“Path to St. Pauls” by Jonathan Russell (Or It’s What Is Obscured)
If you’ve ever taken a creative writing course, you may have heard about a strategy of leaving some details out of the story. In other words, you pique the interests of your readers if perhaps you let them decide some of the details for themselves. Open-ended finales are not uncommon in the literary world, and it always seems like those are the best. The same can be true of graphical art and photography as well: Leaving out key details lets the mind fill in the gaps in the story. It also allows the viewer to create their own story. And I do believe the story is important to a photograph, whether the photographer tells it, or gives the viewer enough clues to tell it themselves. The missing details are the tools in this type of story telling. To illustrate that, I would like to share with you this story-telling photograph, Path to St. Pauls by photographer Jonathan Russell.
I want to start by focusing on the main subject, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. It is a magnificent building, and I suspect you have seen many shots of it, or at least you’ve seen photos of other buildings mimicking it’s English Baroque style. Trying to capture such a building on film is undoubtedly an intimidating challenge. How would you capture it’s mass, it’s power and the feeling of being in its presence? Of course Jonathan was likely faced with an additional challenge that had been faced by many current photographers before him: The building is now almost entirely surrounded by less significant and less interesting buildings. What’s an architectural photographer to do? Well, I really like Jonathan’s approach and solution to the puzzle: Tell a story. Better yet, let the viewer create the story. So Jonathan went to the nearby alleys and framed up the building with these more contemporary buildings, showing only enough of the Cathedral that it can be identified, but not so much as to give us all the details. It is these missing details that are so very important.
Now let’s walk it back a minute and I’ll admit that obscuring details in photography is not really all that much like obscuring details in a piece of fictional writing. And to be fair, Jonathan is not leaving out any details either – in fact he’s leaving them all in. Every building, every inch of pavement and every step that lies between us and our intended subject is right before us in plain sight. This does nearly the same thing. See, the written medium is not at all like the visual medium. And while the narrated story may very well be the same, the choice of what is obscured is vastly different. In a photograph, showing these buildings in the foreground while obscuring the main subject – the cathedral – is the story. Each of us will tell it differently, but in my mind, the story is a commentary about the landmarks path into obscurity. It is being shielded and hidden by the form-over-function type of architecture prevalent in the areas surrounding the cathedral. And that’s a little sad. But again, that’s only my take. Your take, even Jonathan’s, is likely different.
I guess my point is that Jonathan has done a wonderful job to manipulate our minds and create interest out of this impossible view of the cathedral. By working its surroundings into the photograph, by allowing the main subject to be obscured by its environment, the photograph comes to live and Jonathan’s story telling is heard at full volume. Just imagine how less this photo would have been if all that was between us and St. Paul’s was manicured lawn.
Jonathan Russell creates fantastic photographs from all corners of the medium – from architecture to portraiture and everything in between. But it is his architectural photography that I am most drawn to. His daytime and nighttime shots around London are worthy to be hung on anyone’s wall. So you’ll benefit greatly by browsing through Jonathan’s photostream. If Facebook is your thing, he also has a Facebook Page as well.