the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

THE PROSCENIUM

By MICHAEL PERKINS

IT IS THE OLDEST FRAMING DEVICE IN HISTORY. If you’ve ever watched a play on any stage, anywhere in the world, you’ve accepted it as the classic method of visual presentation. The Romans coined the word proscenium, “in front of the scenery”. Between stage left and stage right exists a separate reality, defined and contained in the finite space of the theatre’s forward area. What is included in the frame is everything, the center of the universe of certain characters and events. What’s outside the frame is, indefinite, vague, less real.

Just like photography, right? Or to be accurate, photography is like the proscenium. We, too select a specific world to display. We leave out all the other worlds not pertinent to our message. And we follow information in linear fashion…left to right, right to left. The frame gives us the sensation of “looking in” to something that we are only visiting, just as we only “rent” our viewpoint from our theatre seats.

We learned our linear habit from the descendants of stage arrangement….murals, frescoes, paintings, all working, as our first literate selves would, from left to right. Painters were forced to arrange information inside the frame, to make choices of what that frame would include, and, as the quasi-legitimate children of painting, we inherited that deliberately chosen viewpoint, that decision to show a select world, by arranging visual elements within the frame.

Park Slope, Brooklyn, 2012. Trying to catch as much activity as a street glance, at any given moment, can. 1/320 sec., F/7.1, ISO 100, 24mm.

Park Slope, Brooklyn, 2012. Trying to catch as much activity as a street glance, at any given moment, can. 1/320 sec., F/7.1, ISO 100, 24mm.

For some reason, in recent months, I have been abandoning the non-traditional in shooting street scenes and harking back to the proscenium, trying to convey a contained world of simple, direct left-right information. Candid neighborhood shots seem to work well without extra adornment. Just pick your borders and make your capture. It’s a way of admitting that some worlds come complete just as they are. Just wrap the frame around them like a packing crate and serve ’em up.

Like a theatre play, some images read best as self-contained, left-to-right "worlds". A firehouse in Brooklyn, 2012. 1/60 sec.,  f/6.3, ISO 100, 38mm.

Like a theatre play, some images read best as self-contained, left-to-right “worlds”. A firehouse in Brooklyn, 2012. 1/60 sec., f/6.3, ISO 100, 38mm.

This is not to say that an angled or isometric view can’t portray drama or reality as well as a “stagy” one. Hey, sometimes you want a racing bike and sometimes you want a beach cruiser. Sometimes I don’t mind that the technique for getting a shot is, itself, a little more noticeable. And sometimes I like to pretend that there really isn’t a camera.

That’s theatre. You shouldn’t believe that the well-meaning director of the local production of Oklahoma really conjured a corn field inside a theatre. But you kind of do.

Hey what does Picasso say? “Art is the lie that tells the truth”?

Okay, now I’m making my own head hurt. I’m gonna go lie down.

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2 responses

  1. Good post! All art, in many ways, is a self-contained world all of its own – either by a filtering out of the “noise” of life, or in the effect a piece makes within the minds and imaginations of the artist and audience. I’ve never consciously thought of photographic composition in terms of the proscenium, but I have definitely practiced it. As your photos demonstrate, cities, and NY in particular, lend themselves well to the concept. Cities are “boxy”, artificial straight lines within which the natural chaos of humanity plays out. Just like performing arts carried out on a stage. Definitely food for creative thought.

    March 6, 2013 at 2:24 PM

  2. Thanks for your comment…I love the through historical work in your own blog. New York does indeed lend itself to a “squared” view of life, being one of the first American cities to adopt a strict grid system for the organization of its streets. The idea is as old as Rome itself….in fact, I believe they called the concept “Centurianization” or something like that. Proscenium framing is also one of the last formal devices left of photography’s legacy of painting techniques, and I often prefer it for telling a linear story. Mostly (as, I’m sure, is the case with yourself), I just love making images.

    I do appreciate your support, and keep up your own great work.

    March 6, 2013 at 4:28 PM

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