By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE HUMAN EYE HAS A SOFT SPOT FOR SYMMETRY, for countervailing energies that face off against each other in a composition. Design elements that pit left against right, top against bottom, even corner vs. corner appeal to a certain Math-Bach sense of balance in the universe. And, as does every other kind of visual art, photography builds strong images by “book-ending” elements in opposition, eye cues both tug toward the center and pull toward the edges.
Pictures benefit from this tension, this dynamic argument over what’s more dominant, or, more correctly, what’s dominant in this moment. Book-ending between extremes or contrasting forces is a visual kind of debate, a photographic arm-wrestling match. Sometimes shapes or things occupy opposing spaces in the frame are not, literally, fighting with each other, as in the two overlapping taxicabs seen above. Even so, the two yellow wedges at bottom left and top right in the frame are in a kind of balancing act with each other: call it a conversation.
In your own work, you’ve no doubt observed this visual tension occurring organically or even deliberately built it into a composition. An old building next to a new one: a tragic mask alongside a comic one: a kumquat facing off against a tomato. It doesn’t have to be dramatic to be effective. The bookends can be ornate Greek warriors or abstract slabs: it’s the opposition in the frame that starts the process of yin/yang, and lends a photograph extra heft.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS PROBABLY HAVE TO HAVE AT LEAST SOME IDEA OF WHERE THEY’RE HEADED in pursuit of an image, or else basic issues like, Where To Point The Car or Which Path To Take can’t be settled. And there is, even for the instinctual process of creation, something to be said for a basic plan. However, every photographer has experienced the wonder of finding oneself arrived at a great picture-making opportunity when, in fact, you were headed someplace completely different. It’s in such moments, places where Plan A becomes Plan B, C, or D, that the excitement happens.
After you capture an image that essentially works, your mind naturally comes to take ownership of it, just as if that picture were your original intention. But this seldom occurs. Pictures aren’t like Grab-And-Go sandwiches, and very few are just waiting there, fully formed, until you wander by and imprison them in your box. Our final choices for photographs are often the destination in a ride with many stops along the way. We might have come to do this, but we wound up modifying, even abandoning our first instinct to get this instead.
The above image is a textbook example of this process. The gorgeous sunset clouds seen here were originally to be the entire composition. The general rule is that skies, by themselves, are usually not sufficiently interesting to be the solo star in a photo, but the light and texture of this particular dusk had convinced me that a minimalist shot might just be possible. However, one of my first framings caught an octotillo shrub in its lower right corner, and that new information sent the picture off in a different direction.
Re-framing to bring the shrub into the entire lower half of the shot and silhouetting it against the sky gave the framing both a sense of scale and depth, and I began to convince myself (moving on to Plan B) that this now two-element picture would be The One. Then a single starling made a landing at the upper right corner of the ocotillo, creating a more obvious initial point of contact for the eye. The viewer would engage the most familiar part of the picture, the bird’s body, then travel leftward to the ocotillo’s jagged tangles, and backwards to the textured sky. Final Plan: C….a three-element image in which the individual parts seemed, at least, to talking with one another.
In the pages of The Normal Eye I keep coming back to this idea of “planned accidents”, or shots that start in one direction and end in another, because the process, once you allow yourself to go with it, can lead to images which, eventually, seem inevitable, as if they never could have been any other way. And those are the ones you keep.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHS DON’T HAVE TO BE ORGANIZED AROUND SYMMETRY, or even have a discernible “center” to them. However, the eye seems to find comfort in quickly settling on a “starting point” in an image, a place from which to proceed, or to be led to deeper discoveries.Designers for everything from magazine articles to websites toss around terms like visual weight and bottom-up processing to float various theories about how to direct the eye, with each system boasting top efficiency. A balanced pattern near the middle of the picture is thus not necessarily a “must-have”, just a fairly reliable “feels-right”.
By way of demonstration, a photographic center that consists of two people facing each other, talking, is a fairly easy anchor around which to build a straight narrative in an image. As the two heads arc left and right, a rough set of parentheses establish a very basic symmetry, and can help ensure that the middle of the picture engages the eye first. Based on architecture and surroundings, other things in the frame can either enhance or contrast with the symmetry in the middle, and that’s all a matter of taste for the photographer.
Many times a lunch counter or a restaurant gives me the talkers I need, so I tend to be on heightened alert when I enter such places. However, many of the photos I’ve made like this did not originally begin with the two people as the central emphasis: that happened in the cropping process.
In the above image, there actually was enough supportive symmetry from the background so centering the talkers and resizing the photo as a square seemed to be a good overall strategy. Of course, there is no hard and fast rule for these kinds of choices. All than can be said is that, for this picture, in this case, with these elements to work with, centering the conversationalists and placing them at the center of a square made sense. There is an entirely separate case to be made for selective use of the square as a compositional boost, and we’ll deal with than at another time.
Meanwhile, dropping in on two folks for lunch can act as a springboard for a certain kind of picture.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEIGHBORHOODS HAVE THEIR OWN VISUAL SIGNATURES, and photographers looking to tap into the energy of streets do well to give their locales a bit of advance study, the better to try to read an area’s particular identity. Sometimes the storytelling potential lies in a single building, even a part of a building. Other times it’s the mix of foot traffic. And, every once in a while, the saga of a street lies in the pavement itself.
New York City’s South Street Seaport district is drenched in local lore, tracing the contours of its alleys and warehouses to the beginnings of Manhattan’s first days as an international shipping destination. From the times of the Dutch’s tall-masted sailing vessels to the present mix of museum and modern retail, the port, on a typical day, offers color, texture, and a feeling of deeply rooted history that is a goldmine for photographers.
Of course, every neighborhood has its off days, and, on my recent trek to the area, a persistent, wind-driven rain had chased all but the hardiest locals off the streets and into the oaky timbers of the port’s quaint shops. Life on the street slowed to a crawl as iron-grey skies robbed the scene of its bolder hues. It was a day to huddle indoors with a good read and a hot cuppa anything. My camera, usually an unfelt burden around my beltline, began to drag like an anchor, stuffed into my woolen jacket to ward off the pelting drizzle, giving me the appearance of someone in sore need of a hip replacement.
Despairing of finding any vital activity along the street, I turned in desperation to the pavement itself, realizing that, in this eastward edge of Manhattan, the texture of the roads abandons the even concrete of most of the island and reverts to the cobbled brick textures of Melville’s time, with many old waterfront fixtures installed at curbside for extra atmosphere. Suddenly I had a little story to tell. The varied mix of firings in the brick, along with the steady rain, delivered the vivid color that was lacking in the area’s shops, allowing me to create an entire frame from just the street itself. Finding that some scale was needed, I sought out an old iron fixture for the left edge of the photo with just the legs and feet of two passing girls to balance out the right side. Suddenly there was enough, just enough of something to make a picture.
Obviously, if the street had been mere wet concrete or blacktop, the impact would have been different, and, were I in a different neighborhood, the street itself might have been unable to compete with the businesses for color or interest. On that morning, however, simple worked best, and my camera, at least for a moment, felt less like an anchor and more like a sailing ship.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MORE COMPOSITIONS IN PHOTOGRAPHY ARE CRAFTED AFTER THE SNAP than naturally spring forward, fully formed, out of the camera. Frame as carefully as you may, you often find that something needs to change to help your image’s story fully emerge. This usually means taking something away, cleaning things up…and that means cropping. I think it’s fair to say that, more often than not, we start with pictures that contain too much and carve out the core picture that deserves to survive, to be pushed to the front.
Sometimes a proportionate tightening is all that a picture needs, so that a large, busy rectangle becomes a streamlined, smaller rectangle. This can clear away extraneous objects like phone poles, wires, extra buildings, any distracting junk that pulls the eye away from the important stuff. But it isn’t always things: it can also be people, surplus bodies which, like extraneous elements of any kind, change the narrative, or keep it from connecting. Think of the picture as a theatrical production and yourself as the casting director. Anyone on the set who doesn’t move the story forward is not playing a part that we need. See the girl at the office for your check, so long.
In the picture above, the cropping seems to create the story of a mother and her children taking in the view from New York’s Highline Park onto a city street below. In the original shot, seen at left, she seems less like a mother and more like just another bystander. The crop has suggested a relationship or a role for her. The woman to her right (in the original), unlike the “mother” figure, is not acting as our surrogate, seemingly looking with us at the scene. She is on her cel phone, and therefore registers as more detached than her neighbor, whose face, since it’s invisible to us, could contain anything we want it to. To the right of the cel user, we see additional people who don’t subtract from the picture, but also don’t add anything. They are extras that we, the director, have decided we don’t need to cast.
Also, structurally speaking, the “mother” is arranged so that the diagonal line from the foreground building to her right seems to proceed into the picture from around the area of her right shoulder, so that she sort of anchors the leading line and sends your eye along it to the street below. None of this, mind you, was obvious in the shooting of the original shot, which is not terrible as a composition, only compromised by the inclusion of information that simply doesn’t advance the logic of the picture. I only use it as an example of how I was able to question the “casting” of the original frame and make a conscious decision to cut away things that slowed everything down.
If you can tell a story with two people better than you can with four or five, ask yourself if you really need them. Cropping isn’t an admission that you made a bad photograph. It’s confirmation that your first draft is worth taking to a second one.