August 2005: Picture Construction With Reference to Digital Printing

The Frame, or The Functions of A Picture’s Edges

Part II: The Border

Our investigation of how digital printing can help our pictures hold the eye and soul of the observer now turns to all four edges of the frame—its border--considered as crucial elements of a picture’s structure.

As in previous columns, we will start with observable matters, simple visual forms within pictures. Later we will take up the more complex matter of the importance of structure to a picture’s very existence as a picture.

Also, as in May, June and July, we will focus on small-camera pictures and take our examples from the two great pioneers of 35mm photography, Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

We began our investigation of the bottom edge in photography with this photograph by Cartier-Bresson, together with its tracing.

If a similar tracing follows these forms along the other three edges, a border is revealed,

creating the frame within which the picture’s principal action and subject take place, and holding the imagery in.

In general, then, the forms along a picture’s four edges constitute a border-- a frame within the frame-- that not only participates in the composition but also contains the picture’s imagery. In this latter function the border helps distinguish the picture from the rest of the world—a room, an art gallery, a museum—in which the picture resides.

The Lesson from Tapestry, 3

At the university photography department in December (see “Making Pictures,” May, June, July), it was, in part, the lack of borders in some graduate students’ large pictures that gave me the feeling that the pictures were, to put it bluntly (albeit unflatteringly), leaking out the sides.

And once again it was tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, later, in books, that strengthened my understanding of the importance of borders to the coherence of a picture.

But it was not only ornamental borders like the one in the tapestry illustrated below that brought borders into focus for me. It was also the forms just inside the ornamental border, which are, for the tapestry below, roughly as shown in the tracing.

A survey of painting from the 15th century to the present would show borders in the most ancient pictures and bas reliefs in the art of all cultures. It would also show an historical development of borders similar to the development of the bottom passage that was given in last month’s column.

The examples below focus on works by some of the most innovative artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The use of this one pictorial element by some of the most revolutionary modern artists is an argument that this ancient device is not just a traditional but an essential property of pictures.

The paintings below are also chosen to illustrate the great variety in this one structural element. For example, in the Winslow Homer painting, below, left, the border is in large part a series of subtle shifts in tonal value and a few lines. However, in the John Singer Sargent painting, below, right, the border is a dramatic clash among the aggressive forms along the top, right and bottom edges and the subtle fugitive forms in the paneling along the left edge.

As the paintings, below, by Vincent Van Gogh (left) and Paul Gauguin (right), show, there is no predicting how a border can be formed.

Below, paintings by Henri Rousseau (left) and Edouard Vuillard (right).

Here is a reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s revolutionary painting of 1907, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,

which ushered in Cubism,

And here a reproduction of a late Picasso painting based on an early 19th century painting by Eugene Delacroix:

An interesting case in point is the late 19th century painter Georges Seurat. His intense interest in, and fascination with borders is seen in his earliest drawings and oil paintings.

It stayed active during his invention of Pointillism, as in oil sketches, below

which are studies for this famous painting of models in his studio.

In his late landscapes, his borders become more prominent.

Indeed, in some late works the border within the image is itself a painted image of a picture frame.

Borders in Cartier-Bresson

Like his bottom edges, Cartier-Bresson’s borders are built out of fragments: of foreground figures and objects, of background walls, windows and other architectural detail, including discoloration and/or shadows on a building’s surface.

As we noted above, the border is also a frame-within-the-frame. Its shape varies extremely from picture to picture. Compare the shape of the border, above, to that of the one below:

Consequently, the shapes of the area the frame contains—that is, the shape of the major picture area contained by the border--vary dramatically from picture to picture as well. This can be seen by comparing the un-shaded areas of the two tracings above and the two below.

The drama, the impact--the sense of life, in fact—that flows through and leaps from Cartier-Bresson’s photograph stems in large part from the dramatic contentions among 1) the forms of his borders themselves, 2) the shapes of the internal frames they create, 3) the regular shape of the 35mm rectangle itself, and 4) the regular geometry of horizontal, vertical and diagonal axes within the rectangle.

True, in the photograph of the man and boy at the barriers of a Spanish bullfight ring, the figures' heads are almost along the picture’s horizontal axis and refer strongly to it. But the internal frame, as seen in the tracing, has no relationship to the horizontal axis. Therefore, the picture has none of the symmetry that would obtain if the horizontal axis really did divide the frame into two equal rectangles. Similarly, the border of the second picture creates an internal frame that works against the placement of the two heads along the lower-left to upper-right horizontal axis.

In previous columns I have asserted that the photographer’s task is not to put four edges around reality; that his task really is to fill an empty rectangle with forms; and that the action of these forms accounts for much of the feeling we get from the picture.

These strong assertions go against the grain of much conventional thought.

Among the forms referred to by these assertions are: the individual small forms that make up a borders; the shape of a borders itself; and the shape of the internal picture area that the border imposes upon the rectangle and within which the major imagery takes place.

Consider, for example, the picture, below, of a sleeping drunk on New York’s Bowery, above a dark stain of what looks like some liquid that has recently flowed down the sidewalk. Is it wine? Water? Urine? We don’t stop to ask. The stain is so dramatically stark and violent that the first impression it gives is of blood.

This dramatic impression of something violent having happened comes from the simple fact (as the tracing indicates) that the geometry and forms of the whole picture, including the human figure, make up the border to the area with the stain. The stain is the subject; everything else is the frame.

In other words, Cartier-Bresson didn’t put four edges around the stain. He put forms –fragments -- of sidewalk, doorways, windows, a poster and a sleeping man (whose right shoulder does not touch the stain) all around that crazy, dark and rapidly descending form of the stain. He isolated the stain, with its angularity, its sharp syncopations, its sudden stops and starts, from the rest of the scene so that we can follow—feel rather than follow—its crazy path all the way down the sidewalk to where it joins the picture’s bottom edge, which abruptly stops the flow and holds the image of the stain, and, hence, the whole picture up.

In Cartier-Bresson’s great period, the frames that holds his subjects in are not the four sides of the rectangle (the four edges within the viewfinder, the four sides of the negative). They are the borders he created within the viewfinder, out of forms within the subject itself.

In pictures like this, the frame doesn’t hold the subject. The subject creates the frame.

But in Cartier-Bresson’s magic, it is also the frame that, reciprocally, creates the subject.

Below is one of his most celebrated photographs of the 1930s. With respect to content (to its nominal subject matter) it is also one of his most mysterious: What is that man doing among that crowd of boys? What, for that matter, are those boys doing? What kind of building has windows of so many different sizes, in such a crazy arrangement? Where, for that matter, is this empty lot? What has brought everyone to it?

This seemingly endless mystery is part of the picture’s strong enchantment. But only part. And not the largest part either. The great enchantment is visual. If we consider just the borders it is not difficult to see that magic at work.

We begin with the bottom edge, as above.

Obvious enough are both the strangeness of it and the magical event of so few, slender and delicate forms supporting all that weight, all those forms, all that light, all that craziness.

But watch what happens when we begin to consider the border, asking: where does it end?

Is it only in enclosed forms one of whose sides (or a point) is contiguous with the picture’s edge?

Or is as below? In forms discerned by defining the border somewhat more loosely, but not without justification:

If the latter, we realize that the subject of this picture is neither the man nor the boys nor the light nor the empty space. The subject is the windows:

But of course, the windows are only one subject. The boys, the man, that sliver of sky and that inexplicable arc are the other one. The picture’s poetic content likes in the counterpoint between the crazy mystery of the windows and the sinister mystery of the boys and man. The one frames, if you will, the other. The relationship shifts back and forth continuously. Now we are in one realm with one kind of mystery and wildness, now in the other with another kind. The frame, the borders, the edges, hold them both in perfect balance but do not resolve them. Our feelings are disturbed but our senses are comforted by the perfect relationships among the forms.

Borders in Andre Kertesz

Andre Kertesz’ borders are full of play.

True, Kertesz could use them as Cartier-Bresson did, to enclose his subject and to create an internal frame that carved out a surprising stage for his principle action or scene. But even then, playfulness governs the forms he creates along the edges:

What an extraordinary frame he carved out for a still life in the Paris apartment of his friend the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and for a staircase and banister just outside the door:

But in the (by now familiar) picture below, how discreet and delicate is the border around the picture’s true subject! How vast and elaborate is the network of lines contained within this border! The lines need all that space in which to dance their dance so that we can feel it.

Yet the border does its own dance, in light counterpoint, enhancing the major subject’s elaborate nature.

In the picture below, whereas the border seems to participate in the angular geometry within the frame it creates, we see that it in fact sharply skews the frame, throws the whole situation off balance. It’s a frame that threatens to topple over on its side.

Against this sharp left-ward thrust the angular geometry of light and shade and line and within the border stabilizes things. Astonishing! To find the extreme syncopation within the frame the stabilizing element.

The profundity of Kertesz’ play can be seen in the Eiffel Tower picture below. It, too, partakes of Cartier-Bresson’s sense of the enclosing frame made up of definitely formed fragments. And what an extraordinary massive and ornate frame the Eiffel Tower indeed makes for the delicate action of the tiny figures, their shadows, the shadow of the Tower itself, and the light—so much light!—in the picture below:

But when we see that this shape, above, is the shape of the frame within which the principle action takes place, and that that action is what occurs when the world within the strangely shaped internal frame comes to a perfect stillness and order, we see something entirely different from the drama and Surrealistic surprise that result from Cartier-Bresson’s borders.

Because of Kertesz’ frame, this picture’s subject is light and shadows as they fall on surfaces. The subject, in other words, has neither weight nor solidity. And, as the tiny figures merge with their shadows, as streets dissolve into pure light, the whole world loses its solidity, shimmers into weightlessness and atmosphere. Order, yes, but only partly of this world.

Kertesz used his edges and his borders (with their delicacy and their openness to light and air) to blur the boundaries between solid reality and the shimmering world of daydream—a world that touches on those of the trance, the fairy tale, and children’s fantasy games in which the world becomes what the children call it.

In the tracings of the still life and street scenes, below, I’ve shaded what I think is border. However, in the prints, the distinction is not so clear.

In Kertesz’ pictures edges and image, border and subject, tend to flow into each other. This occurs no more magically, I think, than in this justly celebrated photograph from Paris:

Objects and atmosphere, space and volume, volume and flatness, imagery and reality, the data of the senses and the constructions of perception, what is and what is not, waking reality and the world of dreams—the world itself, and art itself—flow into each other across boundaries at once obvious and porous.

True, chance played an enormous role here in bringing only one man and one woman—and he so anonymous, she so somber—into proximity with the poster for an androgynous entertainer named Georges/Georgette. True, chance also had it that it was the man who was faceless, so that he becomes an almost schematic figure, beneath the entirely schematic Dubonnet man. And true, chance had it that it was the woman whose face is seen next to the obviously feminine face of Georges/Georgette. In other words, the subject was indeed poetic.

But it was Kertesz who saw this event also in terms of a poetry of forms –a poetry whose implications go far beyond the coincidence I’ve just described. And the border has a great deal to do with the nature of the poem he made.

Why Is This Important?

To answer this poetically first I cite a celebrated short poem, “The Anecdote of the Jar,” by the important 20th-century American poet Wallace Stevens:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Pictures are not reproductions of reality. They are made things put into reality and have an effect on reality and on ourselves. This is true even of photographs, despite their apparent fidelity to appearances. Pictures, even photographs, are visual constructions.

If pictures are to hold the eye of the observer at the beginning of the process by which they eventually come to hold his or her soul, they must identify themselves as pictures—stand out as part of a separate order of things from the things and beings in their surroundings. They must distinguish themselves, as fixed constructions, from the fluid and constantly changing reality in which they reside. Unless they do this they cannot distinguish the imaginary worlds they represent from the world around them so as to disclose the poetic truths about existence that are the aims of all art.

They must, in other words, stand out against their surroundings as Wallace Stevens’ jar stands out against the “slovenly wilderness”. If they don’t do this, they cannot disclose their poetry—what is a “port in air” if not a poetic image for the way the form of the jar against the sky suddenly opens onto visions of form itself? And if they don’t do this, the surroundings cannot become “no longer wild”; in other words, reality cannot disclose its forms by virtue of their resonance with, their connection to, the forms of art. Neither can the poetic truths of reality, of, say, human existence, reveal themselves by virtue of their resonance with, their connection to, the imaginative reality within the picture.

This is particularly crucial in the case of photographs, whose imagery seems so faithful to appearances. More than any other kind of picture, photographs seem part of the reality they represent and of the reality in which they are seen.

It is this apparent closeness to reality, I think, that led Gertrude Stein to write that the difference between photography and painting is that “painting looks like something and photography does not.”

The passage is in her 1937 book Everybody’s Autobiography. She doesn’t say what photographs she saw in the few years covered by her book, or what, in 1937, she meant by “photography”. But if by “photography” she meant run-of-the-mill photojournalism, glamour photographs, travel posters, photographs of authors on book jackets, and the photography of art and fashion magazines, much of which is made to look like transparent windows onto the world, or to flow easily into the page, or, like, say, today’s travel photography and the pictures in National Geographic, to have empty places in them that can receive text, she was right. These photographs, lacking elements of construction that set them off from either the world or the page, don’t look “like something.”

Consider this picture by Andre Kertesz.

True, some of its forms imitate and/or represent appearances. Long curved lines along the right edge represent railroad tracks; short parallel diagonal lines on either side of them represent railroad ties. The play of darks and lights along all these lines imitates, if you will, the play of light and shadow on the surfaces of metal, wood and, between the ties, earth. But they do not reproduce these things.

What we see here is not a Poughkeepsie railroad station platform. The platform we think we see in the picture did not exist before Kertesz printed this picture. Although one can go there today and still stand where Kertesz stood and look down along the same staircase at the same tracks, the platform of this picture exists nowhere but in the picture.

Nature—here the platform, canopy, tracks and the waiting passengers of the station...Nature does not draw four edges around anything or make compositions. The frame of this picture is a man-made thing—a rectangle whose 2:3 proportions were determined by the camera’s manufacturer. It was Kertesz who determined which objects will be inside it, which outside.

But these objects are really images of things. They are also forms that the photographer has abstracted with his lens from the appearances of real things. He has filled his empty rectangle with them in such a way that they create a composition the contemplation of which fills the viewer with feelings. And it is a combination of this composition, the relationship and movement of forms within it and the feelings we derive from it that makes looking at the picture an experience analogous to, but not identical with, the experience of looking down at a provincial railroad station platform and seeing an amazing chance relationship of men and women in a crazy geometric pattern of light, shadow, lines, shapes and, we imagine, the intense heat and cool shadows of a bright hot summer day in the countryside.

Following Wallace Stevens, we can say that the photograph is gray and, although not bare, it certainly does not give of sun or shade, or waiting, or companionship, or solitude, or man or woman. Like nothing else in Poughkeepsie – or in the room, or around the book, or near the monitor where we see it—it does not give of life. Yet because it is so full of its own visual poetry and because that poetry gives us feelings analogous to those we experience in life, the picture gives meaning and freshness to life itself, just as Stevens’ jar gives order to the wilderness.

Borders are as crucial to a photograph’s being a picture that is separate from reality as the form and color of Wallace Steven’s jar is to the jar’s being and doing everything Stevens claims for it in the poem.

Borders hold the imagery of a picture in. They complete the composition. Thus they distinguish the picture from the rest of the world—a room, an art gallery, a museum—in which the picture resides.

As we said in July about bottom edges only, borders are especially important to photographs. Because photographs seem to reproduce appearances so faithfully they, more than paintings or drawings, seem to be part of the “slovenly wilderness” of the world in which they reside. When the border of a photograph helps isolate the picture from the world around it, it also helps emphasize the difference between the picture’s structure and the un-structured world. With borders that do their work, photographs stand a better chance of looking, in Gertrude Stein’s words, “like something”—like nothing else in Tennessee.

What Can We Learn from Kertesz’ and Cartier-Bresson’s Borders?

That although borders have probably been in pictures ever since pictures began, their variety is infinite.

That every border is an individual creation by an individual artist according to his/her sense of form, of style, of music, of poetry, of meaning, of the world, of life, of being, of existence itself.

That there are no rules about the way borders look or how they are used.

That borders are necessary to your pictures if your pictures are to be pictures.

That even if you make pictures without them--a difficult but not impossible task-- you will be making pictures in reference to them; in other words, they will be felt if not seen.

That your borders, when you find them, will be yours and nobody else’s. They will do your work and nobody else’s. And they’re there for you to discover because they’re part of your over-all sense of form.

What Does Digital Printing Have to Do with All This?

Simply this:

As with drawing, as seen in June’s column, digital printing simply gives photographers more control than ever before over the forms and lines at the pictures edges.

Simply that. But the possibilities are endless.

Ben Lifson also conducts private photography tutorials with photographers on three continents.
For information please visit his website,

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