“MEN ARE NOT INTERESTED“, said Jerry Seinfeld, “in what’s on tv. Men are interested in what else is on tv.”
The joke conjures up an image of some remote-happy goof in a man-cave endlessly clicking through channels in search of something ever better than what he already has. And it’s true, which makes it all the funnier. It also speaks to how all humans, both men and “not men”, view photographs, and how shooters can play to that propensity.
All photos, sliced as they are out of the continual flow of time, come with an implied sense of what went before the click and what’s to come after it. Trying to use the information from a stilled moment of time to mentally supply those two temporal bookends is an ever-fascinating game between photographer and viewer. What happened just before this? What will happen next?
In composing a frame, the photographer uses all the tools at his command to influence his audience’s assessment, including the simple device of leading lines, which can be used to direct the viewer’s eye wherever the artist wants it to go. LLs are usually effective in drawing you deeper “into” a picture that obviously only has two dimensions. Think train tracks at the front of the picture, receding toward the horizon. These lines tell you that you are being asked to go somewhere, and that you should be curious about what’s waiting for you there.
Leading lines can also go from what is shown in the picture to what is implied, asking you to speculate, as in the case of the above frame, what’s around the next bend, or, in Seinfeldian terms, “what else is on tv”. It’s a strange fact that, no wonder what may be shown within a photo, the most fascinating thing to the viewer’s mind, at least, may be the stuff that was left out of it. We all want what we can’t have, and knowing that very human thing can empower a photographer to much more effectively control the frame.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
3-D PHOTOGRAPHY SEEMS DOOMED TO FOREVER RESIDE ON THE PERIPHERY OF THE MEDIUM AT LARGE, a part of the art that is regarded with mild derision, a card trick, a circus illusion. My own experience in it, from simple stereoscopic point-and-shoots to high-end pro-sumer devices like the Realist or View-Master cameras, has met with a lot of frustration at the unavoidable technical barriers that keep it from being a truly sharable kind of photography. It’s rife with specialized viewers, odd goggles, and cumbrous projection systems. It calls attention to effect to the detriment of content. It is the performing seal of photography.
That said, the learning curve needed to compose for stereo effect is equally valuable for overall “flat” composition, since you must always be mindful of building layers of information from front to back, the better to draw your viewer’s eye deep into your subject. Some will meet this challenge with a simple selective depth of field, as if to say: only pay attention to the stuff that is sharp. The front/back/sides don’t matter…I’ll tell you where to look. Others decide to arrange the front-to-back space all in the same focus, forcing the eye to travel in a straight line. Depends on what you need to say.
DSLRs allow you to elect for the former strategy, while iPhone photography, at least at this point in history, pretty much forces you to adopt the latter. You just don’t have the fine control needed for selective focus in a smartphone, any more than you have a choice shutter speed or how wide you shoot. With few exceptions, the iPhone and its cousins are marvelously adroit point-and-shoots, so your composition options lie chiefly in how you frame things up. Quickly.
This “think fast” mentality works to your benefit in the stealthier parts of street photography. The quicker you click, the harder it is to be detected, which means fewer “hey, what are you doing” issues with reluctant subjects. Even so, you have to be composing consciously if you want to establish a strong line to maximize the illusion of depth. It means deciding where the main drama in a shot resides and composing in reference to it. In the above shot, the woman lost in her John Updike novel is the main interest, but the steep diagonal of the wall leads you to her, then, as a second stage, to the lighter pair of friends in back. Framed in this manner, depth can be accentuated.
There are happy accidents and there are random luck-outs in photography, to be sure, but to create a particular sensation in your pictures, you must craft them. In advance. On purpose.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY AND PAINTING, DESPITE ENGAGING THEIR AUDIENCES IN VERY DIFFERENT WAYS, have retained one common aim over the centuries, at least when it comes to pictorial or scenic subjects. Both the photo and the canvas arrange their visual information on a two-dimensional surface, and both seek to draw the viewer’s eye into a depth that is largely illusionary. The cameraman and the painter both contrive to create the illusion that the distance from front to back in their works is as real as the distance from side to side.
In terms of simulating depth, some photographs benefit from both shadow and light, which alternatively “model” the information in an image, making it seem to “pop” in some faux-dimensional sense. But the best and simplest trick of composition is what we popularly term the “leading line”, information that trails from the front of the picture and pulls the viewer’s attention to an inevitable destination somewhere deeper back in the scene.
Putting a picture together this way ought to be the most automatic of instincts in the composition of a photograph, but it still is formally taught, as if it were less than obvious. In fact, it just means extending an invitation to someone to join you “in” the photograph.
Trails, paths, railroad tracks, lines of trees or phone poles….these are all examples of information that can start at one side of a photo and track diagonally to the “back” of the image, making the eye experience a kind of gravity, tugging it toward the place you want their gaze to end up. It is also the easiest way to force attention to a central subject of interest, sort of like inserting a big neon arrow into the frame, glowing with the words over here.
Leading lines are a landscape’s best friend, as well, since the best landscapes are arranged so that the focal point of the story is streamlined and obvious. Anyone who has ever shown too much in a landscape will tell you that what fails in the composition is that it allows the viewer to wander around the place wondering what the point of the picture is. The use of a powerful leading line gives the illusion of depth and corrals the eyes of your audience to the exact spot you need them to be for full effect.
Composition is the most democratic of photographic skills. It’s easy, it’s free, and anyone from a point-and-shooter to a Leica addict can use it effectively. Bottom line: there are great things happening in your pictures. Invite the people inside.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
SUNDAY MORNINGS AT THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART ARE A GAGGLE OF GIGGLES, a furious surge of activity for, and by, little people. Weekly craft workshops at LACMA are inventive, inclusive, and hands-on. If you can cut it, fold it, glue it, paint it, or assemble it, it’s there, with booths that feature encouraging help from slightly larger people and smiles all around. It is a fantastic training ground as well for photographing kids in their natural element.
A recent Sunday featured the rolling out of long strips of art paper into rows along one of the common sidewalks, with museum guides on bullhorn exhorting the young to create their own respective visions with paint and brush. The event itself was rich in possibility, as a hundred little dramas and crises unfolded along the wide, white canvasses. Here a furrowed brow, there an assist from Mom. Fierce concentration. Dedication of purpose. Sunshaded Picassos-in-waiting weighing the use of color, stroke, concept. A mass of masters, and plenty of chances for really decent images.
Most of these events are as fast as they are furious, and so, during their brief duration, you can go from photographic cornucopia to….where did everybody go? Sometimes it’s over so quickly that it’s really tempting to treat the entire thing like low-hanging fruit: a ton of kids pass before your eyes in a few minutes’ time, and you have only to stand and click away. Thing is, I’m a lifelong believer in arriving early and leaving late, simply because the unexpected bit of gold will drop into your lap when you troll around before the beginning or after the end of things. In the case of this museum “paint-in”, the participants scampered on to the next project in one big sweep, leaving their artwork behind like a ruined battlefield. And then, miracle of miracles, one lone girl wandered into the near center of this huge Pollack panorama and sat herself down. The event was over but the vibe was revived. I whispered thank you, photo gods, and framed to use the paintings as a visual lead-in to her. It couldn’t have been simpler, luckier, or happier.
When the “stage” on public events is being either set or struck, there are marvelous chances to peer a bit deeper.People are typically relaxed, less guarded. The feel of everything has an informality, even an intimacy. And sometimes a small child brings the gift of her spirit into the frame, and you remember why you keep doing this.