Number 7:
Line, Digital Photography,
& the Enhancement of Form

Published June 2005

A picture’s success is directly proportional to the picture’s ability to “hold the eye and soul of the observer.”

The quotation is from On Painting by the 15th-century Italian Renaissance humanist, mathematician, architect and painter Leon Battista Alberti—the historical figure who gave rise to our term “Renaissance man.” The expression occurs twice in the treatise. Both times, “eye” comes before “soul”. This stands to reason. We can’t be moved by a picture we can’t see. We can’t be moved deeply by one that doesn’t keep us looking at it long enough for its message to reach us.

In May we examined line in its dual function of creating the shapes of appearances in a picture (the shape of a hand, a building) and of creating the picture’s forms.

We also saw how lines are forms in their own right. This month’s column is devoted to the function of digital photography in enhancing and strengthening those forms so that they do indeed hold the eye and so enable the picture to hold the soul.

Intricate Lines: Difficult Forms

Here is a photograph by the 19th-century English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. We saw it in February’s column as an example of the drawing of heads and hands. (Like most photographs reproduced in this series of articles, it can serve as an example of many things. For this reason, I will use many of the same pictures over and over again in these columns. In this way I also hope to make the point that a good photograph can show us excellent handling of a number of elements...And to support the claim, made early on in these columns, that the art of a photograph is not in the subject but in the photographers’ creation and handling of visual form.)

Venus Chiding Cupid and Removing His Wings, 1872

Here is a tracing whose purpose is to show how emphatically the principal images are conceived in relation to flat shapes on the surface and how intricately conceived the bottom passage is with respect to line. For clarity’s sake, I have figured the chief lines as dark strokes against a white ground. Also for the sake of clarity I haven’t traced the finer lines and more intricate patterns.

With the tracing as a guide, one can see in the original echoes of the bottom passage’s lines, etc., in wings, hair and other passages.

Here are two Paul Strand portraits from last month’s column, also traced to emphasize the difference between the broadly conceived forms of each figure and the intricate passage of lines to each picture’s right.

Notice that in each passage some of the thin lines in the tree’s branches or bark are rendered in so sketchy a way that they blend with lines in the walls to create lines that are neither those in the trees nor those in the wall: notice, in other words, the painterly nature of these passages. Notice, also, how in each case these fine, delicate and intricate lines are echoed by some lines in the subject’s hair and drapery.

Moreover, it is the forms and the structures in the two background passages above that complete the intensity begun with the description of, and emotions expressed by the foreground characters.

Consider, again, how the lines in Strand’s trees and walls echo and enhance details like the strands of each girl’s hair – enhance, that is, the singular shape of each girl’s head.

In the picture of the girl in the striped blouse, consider, also, how the lines in and around the tree enhance the delicate undulations in the blouse where her right arm meets the picture’s left edge and is changed by it. The movement in the stripes there is so fine, and so strongly an echo of the delicate lines and curves in both the tree bark and the wall, that it is almost certain that Strand framed his subject as he did in order to create this echo.

In other words, the passages whose lines I’ve emphasized in all three tracings are not just secondary passages, not just negative space, not just background, and the lines are not only information or only incidental details. They are forms, and as such require the same kind of specificity, the same kind of singularity, and the same definite, deliberate, emphatic handling as do the human subjects and their forms.

Now the Cameron picture is a contact print from a very large glass plate negative and the Strand portraits from 4x5 view camera negatives, hence these pictures’ extraordinarily clear rendition of the finest, thinnest, most delicate and most fugitive of Cameron’s sketchy lines and Strand’s precise ones.

Most of us work with small cameras whose resolution falls far short of that of both Cameron’s and Strand’s negatives. Yet all drawings—from the fine drawing with sharp, hard pencils, such as we have already seen in Ingres and Matisse

to works like Rembrandt’s ink drawing, with brush (below, l.) or Rubens’ with chalk and soft pencil (below, r.)

to the small (7x5 inch) near-abstract watercolor and ink Up the Alley (1938) by the American painter Arthur Dove (below, l.) to the entirely abstract medium-sized (17.5 x 22.5 inch) work in egg ink on paper, 30-12-57 by the American sculptor David Smith (below, r.)

are based on line.

Therefore the handling of line is as crucial to small camera photographers as it was to Cameron, Strand and other large camera photographers. It just takes a different kind of craft, based on an understanding of what small camera lenses and negatives can do.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, and Small Camera Line

It is well known that the young Henri Cartier-Bresson was an aspiring artist, with a passion for drawing, and studied painting formally with an important Cubist painter-teacher. It is also fairly well known that all his life he considered photography his minor art and hoped to be remembered for his drawings. When he began to photograph in the mid-1920s, he was inspired by the large camera work of the earlier French photographer Eugene Atget,

whose work shows a sensibility to and a handling of line similar to the Cameron and Strand pictures. But when the Leica camera was introduced in 1928, Cartier-Bresson immediately knew that 35mm photography was his medium.

His pictures of the 1930s reveal how significant line was to him and how clearly, immediately and stunningly he saw the world in terms of it.

Indeed, he coined the term “the decisive moment” to express that split second at which the geometry of the picture within his viewfinder—the composition of lines and shapes—was at its strongest and most perfect.

These same pictures also reveal how quickly he understood the nature of line as rendered by the small camera negative which is unable to achieve the large camera’s resolution of line and the gradation of tone that in part produces it.

He worked mostly with the 50mm, and sometimes with the 35 mm lens, almost always with slow film, and, therefore, with fairly wide apertures. In other words, he turned the limitations of his material and instrument--35mm film’s graininess, the small negative’s lack of resolution, and the wide aperture’s shallow depth of field--into the visual vocabulary of the sketch, and worked his lines accordingly.

As I hope the following pictures and their respective tracings will show, Cartier-Bresson built his pictures out of masses of lines. The contour lines of his figures not only define the shapes and forms of the figures themselves. They also create grounds against which myriad lines are figured and create a play of forms whose energy is responsible for much of the pictures’ respective impacts. In other words, for Cartier-Bresson a photograph is in part a complex set of figure/ground relationships in which a strong, and sometimes the chief element is line. This is often observable in his handling of clothes. No photographer of the 1930s had anything like his sensibility to whole costumes and the parts of a costume—e.g., the sides of a suit jacket, the sleeves of a dress-- as both a complicated form in its own right and the background against which a complicated passage of lines and forms is figured.

Some of the reproductions and tracings that follow are large so that the play within, and the compositions involving lines can be seen down to the finest I can draw given the limitations of pencil and the tracing paper’s opacity.

In the picture below the composition is so governed by line, and the action is so slight, that it is reasonable to say that the picture’s true subject is the composition in line itself. Indeed, the boy at the right is so drawn so flat, and is separated so distinctly from the scene by the bright line along his chest, that he seems more an object on the picture’s surface than a person in the pictured deep space. He seems more to be observing the picture, or even dreaming it, than to be acting in it. The little boy in the opposite corner is an indistinct figure of blurred lines. He is obviously moving, but is he escaping from the picture’s stillness, its perfection of line? Or being absorbed into it?

In the tracing below (and in many that follow) I haven’t indicated the finest lines, or even all the lines. My purpose here is to draw attention to the condition of the dark shape within the foreground wall, just to the left of the large figure of the boy. This wall is a singularly and strongly shaped ground against which the picture’s explosive passage of irregular lines is figured. It is like an aria of eighth, sixteenth and thirty-second notes, with many grace notes, sudden pauses, flights to high notes (in the pale lines) and descents to bass notes (in the darkest areas) coming after a long, methodically constructed introduction in quarter-to-dotted-whole notes, with significant rests.

It is the sharp contrast—the contention, even—between. on the one hand, the regular, parallel lines in the pavement and the long, precise lines along the of buildings and the edges of shadows, and, on the other hand, these short, energetic, sudden and surprising lines, each moving in its own direction and at its own speed, that accounts in large part for the picture’s drama, impact and, indeed, its mystery.

Cartier-Bresson’s sensibility to line was so acute and his handling of it so flexible that his variations on this drama of line, from picture to picture, are astonishingly wide-ranging.

For the picture below, from Spain, which we have seen in a previous column,

I have traced only the three figures. This is to draw attention to the development of line in the drapery. As the eye is led by the upward diagonal thrust (from bottom right toward top left) of arms, hands and heads. the lines in the drapery become progressively more numerous and complex. The development reaches its climax in the standing woman’s print dress, where drapery and flowers merge into in intricate, nervous pattern approaching the conditions of abstraction. This climax also provides the transition to the extremely dense, active and various background passages of regular and irregular lines. Thus the development of line in the figures unites the forms of the figures with the distinctly different forms of the building. This unification, via line, in turn blurs the difference between foreground and background. While the figures’ contour lines, then, design the frame, the relationships among all the lines bring foreground and background to the picture’s principle plane, where they create the composition, one of whose themes is a dialogue of forms, at once argument and duet. In the three figures, form says, “I am line.” In the background they say, “No, I am line.” But the composition, which in any picture has the last word, says “You both are right and the true statement is we are line, we are form.”

Similar dialogues, with different emphases—here on conflict, there on duet, but always resolved by composition--are created by foreground and background lines in the pictures reproduced below. Sometimes the drama is between precise lines and sketch ones, sometimes between passages of irregular, curved and undulating lines and passages of regular, straight and rigid ones, sometimes between passages dense with line and passages with few lines. The means by which Cartier-Bresson achieved this drama, and the number of instances of it, indicate that the drama itself was one of his major themes of the1930s.

The left-hand picture immediately above is also a good place to observe how Cartier-Bresson’s contour lines around a human figure sometimes develop momentarily into forms, enjoy a brief existence in the composition of shapes before dwindling into lines again and returning to the task of outlining the figure. It is this that in part gives the feeling of movement and of life to his pictures.

We saw this same aspect of drawing in Edward Weston’s nudes of Charis Wilson. Weston’s interest, there, was in sudden, bold, surprising and dramatic transitions—such things as the abrupt transformation of a slender line into a large sharp triangle. Cartier-Bresson’s interest was in subtle and brief transitions in which a line that is defining a shape becomes a shape in its own right and then returns to the task of outlining, as in the brothel scene, above, a knee, a shoe, even the tile on a floor.

Finally, in a picture like the one below, of two gypsies resting on a lawn whose grass is too short and too far away to be rendered as individual lines by a 35mm camera,

Cartier-Bresson’s sensibility to the possibilities of line in extended passages of varied tonal value was such that the picture’s drama is between the precise, fixed lines of the figures and drapery and the sketchy, indeterminate lines in the grass. My tracing indicates only possible lines. Other viewers might see entirely different ones. All are true because all the areas of darker grass are merely the elements of possible lines. Indeed, it is this visual potential—the visual impression, together with the feeling that the ground contains an infinity of possible lines—that gives this otherwise simple study of two reclining figures its richness and wonder. The two gypsies, so still in their repose, are seen against a world teeming with the energy of form coming into being again and again, each time in a different metamorphosis. Our two figures rest against a background of creation itself.

Andre Kertesz and 35mm Drawing

If Cartier-Bresson is a pioneer of 35mm photography, Andre Kertesz is its father. Cartier-Bresson, in fact, always acknowledged the influence of Kertez, calling him “my poetic well-spring.”

Kertesz began working with small cameras in his native Budapest in 1912, aged 18. Shortly after establishing himself in Paris in 1927, where he quickly became one of Europe’s leading photojournalists, he discovered the Leica and, with it, the potential of 35mm photography as a medium for making art.

Like Cartier-Bresson, he understood the nature of line in small camera photography. Unlike Cartier-Bresson, who used line to activate the interiors of his forms and the surfaces of his pictures, Kertesz, who saw the world in terms of large forms and their interplay, often used line for its beauty as the contours of things, and for its excellence in the design of his frames.

In February and May we read John Szarkowski’s comment on Kertesz’s love of the “play between pattern and deep space,” exampled by this well-known picture:

Here is one of Kertesz’ best known pictures, taken in Paris at roughly the same time as the picture above.

Here is the tracing:

Elements like the line of the table and the shadows of the fork tines and in the plate’s shadow, together with the lines created by the play of light and dark on the fork itself, reveal that Kertesz’s love of the tension between deep space and pattern on the surface was constant in his 1930s work. It informed intricate pictures like that of the steps in Montmartre, as well as simple pictures, like that of the fork on the plate, where the emphasis seems to be on design:

Whereas Cartier-Bresson used the lines within drapery to create a world of line within the shapes created by his human figures, Kertesz mostly used them to model the figure. In this way he gave his often flatly conceived human figures the impression (albeit sometimes slight) of volume. This impression of a solid object, in turn, contributes to the picture’s impression of deep space, against which Kertesz’ love of shape and pattern can play.

What Does All This Have to Do with Digital Printing?

In all the photographs above, by master photographers, I am interested in small to tiny details drawn, if you will, in a few strokes, or in small dark lines against even darker ground. Details like those I isolated in the Wegee pictures of April’s column:

Details comprised of lines that are difficult to capture, difficult to govern in ordinary wet darkroom printing, difficult to see in a print...But these are details which are not only very much there but which also contribute so strongly to the picture’s over-all impact and composition that without them the picture would be much less. In pictures where such lines abound, e.g. as in the Julia Margaret Cameron picture with its richly-lined bottom passage, or this picture by Cartier-Bresson

without each and every line being given optimum visibility, without each object – here, fingers, teeth, knuckles(in the one visible hand), wisps of smoke—being given optimum form the picture would be next to nothing.

I am interested in passages like those that occur at the right side of this Cartier-Bresson picture:

I don’t know what those things are to the woman’s right, but I do know that they are clear, definite forms--abstractions, if you will: remember, Cartier-Bresson trained his eye on Cubism. And I also know that at the same time that those forms create their semi-abstract vertical passage along the top of the picture’s right edge, in counter-point to the highly representative forms in the rest of the picture, they also participate in the picture’s illusion of realistic, deep space. Finally, I know that these forms are made up of lines.

Similarly, in the following pictures:

Just a few lines, shadings and gestures more than lines, create so specific an image as the detail above of a boy of about seven or eight, in motion, no less, and wearing a white sweater.

Just a few lines create the image of two women’s calves, two shoes, the seam in a nylon stocking, the edge of and the folds in a woman’s panties.

And here, just a few lines create the images of five small background figures, each boy different in mood, movement, gesture, feeling, from all the others.

If, as the evidence seems to indicate, photographs depend on the precise handling of even the smallest lines (in addition to that of tonal values, or light, or even shapes) the question then becomes, How can the small camera photographer enhance his/her handling of these details?

With respect to the taking of pictures the answer is simply to become progressively more aware of line in the subject. To photograph for the forms, in other words, just as in drawing itself we are told to look at and draw the forms, not the subject, the forms, not the outline, and so on.

With respect to printing, I propose that digital technology has given us not only a greater control over our forms than we’ve ever had but also a greater control than photographers have ever imagined.

In February’s column on figure groups we saw two of Carl Socolow’s pictures from his Mexican series. Here are two more pictures from the same series, printed with Photoshop from scanned 35mm negatives made with a Leica camera.

With Photoshop, Socolow was able to govern such things as the light on the bicycle wheel’s spokes, immediately above, making each spoke a variation on the theme of the light-struck line, and give each one a distinct place, a distinct piece of work, a distinct feeling, in the composition’s theme of bright light on surfaces, especially metal. In the night picture he was able to govern the lines in the various draperies. With this control over line, he enhanced the dance of forms throughout the picture.

Here are two photographs by the Ithaca, New York photographer Phillip Glaser, from an ongoing series about the people, places and celebrations of small community he lives in.

With Photoshop, Glaser enhanced and strengthened details whose handling is extremely difficult in a wet darkroom. In the picture on the left these details included the lines on the pumpkin and between the mother’s finger, the out of focus shapes in the wall and ceiling, right, and strands of both the boy’s and the mother’s hair. In the picture on the right he gave optimum visibility to lines in the drapery, the shapes of shadows and furniture and the shapes of, and the patterns within the bands in the rug.

Dealing thus specifically with lines, down to the smallest and thinnest ones, Socolow and Glaser strengthened the play between the representation of deep space and patterns and forms on the picture’s front most plane.

The Lesson from Tapestry: Appendix to June, and Looking Ahead to July

My sense that the forms of a photograph’s small, intricate details are as important as the major forms came from close examination of painting and drawing.

It was reinforced last December when I observed the critical review of the fall semester’s work by graduate students in a prestigious university photography program.

Like many ambitious photographers the world over, these students were making large prints—anywhere from 2 x 3 to 4 x 6 feet or larger.

In most cases the subject matter was well seen and strongly felt and the pictures were interesting.

However, most of these large works held the eye only when seen from a specific viewing distance somewhere between four and five feet.

Seen from closer up the imagery dissolved into chaos. When one stepped farther back the eye somehow couldn’t grasp the image. The scenes in the pictures—a series of landscapes, say, or portraits—seemed, to put it bluntly, to leak out the edges, to evaporate into thin air. This gave one a disturbing sensation that the pictures simply weren’t there.

In this month’s column I addresses myself to the problem of the visual chaos that resulted from looking at the pictures from up close. In July we will consider the problem of the whole picture.

My first thought was that both weaknesses in the student pictures had something to do with the fact that the surface of a photograph is uniform. Without paint on canvas, or even ink, pencil, charcoal, etc. on paper, there is no way forms can overlap, can be higher or lower than others, can have emphatic edges created by the thickness of paint or the pressure of a pencil.

For some reason, I thought immediately of tapestries. Tapestries, too, have uniform surfaces, the threads all being knotted at the same level. Also, as can be seen in these medieval miniatures, tapestries were large decorative objects, hanging on walls, that is, at the perimeter of one’s living and working space. They were obviously meant to be seen from a distance, even at a glance, during the ordinary course of everyday life. Because of this, I thought that perhaps their imagery, too, broke down when seen from close up.

But tapestries I looked at in the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few days later, and those I subsequently studied in reproductions in books showed quite the opposite. The closer one gets the more the large forms are seen to be made up of progressively smaller distinct singular forms.

A good example of this is the early 16th-century Italian tapestry reproduced below. It shows the preparation of a traditional winter feast. All the activity centers around the huge caldron in the middle. Notice the trough of small objects below the young man kneeling by the caldron, to its right.

Here is a detail showing part of that trough.

Each object in the trough has its own shape, color and modeling; each line separating one shape from another has its own length and thickness. In other words, every object and shadow is a singular form.

Here is a Crucifixion with a detail showing the blood on Christ’s side.

And here is a detail from a Deposition from the Cross showing the blood on Christ’s hand and arm.

Lines as fine and definitely formed as these, together with those in the drapery and background trees, give the impression (albeit false) that Renaissance tapestry makers considered form down to the individual thread. This can be seen in details of things like a tapestry’s ornamental border:

And so, as the evidence of tapestries reveals, even pictures with a uniform surface depend on the specificity and singularity of form down to the smallest details--as if the classic photographs reproduced above were not evidence enough. And the new pictures by Socolow and Glaser show that digital printing has opened up a new world of control over these very details.

Appendix 2: Additional Photographs about Line by Cartier-Bresson

Ben Lifson, who teaches the history, theory and practice of photography at the graduate and undergraduate levels at the University of Hartford (CT), also conducts private photography tutorials on three continents. For more information please visit his website, For information about the University of Hartford's photography programs, please visit the website

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