Every other month I challenge the members of the Thousand Oaks Photo Group, and myself, to employ a specific compositional technique on the images entered for critique the following month. As I prepared my topics for 2016 I decided to add a topic for using figure-ground relationships.
Figure-ground is a compositional concept in which you use tonal distinctions (light vs dark) to bring out the subjects in your image. If you look it up on the internet you will find lots of examples of black and white images where you see two different images depending on what you interpret as the figure (the subject) and what you see as the ground (the background).
In photography, we use figure-ground relationships to distinguish the subject (the figure) from the background (the ground) using contrasts in light and color.
Here is the dictionary definition:
1. relating to or denoting the perception of images by the distinction of objects from a background from which they appear to stand out, especially in contexts where this distinction is ambiguous.
I am a strong believer in the adage that to really learn something, you should teach it. With each lectures preparation, I am challenged to isolate the concept and do my own shooting. The topic of figure-ground was surprisingly more difficult than I had imagined. Once I got past the simple examples of a light flower against a dark forrest or dark silhouettes against a bright sky, I found my own vision for seeing figure-ground relationships cloudy, and so I set myself out to practice seeing these relationships.
If you know my work, you know that 90% of what I do is digital color street photography. But I found that seeing figure-ground relationships in color was difficult. So I gave myself a little edge in learning to see by setting my camera to show me only B&W in the viewfinder so that I could easily see the tonal relationships. You can do this with any camera with an electronic view finder or via live view on your DSLR. B&W photography is particularly beholden to the use of tonal figure-ground relationships because you don’t have color to help you find and distinguish objects.
As I was doing my research, I found this image from Elliot Erwitt with many layers of figure and ground relationships:
1. the darker helmets against a light background
2. the highlights on with the dark faces
3. the light reflection in the front soldier’s sun-glasses
4. the self-portrait of Erwitt himself in dark silhouette inside the frame of the sun glass lens.
Each element is clearly delineated from one another simply by surrounding darker items with light and lighter items with dark.
Perhaps my best example of a photography effectively using this figure-ground relationships is this image from the Cong Forest in County Mayo, Ireland.
The examples of figure-ground relationships in this image include the white dog framed against the darker shadowed part of the path and the dark figure framed against the lighted part of the path. While I was composing this image, I was aware of these relationships somewhere in the back of my mind, but I’m certain that I was more concentrated on spatial the relationships between the objects and their gesture. However, without the figure-ground relationships, I’m not sure that this image would have been as successful.
When my husband and I just want to get out of the house on a hot summer day we will often head to one of the small Malibu beaches. We take the windy 30 minute drive through the Santa Monica mountains, find an open parking spot on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), and step out to a refreshing ocean breeze and air temperatures at least 10-degrees cooler.
The free beaches in LA are a great social equalizer open to all walks of life and economic classes. There is always a story and I always bring a camera. Although the direct lighting is often a struggle, reflecting harshly on the great Pacific Ocean, the payoff are the people, timeless setting, and the stories to be found.
This image, like many street images, was a gift with all the elements aligning just right. I am on wooden staircase leading down from PCH. To get to the beach, you must first cross this strip of asphalt. It was likely once a piece of PCH itself but is now closed providing pedestrian access to the coast.
This littleman surfer was walking up the road. I am attracted to by color and gesture – orange and blue complementary colors, the turquoise of his boogie board tying in with the ocean scene. He glances up at me, but keeps walking. He is trailed by a sandy-white dog dragging his leash, I do not know if they belong to each other. The dog’s color is in harmony with the road slowly returning to its natural unpaved state. These two subjects are tied together by the nostalgic lifeguard stand in the mid ground, adorned by a single seagull perched in profile on the roof. There are many other small details adding to the story: the single communication line leading into the lifeguard station and the silhouette of the tiny people in the surf. The one tiny person standing with arms slightly raised and feet spread provides a special visual gift by showing this fully detailed outline. Even the scraggy row of cactus at the bottom of the image provides locational cues and a compositional base to this southern California scene.
It is a bright sunny day. Before getting out of the car, I mount a fixed 50mm equivalent lens and set the camera to f/11, ISO 400, with the center focus point turned on. Images will appear and disappear quickly. There will be no time to frame with a zoom or fuss with focus or other settings. Little Man gave me this gift within 5-minutes of our arrival.
There is a big dog show twice a year at the Ventura County Fairgrounds just 30 minutes north of where I live. As a non-dog person, I love to watch how people over-extend themselves on their dogs. Here are a few scenes.
For a little music accompaniment go get yourself a copy of Nellie McKay singing “The Dog Song”.
I’ve been building my portfolio over the past 6-7 years, but have struggled with how to present the work. I do not tackle big projects or causes for various reasons. I could just pull together the “best of” portfolio, but I want a little more than that. So instead, I have create a portfolio of Couplets. A couplet is a pair of lines of metre in poetry usually comprised two lines that rhyme. The word “couplet” comes from the French word meaning “two pieces of iron riveted or hinged together.”
Here I present visual couplets, comprised of two images that are visually hinged together by what I consider to be the core concepts in photography: theme, composition, color, gesture.
Couplet #1 Hotdog
Thousand Oaks, California
A local photographer narrowly escaped suicide today while building karma with patience wading through southbound traffic from Santa Barbara to Ventura County on a Sunday afternoon. Last Thursday, the printer of a soon to be infamous street photography, to be discovered posthumous when someone digs up her geo-cache hard-drive, suffered the dreaded Epson clogged printhead syndrome, even after printing 3 lovely black and whites. The printer has now apparently been fixed as proved by one test print. This occurred after several attempts at nozzle cleaning and print-head alignment last Thursday left the photographer without a working LK 157 ink cartridge, with a new cartridge being “unrecognized”. The photographer resorted to a round trip ordeal to Samy’s Camera in Santa Barbara to retrieve hard-to-find ink replacement. Although the trip to Santa Barbara was uneventful and the lunch at Los Agaves restaurant (still packed at 2:30) was terrific, the drive home took an unprecedented 2 and 1/2 hours through the back roads and farm lands of Ventura and Simi Valley. Her efforts and patience, building karma, was rewarded with a clean print after 2 additional nozzle cleans and 2 more print-head alignments. The photographer had been heard exclaiming “I’ll kill myself if this doesn’t work” and had been on a suicide watch since Thursday.
Though the prospects look good, the photographer still needs to finish sequencing and printing a portfolio of prints due to be shown on Friday night at the Los Angeles Center of Photography.