(unless I have the author’s permission, I will not post images by others but rather links to the subject images which will be set to open in another window or tab. I suggest opening two browser windows, side by side, to assist in looking while reading.)
As I mentioned in the last post, we are going to take a look at a second image by Henry Wessel .
This image is, at least on the surface, a simple visual with relatively few elements. But I don’t think it is a simplistic image by any means.
Rather than breaking the analysis into the three distinct part as I did in the last entry, I will combine them here. I will still mark the Principles of Design/Composition* in red and capitalize the specific name of the principle or create it in parenthesis when needed for clarity.
As we first look at this image, I don’t think we can help but focus our attention immediately on the planter and even more so on the vertical “shaft” that dominates the center, and most of the height, of this image (Emphasis). Of course, we also recognize the strong symmetrical Balance of the image as well.
Wessel’s typical treatment of light, pushing the whites in the image to near their limit of detail and leaving his shadows very open (Value) leaves little in this image to pull our attention away from this central Shape (Emphasis—the plant/shaft and Subordination—the shadows).
The only other dark objects here are the two sets of windows that bleed off the side of the frame. The fact that they are nearly identical and balanced symmetrically serves to subordinate them to our central subject.
I do think it is important to notice that these windows have signs for various brands of beer, telling us that this was created outside of a bar. The reason I go to “bar” rather than “diner” is not just the variety of beers advertised but also the 2×4 framing and covering of the windows that we see behind these beer signs—diners don’t generally cover up their windows. Regardless, the beer signs are more significant than the type of establishment.
With our attention focused on this central shaft/plant that appears very straight and tall, we then notice the incongruent “bent” shadow that it casts—what gives!
My feeling is that Wessel just saw the irony of this, the visual play and created a composition that emphasized this.
I also think that the image works as a commentary on the act of photographing. How our choice of “Point of View”(where we stand), along with other factors and choices we might use, can change or distort reality. Going deeper, isn’t that maybe the same with regards to how we look at our world more philosophically, is our perspective giving us truth or distortion or maybe a bit of both?
Of course, we can also have some fun with the connection to the alcohol represented here. How we might stand straight before we come in contact with this establishment but maybe not so much once we do. And, well, there might be a similar connection with regards to sexual performance as well.
This is probably one of my favorite images by Wessel.
At this point, I want to make some specific observations about the composition that might seem out of whack to many reading this.
In a couple of posts now I have referenced how centering our subject is very effective at clarifying our subject—bringing Emphasis to it. This flies pretty much in the face of what most amateurs are taught and have pounded into them from day one, that the center should be avoided at all costs. But the point is, actually, that we should be making compositional decision that make our intent for the image the most clear. As you look at more photographs by the masters, you will see many that put the subject at or very near the center for this specific reason.
For instance, as I mentioned above, placing this “plant” in the center, against this white area definitively makes it our subject and brings its odd shadow into play as an important contrasting element. All the other elements here are subordinated to these two things.
If we now take our hand and crop this image–either vertically–leaving little room on either side of the planter and the shadow of the “plant–or maybe a square, cropping from the left—I think we can see how the windows to the right become more dominant than they are in the original. We might still notice the contradictory shadow and object, but the message has been diluted. In fact, we might even start looking for or thinking about the “design” interplay/relationships between the three objects—window, plant and shadow–a consideration which is absent with the original composition.
The second thing I wanted to mention, also something often noted on amateur photo sharing sites, is the fact that we have a slight tilt of the image to the right—“the horizon isn’t level”, if you will.
First of all, I will suggest that photographing architecture at a 90 degree angle like this, even with a tripod and a ground glass with a leveling grid and level, is difficult–you also have to get the film plane perfectly parallel to the wall, which is actually the most difficult thing to do. I have been photographing architectural subjects for over 30 years and this type of shot, straight on, is the one I hate most! That isn’t an excuse or explanation, just a flat fact!
But, regardless, I actually didn’t even notice this until I started my detailed analysis of the image. Why, because it really isn’t relevant to the message of this image. This image has a lot of content and isn’t about architecture or formalism. In fact, I think it was more important to Wessel to keep this central “plant” as straight up vertical as he could and that is how he saw it in the viewfinder. It still leans a bit left but the verticality of it is more pertinent to the comparison/contrast with the shadow, which I believe was his main concern. Sometimes this sort of thing does matter and that can be for various reasons, including the intent of the image or the genre. On the other hand, it can often be overly noted when critiquing images but then it is often just an easy and objective comment (it’s hard to be wrong that something is canted one way or the other). I will admit that for many of my own images, this is an important concern to me. But in an image like this, not so much.
note: Oddly, the “alternate” link to the image, from SFMOMA, appears to have been cropped to level the “horizon” and was probably done by the tech who posted the image.
* I have been using the term Principles of Design/Composition as a shorthand for the foundational principles of composition which are commonly referred to as the Elements of Art (point, line, shape/Mass, light/value, space, color, pattern/texture, time and motion) and the Principles of Design (unity/variety, emphasis/subordination, balance, scale/proportion, rhythm) in both the Art and Design worlds. We will be looking at these in more depth in the future.
Again, please feel free to share any of your own comments, observations or questions. We learn from each other.