Dissecting an Image


Photographs can be very successful in capturing a moment, but when they embody the subtleties of fine composition they soar.

This is a delightful family photograph, shot in 1924, of my Dad and my grandfather on an idyllic summer day. It has all the appeal and warmth of a period photograph, it has wonderful costuming with my grandfather looking so dapper in his straw hat, vest, starched white shirt and a chained pocket watch adorning his vest. And my Dad is dressed in his white, rather victorian looking dress and leather shoes. The choice of setup is sentimental and romantic in nature, with a woodsy surround, a tree stump, standing in a field with wildflowers, it's all utterly charming. Notice the crown of the hill and how it gives grace and movement and a visual lift to the figures while dividing the composition's dark background and light foreground. And how fortunate that the straw hat caught the light.

The positioning of the figures is to me, as a former choreographer, completely successful and takes the composition of this superb photograph over the top.  Why does this work so well? The father's body language is creating diagonal lines in harmony with each other. The lines of his arm, tie, chin, nose, hat, line of vision and the tilt of his back are all pointing in one direction... at the subject of the photo, the baby. And the baby, who's face is in the spotlight, is looking directly at the viewer, while the direction of the father's shadowed face is bringing further attention to the baby. 

As a choreographer I worked for years perfecting angles; angles within the dancer, and all the angles and lines that movement and multiple dancers create together as a unit on stage. It's a constant flow, contracting, expanding, moving. Lines and angles that always need to be in some artistic relationship with each other as they move... And what am I saying to the audience? Where am I directing their attention? How am I engaging the viewer? As a photographer this is my context as I look through the viewfinder. Visually organizing what I see to create a composition that is pleasing to my eye, a composition that can communicate what I'm feeling about what I'm seeing. A composition that, hopefully, will engage and draw in the viewer and, if I'm successful, allow the viewer to participate and experience that frozen moment.

And in the end, beyond the composition, I see the love, I see the optimism, joy, and potential, and I can see life's completed story that was yet to be written in that little baby boy.