

A two-story house for a family,

a preacher, a hermit,

who knows.

The house blends into the scenery;

its colors merging with the fields and sky.

I've become obsessed with this house

and the way it sinks into the background:

I think it wants to be sucked into the earth.

Some windows boarded or partially boarded.

The dark contrast of the open window frames,

it draws your eyes to the house,

a simple home

in a beige field.

The brown two-story house seeks to be quiet,

forgotten, unimportant, at the end of a meditation.

Abandoned building on campus of Northern State Hospital in Cedro-Wooley, WA. It was used as a farm for mentally disturbed patients.

Abandoned building on campus of Northern State Hospital in Cedro-Wooley, WA. It was used as a farm for mentally disturbed patients.

Additional Information about North State Hospital

The image of the North State Hospital and the caption I found with it left me with a lot of questions. I looked up this place on Google and read about its seemingly forgotten history. I used an article from The Seattle Times to learn about the place. My poem for the property is sad; it is very different from the other ones I featured for this poetry lesson.

The article from The Seattle Times is "An old mental institution, and its cemetery, might get a dignified makeover". It was written by Ron Judd, a Pacific NW magazine writer.

it is very different from the other ones I featured for this poetry lesson.

Farm for Harmless Patients

A rural refuge, the Farm for Harmless Patients.

The compound took in the disturbed.

The hollow buildings abandoned,

they're the ghostly reminders

of troubled lives. Tens of thousands of them

dropped off at the secluded rural enclave—

family wanting nothing to do with them.

Abandoned with a court order.

The ruins rest at Hansen Creek, a tributary

of the lower Skagit River

in the foothills

of the North Cascades.

As many as 2,700 souls would stay

at the Farm for Harmless Patients.

It included cottages, ward buildings,

barns, cattle, surgical rooms,

and a mass grave.

Barbaric treatments performed

from electric shock

to transorbital lobotomy.

This was how we treated epileptics,

alcoholics, drug addicts, people

with acute nonconformity,

menopausal women, and immigrants.

Heavy sedation, insulin coma therapy,

and experimental drugs.

It might surprise you to find

the Farm for Harmless Patients was considered

to have a good moral compass

with more compassion and care

than similar facilities.

But many went in

and never came out.

The semi-mothballed remains tempt

amateur ghost hunters and horror filmmakers⁠—

chronicles of ghost towns

and forgotten history.

The red-tiled roofs embedded

with algae, cracked single-pane windows,

crawling vines, aged paint

breaking in flakes.

Come tour its dark, dank halls,

consider the stark activity

that once hailed in its corridors.

A gurney with a patient,

a lonely soul looking out the window,

unchanged bedsheets,

a table underneath a surgical floodlight,

thick glass separating a viewing area

for spectators, for voyeurs, for hyprocrites.

Thousands died, and more often

then not

no family member

would come

to claim

the deceased.

Bodies cremated

and left in tin food cans.

Names etched on makeshift urns.

The remains were moved one day

and laid to rest in a mass grave.

Some patients were buried

in the compound's cemetery.

The grassy field where they lay

is notoriously swampy, a thick thatch.

Stones were placed in crudely made coffins

to keep the dead from rising.

Bodies that were never claimed,

persons wiped from history.

Dead branches cut

off a forest of family trees.

An abandoned farm in Douglas County, WA.

An abandoned farm in Douglas County, WA.

The Windmill Keeps Grinding

An abandoned farm in Douglas County,

somewhere between Seattle and Spokane.

A picture of the farm, I look at it

and study its black-and-white beauty.

I can hear the way

the scene sounds.

The wind knocking the siding, the windmill

grinding on its rusted track, the grass whistling

on a stormy day, and the roll of thunder.

Bugs chirp and birds caw.

A place forgotten by humans:

it's nestled under cloud cover, a farm

of ashes, destined for rural decay,

with open window frames

and tin roofs.

I can hear the windmill grinding

on its rusted track. It never stops

turning. It plays its solo

above the symphony of ashes.

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence

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