Beyond Geometry

Click here to see this post in context on the Open College of the Arts website

Art of Photography student Chris Woolgar raised a smile with a comment he made whilst reflecting on his progress through the module: “I am an engineer: I can take a car apart but not a photograph”. In my experience with working with OCA students, Chris’s position is not uncommon; possessing a genuine desire to make stronger imagery, wanting to make photography that is expressive, but feeling a little bound by perhaps more mechanical instincts. (Forgive me, Chris if this is an inaccurate interpretation.)

The Art of Photography module seems to be particularly suited to students that are instinctively more technical, and it walks them through understanding the nuts and bolts of the frame. It is easy though to become a little too preoccupied with how the frame is organized, forgetting the importance of what is actually within the frame. Believe it or not, tutors actually see a collection of objects inside their student’s photographs, not just a particular arrangement of tones, textures and lines.

Which is why I got particularly excited when I saw one particular image from Chris’s response to Assignment Two, Elements of Design. Usually I try to steer students away from shooting in exotic locations, believing that the most interesting work is made closer to home, of subjects with which you/we have a real passion for or connection to. In this respect, this shot from a sequence made in Egypt is not an ideal image to share with you, however, the basic elements which excite me are universal; essentially those of contrast and juxtaposition, which I believe can be found anywhere (so long as you keep you eyes peeled).

Chris’s photograph of a pair of palm trees and the pyramid at Saqqara certainly seemed like an appropriate response to the assignment brief, appropriately locating two distinct points within the frame. There is (for me, at least) an implied line between the trees and the pyramid, which provides a trail for the viewer to tread. But the real excitement for me is not within the geometric relationship between the objects, but the relationship between the two elements as subjects. This is what I wrote in Chris’s feedback:

“The relationship between the lush palms, and the ancient pyramid in the background, which appears to be being held up with scaffolding, is really intriguing for several reasons: they both seem to be existing (just about) in the austerity of the desert environment. The placement of the trees in the fore- and the pyramid in the background make a very clear statement about the age of each object (the pyramid belonging to the past, which is situated literally in the background of the composition). The pyramid is ancient and seems such a permanent fixture of the landscape it almost defies being thought of as a man-made structure, yet the scaffolding underscores the necessary intervention of man to conserve it as part of the landscape. The trees on the other hand are a blatantly ‘organic’ element of an inhospitable landscape – defiantly popping up almost in opposition to the harshness of nature.

To be quite honest, none of this analysis was in Chris’s accompanying notes, so perhaps more sceptical readers can be forgiven for dismissing this kind of reading into a photograph, imposing it upon the will of the author. (Chris was supportive of my analysis, however.) But I hope that most will identify some of these observations. In any case, this is a great example of combining effective composition with intriguing subject matter, resulting in a thought-provoking image that transcends basic concerns of the geometry of the frame.

Link to assignment within Chris’s blog: