In photography – or in any art form – the trick to winning over your audience is to invoke emotion. A viewer who can find an emotional attachment to your work is going to become a fan of your photograph. Possibly a fan for life. Emotion can of course be invoked a number of ways. But today, we’re going to focus on the virtues of composition. To aid me in this discussion, I’d like to refer to this great example, Alone With My Thoughts, by Byrne Chapman.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, I’d like to first point out Byrne’s chosen title: Alone With My Thoughts. Titles can quickly turn into a chicken and egg debate: Which came first. Sometimes, a photographer is first inspired with a title and the photo is shot to fit. I think that could have been the case here. Byrne is witness to a figure standing alone at the edge of a jetty. It’s sunset (or maybe even sunrise), the figure is otherwise motionless and it seems the water is creating nice ripple patterns radiating away from our subject. Perhaps a title immediately jumps into Byrne’s mind – or a least the concept of a private moment observed from afar. An intent has been set and the shot is quickly planned out in our photographer’s mind. As we discuss further, keep this word in the back of your mind: Loneliness.
In order to achieve the emotion of loneliness, the composition must be adjusted accordingly. Byrne could have zoomed in closer or even changed the position of the subject within the frame and still managed to get a good shot – at least compositionally. See this is where the so-called rules will play tricks on you. In theory, that jetty could also be placed in the upper third or our lonely figure could be placed in the left third and it would theoretically be a well composed photo. But I ask you to ignore those rules at least for a moment. Let’s think emotionally. Let’s think of this photo as the page in our subject’s life. Thanks to the cultural beliefs subtly injected into our minds by the way we read, we often have a tendency to think of the top and left side of the page as the beginning. Alternatively, we often think of the bottom and right side of the page as the ending. Beginnings are positive – there is so much ahead of where we are and there is nowhere to go but up. Endings, on the other hand, leave us empty – everything is behind us. As subtle as it may seem, placing the subject in the lower right corner is the ideal place. It portrays our figure as lonely. Add to that the gradient from warm sunny colors to the cool dark colors around the subject and the emotion is further emphasized. Lastly (but not least of all), getting the extra length on the jetty helps to emphasize that our fitful figure is essentially at the end of a journey, albeit a short one from the beginning to the end of this jetty. I becomes apparent that the figure put himself there – he wants to be there…alone…at the end of his jetty. Now you get this person’s emotions, their thoughts if you will. And now we have a composition fitting of Byrne’s title.
There is one other thing that I would like to point out: Byrne’s use of negative space. Typically, when we think of negative space, we’re thinking of emptiness, a space completely devoid of detail. This certainly was the case when we discussed this topic back in February. But negative space does not need to be completely devoid of detail. It simply needs to be devoid of a viable subject. In the case of Alone With My Thoughts, the negative space just happens to be water. To boot, the water has a pretty nice texture and a gradient of color as it is influenced by the setting sun. But the texture and the color does not excuse it from being used as negative space. All that emptiness really enforces the emotion of loneliness that Byrne is trying to achieve. But the presence of the negative space in and of itself is not enough. The placement of such negative space often has much more of an impact. Hypothetically, if Byrne were to place the figure in the center of the photo, one could argue that there would have been plenty of negative space around him. Ignoring our earlier discussion on the placement of the figure, the issue here is that we do not have much concept of how vast that space truly is. Shifting the space to dominate one edge of the photo (or in this case, the great majority of the upper portion), we now have an idea of how truly vast this space is. We get a better understanding of just how much nothingness our subject is looking into. Sure, we cut off what’s behind him – for all we know there could be a beach 10 meters to his back. First of all, that doesn’t matter because it is to his back…he’s looking into nothingness. Second, the photographer can choose to keep in or edit out what he wishes in order to imply whatever he desires (unless he’s a photo-journalist). So whatever is truly to our subject’s back, Byrne’s massaging of the negative space truly worked towards his theme here.
In the end, I do not truly know which came first as I am only working from the position of an observer. Perhaps Byrne did not have a title or an intent firmly set before setting up for the shot. But I imagine some semblance of an intent came quickly into the forefront of his mind as he worked at this location. My hypothetical scenario here was just a way to possibly get you into the mind of a photographer setting up a shot.
For more of Byrne’s emotionally charged imagery and his slices of classic Americana, I would encourage you to spend some time browsing his photostream on Flickr. Additionally, I would like to point out that this is the second of Byrne’s photos that have been featured here at Shutter Photo, the first of which, Sea Gull in Black & White, was featured back in January.