Photographing graphic shapes – creating a frame
Most built-up areas are created using three basic shapes and the variations on them; rectangles, triangles and circles. Alongside those basic shapes we have the lines that define their edges and demonstrate their existence. When we recognise these shapes, and acknowledge that they are the foundations of the city structure, we can begin to make the most of them in our pictures. And when we do that, we tap into an awareness that can create really powerful images.
This picture is all about shapes and the lines that create them. The shapes of the world this man lives in are hard-edged and rigid, while his own shape is rounded, organic and soft – so he stands out against the foreground and the background. That act of standing out makes us aware that he is the subject, but only in the sense that his presence makes the hard/soft contrast possible – and it is that contrast that helps us to notice the hardness, rigidity and geometry of the world around him.
I shot this through a vast metal sculpture at Liverpool Street station’s Broadgate Circle entrance, in London. Looking between the great sheets of metal, I liked the way a giant doorway could be formed and the way the soft light of the overcast morning was bleeding into the deep dark shadow inside the structure itself.
The viewer’s first thought on seeing the image is probably that we are looking through a four sided aperture, but the four-sided idea comes only from the fact that the triangle made by the converging edges of the metal sheets meets the top of a wall that leads into another darkness in the distance. The two dark areas can play the trick of fooling us that they are one – and the overall visual effect is that they are as between them they contain our attention and hold all the action.
Composition and shooting position
I had to position myself quite carefully to ensure that I made the most of the shapes and lines on offer here. To get the full impact of a structure and its angles it’s important to have some sort of baseline that grounds us and lets us know we are standing straight and upright ourselves. In this picture that levelling anchor is the group of lines on the steps – that travel left to right parallel to the bottom edge of the frame. These, whether we recognise it immediately or not, let us know we are upright and perpendicular. When we know that, we can appreciate the relationships of all the other lines and shapes in the picture – that they really are off at an angle, and that it isn’t just us leaning over ourselves.
The lines of the steps are a strong visual element as they contain so much contrast themselves. The treads are lit from above, while the risers are comparatively dark. The combination makes a series of black and white lines, running like those on a sheet of ruled writing paper. They are powerful and influence our perception of the scene. That they are straight, and that our brain knows that, allows us to see the slope of the path, the diagonal of the handrail, the man’s upward journey and the angled edges of the sculpture.
The right man
I shot quite a few images from this position, as I experimented with composition and the different types of people using the path. Once I was satisfied with the camera angle and my exposure, I just had to wait for the right person. While it is easy to project what you think the right person will look like before they arrive, we should always be ready for whatever comes along. Here I knew I wanted a ‘city person’, and a suited worker would fit the bill, but with the light-toned background I had expected to be making a silhouette of someone in black. It didn’t occur to me that Colombo would come by, with a pale raincoat and newspaper – but he did, and I’m very grateful for that.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH3 with Taylor, Taylor and Hobson 2in f/2 Telekinic lens via a C-Mount adapter
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