Sunday, September 4, 2011

Bring on the Drama

The photographer's art is making the mundane seem less ordinary, more dramatic, than it seems to the naked eye. We do this a few ways. Call them techniques, or call them cheap tricks. They usually work!

Isolation: Take something that is normally seen in context, remove the context, and there's a new drama to a simple object. You could photograph a dancer on a stage, or you could photograph her in a studio doing the same moves. Chances are, the studio shot will outshine the in-context stage shot. The use of heavy "bokeh" (out-of-focus elements in a partly focused field of view) also isolates that which the photographer wishes to present out of context.

Juxtaposition: Using a contrast between two opposed ideas or symbols is another way to isolate a subject. If we show protesters holding up God Hates Fags signs, we should show them in front of a billboard depicting a great homosexual contributor to our society. A puppy is just a puppy, until you put it near the jaws of an alligator. A flower is beautiful, but not terribly dramatic as a photographic subject. A flower lying in a dirty gutter addresses feelings of loss, despair, and resignation.

Absence: Tire-tracks can say more about a road than moving vehicles do. A vigorous performer can be captured backstage, exhausted and without his audience, and say more about how hard he works than he can when we see him moving enthusiastically in front of his adoring fans.

The ultimate poignance is found in pictures of 9/11's "ground zero," everything there except what is supposed to be there, the World Trade Center.

Enhancement: Motion blur connotes fast action. Bokeh adds mystery by taking out specifics. Tweaks to saturation can add and subtract realism from an image. Conversion to black and white is a kind of enhancement through subtraction. By removing unnecessary color information, the photographer directs attention to tones and contours that would otherwise be buried in psychedelic controversy.

Echoing: This means finding scenes where the lines or mass of one object are repeated, possibly at a different scale, in another object of the background. Picture a sleeping lion backed by golden hills, the curves of the flesh making the same lines as the hills in the background.

Plain old line work: We see this in any "tunnel" shot where lines recede to a vanishing point in the distance. We also see this in many commonplace photos, where lines on a road, a building, or any other straight-sided entity combine to emphasize or enhance the subject. Perhaps the lines in the greater field of view echo those in the subject. Perhaps they point to it, converging on the center of interest. Regardless, good lines are appealing to the eye and can make a mundane item seem extraordinary.

I'll be working into this essay if I think of anything else we do to make the ordinary worth looking at again and again, for its beauty, singularity, and yes, drama.