Understanding the definition of Urban Photography and how other practitioners can influence my images through the art of composition
For my personal investigation for the first project of A2, I have decided to choose a genre that excites me and one that can challenge my creative practices. Having chosen Architecture for my theme last year, I’m going to use the Photoshop skills and camera techniques I learnt and adapt them to the genre I’ve chosen this year. I first started the investigation into the genre of Street Photography. Street caught my eye whilst watching photography tutorial YouTube videos on the internet in the summer before the A2 academic year started. I’m obsessed with the idea of capturing a moment of everyday life, a picture that has a meaning and a story that’s ambiguous to everyone who’s viewing the image having their own conceptions. Taking pictures of ordinary people in ordinary places interacting with others and the environment around them, and creating an image that represents one person of society at one particular time, an image that makes you contemplate life around us is my main motive for my love of street photography.
However at the start of the project after more research into famous street photographers and having carried out my own photo shoot on “the street”, I suddenly realised I don’t have the extremely high confidence needed to shoot on the street up close to strangers. It is a daunting and dangerous genre especially for a teenager. Urban Photography I felt was the answer to this dilemma photographing the urban landscape and not just portraits of strangers in the city. Photographing the environment we work and live in is fascinating to see what inner beauties underlie of everyday life we perhaps take for granted. According to Paul Halliday, (A photographic urban artist and film-maker) ‘Urban Photography is an interdisciplinary field of visual practice concerned with the evocation and representation of urban spaces and the lives of those living, working and moving through such spaces.’ – Available at: http://www.urbanphotofest.org/defining-urban-photography, Accessed 16th February 2015. This statement is how he describes urban photography and I agree with him how urban photographs show the spaces people live and work in.
Composition is an art. In the terms that, without composition, techniques, tricks, rules, arrangements and learning how other artists that have their own ‘personal’ take on how they compose an image; the photographs we produce may not communicate the initial story/subject and or context we wanted to portray. For instance, we might take a picture thinking it looks like what we saw in our eyes but the way we took it (a quick snapshot, poor alignment) may change the whole dynamic and instead show no orderly patterns (something that our eyes are drawn to), no visual order (foreground, background…) and may place emphasis on the object or person who isn’t the main subject (which could create confusion in an image) that you primarily wanted to capture. I’m going to look at the two artists below who I have touched on briefly in my sketchbook however look more closely into how they compose their images, what I can learn and how their ‘take’ can improve my images adopting practices that they are subconsciously used too. On Wikipedia’s article about composition, it backs up my point referring to how the viewers of the image may not view what we wanted them to look at (how it effects the communication). ‘The position of the viewer can strongly influence the aesthetics of an image, even if the subject is entirely imaginary and viewed “within the mind’s eye”. Not only does it influence the elements within the picture, but it also influences the viewer’s interpretation of the subject.’ – (Composition (Visual Arts), Accessed: 22/02/2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Composition_(visual_arts)) Prior to this personal investigation into the genres street and urban, I hadn’t performed or produced any pictures of this type. It is therefore important for me to visually analyse the works of others to gain an understanding into how they compose their images. Placing emphasis on what they want as the main subject and how differences can impact upon the interpretation of the picture, all viewers may have.
Analysis of bold composition, Urban Photographer: Nicholas Goodden
One photographer I’ve researched in this project is called Nicholas Goodden. His work is magnificent to look at and his pictures truly demonstrate Paul’s definition of the genre. He photographs the big city ‘London’ and captures little sights where he lives and works. He says “Beauty is all around but people are too busy or don’t care enough to see it”.
His work captures the beauties that are hidden to us in our everyday life usually including one subject in his pictures creating bold compositions. These bold compositions are usually created by simple shapes such as circles, rectangles, radial patterns, lines, curves and zigzags that attract the eye. Photographing these forms he sees around the city with his common use of bright colours and contrast gives the viewers of his images an insight into how he sees the city from the hustle and bustle to the lonely parts, they are a tribute to London as a whole. The portfolio which he has constructed show a variety of urban scenes in the East London area, below are two of my favourites and two that are inspiring to me in my personal project.
The first image (left) rightly captioned tunnel vision, is a picture of people walking through an underground tunnel which is part of London’s tube network. It’s one of my favourites because it captures people rushing around which is what the tube network is known for (although it’s edited, in a way it’s also a true representation). It captures the true city/urban life with commuters trying to get to their destination in a hurry. Nicholas could have taken this image at a quick shutter speed around 200th/second freezing the movement of the people walking past him however this would have made a mediocre photograph. Instead he left it on quite a slow shutter speed creating this artistic motion blur. This isn’t the first time he’s done this and in fact he’s quite fond of this creative technique looking through his portfolio. In my sketchbook, there’s an image he’s taken that has light trails off a vehicle driving past Camden Lock and he uses the long exposure to capture this movement of light. The outcome is an unusual artistic effect that can change the mood and add much more interest to the image.
He aligned the handrail in the centre of his viewfinder that in a way splits the image into two half’s which also give the image a symmetrical look. The reason why this looks good is because the image is not complicated to read improving the communication between the picture and the viewer. He’s changed the image into black and white which is straightaway eye catching with the leading lines strongly defined guiding us towards the centre of the image. The tonality appears to be a selenium type colour not just an ordinary black and white, this tone gives off a more modern black and white image (clean and crisp, digital) which is a complete different feel to a more traditional sepia look. Along the floor are nine strong dark lines, accompany this with the sharp details on the walls and the main subject (the handrail) which is also a strong leading line creates this clear three dimensional feel.
There’s lots of negative space which is not unusual in Nicholas’ images. He uses this negative space as a composition element. In this image, the negative space is correctly balanced on each half of the image supporting the symmetrical look I mentioned in the last paragraph. This negative space Nicholas includes in his image although it often results in him going further away from a subject, it defines and emphasises the main subject drawing your eye towards it. The negative space is gives breathing space to the viewer allowing them to relax and take time to observe the image adding to a more engaging composition.
The second image (right) is of three London phone boxes and a passer-by walking towards the left of the frame. The first subject I was drawn to was the telephone box in the middle of the image, most probably because it is in the centre of the image however a few seconds after I was drawn directly to the guy walking past. Nicholas waited for the right moment or as Henri-Cartier Bresson would say “the decisive moment”. This is when the person is looking at Nicholas or his camera showing a facial expression that could be describing his current mood. It’s as if to say “What’s he doing over there taking my picture?” The person is another part to the image; it could be that he/she is rushing to the shop or walking home from work. Either way, it creates a dialog (right term to use?) between the image and the viewer and adds more interest to the image instead of it being just three phone boxes. His body language could also suggest he/she was in a peaceful rush – (doesn’t sound right? Help).
This image is a demonstration to Nicholas’ bold compositions techniques. The telephone boxes are a visual repetition that attracts the eye to view different parts of the image for longer. Nicholas has increased the contrast in the telephone boxes making them look more vibrant adding to the aesthetic look rather than a flat, morbid look. This makes the image more relatable as it’s closer if not the stereotypical (not the word but there’s a word for it??) colour that is often associated with London. This dark contrast in the phone boxes adds drama to the image along with all the shadows across the image being reduced as well as the slight vignette around the frame. All this adds to the drama in the picture Nicholas has produced. The image also has some negative space again drawing attention and drama which is another composition technique he uses as I discussed in the above paragraphs.
Conclusion of Nicholas Goodden
Nicholas has made himself renowned on the internet, social media and in photography magazines as a London urban and street photographer creating images of iconic London Buildings and captain the essence of the capital city. He gives a modern perspective on urban photography which is notable with his digital manipulation and his modern mirrorless camera (to be specific Olympus’ OM-D E-M1).
Looking at his images makes me take a step back, and contemplate the environment, who and what the people in his images are doing and how life differs in different towns and cities. Even different areas of these places that can show a complete contrast to another area of the city, and it is interesting to witness this through an urban photograph. Simply because Nicholas’ urban photography captures the true feel of the environment of which he is in, sometimes he includes people in his image sometimes not. In the situation of the latter, the way he composes his frames with lots of negative space next to a main subject (which really stands out through an increase in contrast and/or placement) allows the mind to imagine this environment. This is a critical reason to why I have researched him and how I want his photography to influence mine.
Analysis of communication through composition and use of geometry, Street Photographer: Henri-Cartier Bresson
If there is one element of Henri’s photography I have learnt whilst researching him, reading articles about him on the internet, browsing through hundreds of his images (made available on Magnumphotos.com), watching documentaries and interviews, it’s the use of geometry in his photographs he uses to his advantage placing forms and shapes in a way that converges patterns around the image. This allows the subject he is taking to stand out of the background with patterns leading towards and away from the frame. When Charlie Rose (an American television talk show host) asked Henri “What makes a great composition” he simply answered “Geometry”.
Henri’s intent in the composition of his images was to “communicate the intensity” of the subject. This meant the purpose of how he composed his images was to make sure to best highlight the subject of the photograph. Composition should guide the eye to focus on a particular subject by eliminating distractions. This is true as an image with a main subject should also have quite an amount of negative space which again can be created with the composition the photographer uses, using his eye, he has the power of exclusion including only what he wants to see in the photograph.
“The photograph’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimetre. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or further from the subject, he draws a detail.” –Henri. This quote from Henri himself explains how he and any photographer can manipulate the final outcome of a photograph. Adjusting the frame ever so slightly can change the whole perspective adding more or less detail to the subject the photographer is looking at.
In all of the interviews I have read online, Henri never talks about the composition techniques I use and the ones that are discussed in modern photography magazines such as the rule of thirds. He used the vertical lines across the image which the rule of thirds is associated with but he mostly used the strong diagonal line that goes from one corner to the other. Observing image after image, an overwhelming number of his images rely of this diagonal line. A range of subjects, people lying down, a line of chairs or dark shadows in the image.
France. 1932. Marseille. The Allée du Prado. USA. 1947. New York City. Manhattan. Downtown.
He analyses the environment he is in before he takes an image. He notices the distinctive relationship of patterns and lines that the subject has in common with the background, establishing a strong figure to ground relationship. In these two images, the sense of geometry is astounding. In the first image is taken in France (above, left). The main subject appears to be a grown man looking slightly away from the camera with a quite concerning shocking emotion on his face. I can imagine Henri just seeing this image with his eyes, looking behind him finding a relationship and geometric patterns and then shooting quickly before he lost the emotion on the man’s face he wanted to capture. Coincidentally the man was stood still in the middle of the path where the trees formed a two strong beautiful leading lines gradually getting smaller in the distance, this added depth but not only depth, but mathematical geometry which is what makes his images. Henri wouldn’t have just seen this and took a picture. He would quickly try and place the man in the centre of his viewfinder by moving inches to the right so that he (the subject) is brought out of the background more with the converging trees behind him fitting perfectly, like putting a jigsaw together. Also by doing this, the subjects three dimensional form is obvious and a true representation of the persons height with the trees beside him acting as a comparable measure.
The second image (above, right) captures what appears to be an upset child/young adult sat on the kerb of a side street in New York. Because he was quite some distance away from the subject, we cannot really see what emotion the person is feeling however with his head on his knees looking down, we as humans know it’s not exactly a feeling of enjoyment or fulfilment, more upset and distraught. It seems the person doesn’t know Henri was taking his photograph therefore it shows his real emotion but I also think Henri didn’t want him to know he was there because people act different when a camera is pointing at them, not only that but taking the picture far away like he has here shows him being a true observer of life around him. He would have seen the person sat on the kerb, analysed the scene with the huge buildings aside him and didn’t take a step closer but just took the picture before he was noticed. In this photograph, the geometry he uses is spectacular. They are three main leading lines for the viewer’s eyes to intercept guiding them towards the subject and centre of the image. Six horizontal lines formed from the buildings fill the negative space around the subject adding clarity to the image as it’s easier for the viewer to get a sense of what’s happening and not get lost in the image. The golden rule composition technique can also be adapted here (shown on the right) with the sharp long buildings leading towards the person sat on the kerb.
Black and white photographs work perfectly with street photography giving
a feeling that a moment has been frozen in time and gives out this
memorable, nostalgic feel with minimal distractions. As I’ve researched, I
feel colour is just another distraction when it comes to composition of a street photograph. Henri’s images are of course in black and white because it was in the period of black and white film, the early twentieth century. Both images I have chosen to analyse reinforce the emphasis Henri placed on geometry and how it hugely impacts upon the images he had taken. The horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines plays a role into how his images were perceived, making his subjects stand out as well as relate into the background and act as a guide for our eyes to read his images.
Conclusion of Henri-Cartier Bresson’s photography
Henri is patient, he waits for the ‘deceive moment’ to take the picture. In one documentary on YouTube named “Just plain love”, he says you have to be receptive as well as lucky to get the image you want after you’ve visually composed the image in your head. Henri was always ready, receptive, on the lookout whilst others around him were unobservant and distracted whilst the help of geometry plays an obvious role in framing the sights he sees. He seeks the physical rhythms in pictures going for form more than light and intuitively taking an image of what he sees. He gains a sensuous pleasure to have everything in the right place, establishing the relations of curves and lines that question his awareness… his ability to observe an environment and produce an image that is composed with geometric patterns and clarity that is seen throughout his collection of images over his lifetime.