Analysis of an Image: #0002

(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.

Title: El Cerrito, California 1972
View the image here
(Alternate-slightly smaller)

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.

Analysis of an Image: #0001

(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.)

Since we just had a post on Henry Wessel, I thought it might be interesting to start off this feature, Analysis of an Image, with a couple of his images. These will be done in separate posts as they will be fairly detailed. There will be a later post that will investigate in more depth “how to look at photographs” to get the most out of them. Here, I will be following the most commonly recognized format for analyzing images. This first image is rather difficult to find on the internet as a still image–at least in more than one place. As such, I will be giving a reference to it within a video we saw in the last post in case the first reference below, a still image, later disappears from the internet. My apologies that I can’t find a larger example, however, I think it is an image worth our attention.

Title: San Francisco, 1977
view the image here
(alternative: at 1:38 in this video)

Description: (One of the most important, and revealing, things we can do when looking at, or analyzing, an image is to start by physically describing its contents, item by item. This might sound simplistic but it is amazing how many things we can miss by looking at the image as a whole, as is our more natural way of looking. In fact, I discovered several things I hadn’t considered before while preparing this analysis.)

This is a neutral tone black and white photograph.  Four people are standing in a line, widely spaced, on a city sidewalk in front of, and against, an approximately 4-1/2 foot tall chain link fence. The fence has been “slatted” to prevent our seeing through it although we can see over it. The people and the fence are to the right of the camera’s position and the oblique angle of view causes both to recede in size from right to left.

It appears to be a clear day with the sun at about 30 degrees above the horizon (shadows) and is hitting our subjects from the left of the frame and slightly behind–over their right shoulder.  There are no building shadows coming in from the left, indicating that there are no high rise building near this location in that direction.

Visually, these four professionally dressed people are equally spaced at a distance that would make interaction between them difficult. Each faces to the right of the frame and appears to be looking along the fence line—except in the case of a one-way street, this would be in the direction of on-coming traffic.

The largest figure, and furthest to the right of the frame, appears to be a middle-aged African-American man dressed in a dark, 3-piece suit. He leans against the fence with his left leg crossing over his right. He holds a crisp newspaper at his side with his right hand while his left hand is on his chin with that elbow resting on the top of the fence. His tie is up and tight and his vest all buttoned up. He looks, like the others, freshly dressed.

The second figure in the line is also a male in a suit and tie. He is white, as are the others pictured here, with white hair and is probably in his 60’s. He stands erect next to the fence, suit coat buttoned up and is reading his newspaper that is held in both hands.

The third figure is a woman.  She is the youngest of the four, maybe late 20’s or so, and is dressed in a pantsuit. Although she has her forearm resting on the top of the fence, she is not leaning into it but stands very erect with her right hand at her side, over the purse that hangs from her shoulder.

The fourth figure is also a woman, middle-aged, in a dress with what appears to be a dark but lightweight coat tightly belted around her. She seems to be the shortest of the four and leans her shoulder against the fence with her hands in her pockets. Her purse hangs off her shoulder higher than the younger woman’s and is tightly positioned under her right elbow.

Generally, we describe what is in a photograph, however, given our current culture one must recognize the lack of personal electronic devices in this image. Along with the nature of the clothes, this might help us determine the date of this image if we didn’t already know it from the title.

The sidewalk appears to be fairly wide, however, the part these people stand on is a relatively thin strip of asphalt. Bordering this strip of asphalt, to the left and against the bottom edge of the frame, we see two diamond plate doors that are closed, flat and flush with the sidewalk. Receding behind these doors along the sidewalk, and continuing at the same width, we see three 13×13 square grids of small glass blocks set in light concrete. This structure of the doors and grids has a similar visual width as the height of the fence. In the lower left corner of the frame, we see an indication that the sidewalk’s width likely extends further.

There are several shadows of people outside of the frame to the left between the two women at the back of this line of 4. These shadows indicate that some are just outside the frame while others are several feet further away—or really short!

Beyond the fence, in the distance, although we don’t see their tops, we can recognize the structure of modern high rise buildings. Closer in, we see familiar mid and low-rise buildings of earlier periods. Those closest, behind the older gentleman, appear to be early light manufacturing or warehouse type buildings. The “$1.29 all day” parking sign, with its arrow, in the upper left corner gives us a hint at what we don’t see in the space immediately behind the fence.

Composition: (The Principles of Design/Composition noted as having been used are in red type for easy identification–the actual terms are capitalized or added in parentheses.)

The oblique angle of the camera creates a strong triangular compositional Shape as the diagonal lines of the fence, sidewalk detail, close edge of the background buildings and even the implied Line created between the people’s heads and feet, all move towards convergence beyond the left edge of the image. This Movement to the left is slowed by the staccato Rhythm of the evenly spaced people against the more homogenous fence.  Their gaze, to the right, moves our eyes back in that direction creating a back and forth scanning of the image.

The people are emphasized (Emphasis) in this composition by their relatively large proportions (Proportion) within the frame as well as their placement through the center and foreground of the image. Their presence is further strengthened by the fact that the lightly textured (Texture) but homogenous fence isolates them and their strong shadows from the background.

Image Balance is achieved by the placement of the larger figure in his dark suit and his dark shadow to the right while the two smallest figures are placed to the left.  The white-haired gentleman acts as the fulcrum. The light sky and buildings at the top of the image are offset by the light Pattern of the glass block structure in the sidewalk, which also echoes the window patterns on the mid ground buildings—especially the one in the opposite corner of the image.

At the same time, the steel doors at the bottom of the image, along with the man on the right, Balance the darker buildings above. Those doors and buildings each echoes the others finely textured surface–at least visually.

I personally feel that having not included the tops of the skyscrapers helped to simplify the image.  At the same time, I like the inclusion of the steel doors/glass blocks in the sidewalk.  This gives us something nice to discover and adds some interest in an area that could have been very bland if it was solid asphalt or concrete.  The fact that these echo the buildings’ Pattern and Texture is a nice bonus.  I also feel that having this more expansive Space at the bottom of the frame further emphasizes the people as the subject. Even if we can determine that these people are not actually evenly spaced (Space), the visual effect of equal spacing causes these people to unify (Unity) as our primary subject.


I personally like this image quite a bit as I was also wearing 3 piece suits and commuting into California’s largest city during this same decade—the scene is familiar. What I feel Wessel presents us with is an image of isolation by choice rather than by any need or external factor.

Although one’s attention is occupied with his newspaper, the others stare off in what is likely the direction of the oncoming public transportation, avoiding contact with those around them. This transportation would be headed towards the city center that appears a distance behind them–and their jobs. Rather than stand and wait along the edge of the street, near the foot traffic and possible interaction with others, they have placed themselves against the fence, spaced generously from their like-minded cohorts.

The fence and the space between each, as well as the moat-like steel door/glass block sidewalk detail, all provide a buffer from possible interactions with others. Wessel give us hints that it is even likely that these four people see each other on a regular basis, if not daily.  And yet, they choose to isolate themselves.

We are not sure of the safety of the area, as both women seem to be holding their purses tightly rather than setting them down even though they seem far from others.

It is true, that I have read a lot of detail into this image, however, I do think there are indicators within the frame, which I described above, that give credibility to these interpretations. I should say, though, that regardless if these assumptions are right or just my own “story”, the image still conveys the main message of chosen isolation. The details inferred beyond the actual structure of the image and the things we absolutely know just add depth to the interpretation of the image.

The professional dress hints strongly that these are 8-5 workers rather than swing or graveyard employees. The low sun indicates either morning or late afternoon—probably near summer as it is already very light—indicative of the longer days of summer—and they don’t wear warm coats or other warming accessories.

I suggest that they are going to work for several reasons. First, they wait by a commuter parking lot—given away by the cheap “all day” parking sign, which Wessel graciously included. Also these types of parking lots are generally on the edge of the primary business areas, as indicated by the surroundings here, and one either walks or takes local transportation the rest of the way in to work.

If it were the afternoon, they would probably not be waiting here, even if they took public transportation all the way from home to work, as the “connections” are not generally off in these secondary areas.

Other clues to their going to work include the inferred direction of their travel, towards the city center and their “buttoned-up” and fresh appearance. Certainly, I have seen people maintain this look after work, but here none have loosened their ties, vests or coats, which would be more common once one was out of the primary business area and on their way home.

Again, because I have commuted to work like this, I infer that these people likely see each other regularly. If one just parked and walked, it might be less likely but when one has to wait for the same public transportation on a daily basis, it is more likely that one would see the same people on a regular basis.

Although I did identify the African-American male here, I don’t personally believe that there are any racial overtones in this image whereas Garry Winogrand’s World’s Fair, New York City, 1964 has long been considered as such. Of course, Winogrand’s image was created during a turbulent time in the civil rights movement here in the states. Given the current affairs within the US, it is hard to not consider this however, I don’t believe there were any prominent issues in 1977, although the ratio of people of color in the professional ranks of major California cities was low—and may still be.

Even though we have done a fairly complete analysis of this image, the image still holds many unanswered mysteries, questions and possibilities.  These are the things that give an image life and allow it to continue to challenge and inform us.

Please feel free to share any of your own observations or questions about the approach here–or conclusions.  We learn from each other.