February 2005:
Photography as Drawing

Photographing People 2:
Specificity and The Figure Group

1. The Figure Group: A Brief Introduction

Photographers of people are confronted everywhere by the figure group. Good photographers are conscious of this fact and deal with it.

Here are three pictures from January’s column, made by good photographers who dealt with it both consciously and inventively. The rough tracing with each picture is to show this inventiveness as seen in A) the strong, singular and striking form of the picture’s group, and B) the placement of that form within the frame.

When we’re photographing anything from a family gathering to strangers in a public place, we are constantly confronted with the task of making figure groups. Not being conscious of this is one thing that weakens our pictures and keeps our work from progressing.

2. Making Pictures: A Belated Introduction, Part 1

Here is a picture by Andre Kertesz, from John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs (Museum of Modern Art, 1973):

Kertesz, says Szarkowski “loved the play between pattern and deep space....In [this picture] half of the lines converge toward a vanishing point in deep space; the other half knit the image together in a pattern as shallow as a spider web, in which the pedestrian dangles like a fly.”

When they succeed, all photographs that represent appearances succeed because of a specific, unique and sustained play between, on the one hand, the illusion of people and things – of solid bodies, of volumes –in deep space, and, on the other hand, patterns on the picture’s surface.

In some, deep space can threaten to overwhelm pattern, in others, pattern to overwhelm space, but the contention is never won by either, it is always in play.

Moreover, these patterns Szarkowski refers to are made up of forms –lines and shapes--which are held together in compositions, which compositions are themselves also forms.

In any picture that represents appearances, no matter how faithful the representation or how strongly we feel about the subject—about, in the Kertesz picture here, trees, shadows, Montmartre, or women walking (Flaubert called “a woman dancing” one of “nature’s masterpieces”)–what moves us is a form: a composition of flat forms on a flat surface within a rectangle.

The Italian architect, painter, and writer Leon Battista Alberti referred to this fact when he wrote (1434) that a picture must “hold the eye and soul of the observer,” and wrote “eye” first.

The English painter John Constable was acknowledging it when, lecturing in London (1833) he warned his audience against confusing “the subject with the art.”

And in 1982 Garry Winogrand was certainly warning this writer against confusing interpretation, which is in the writer’s mind, with the art, which is in the forms of a picture, when he said, concerning a photograph then on exhibition in New York, and about which he and I were disagreeing, “Wait a minute. You’re talking about meaning. I want to talk about the picture.”

3. Pictorial Interlude

Figure groups have appeared prominently and strongly in art at least since the artists who decorated the walls of the caves of Lascaux, France, 10-15,000 years ago made them out of the figures of animals:

Here is one of two women, painted on an Egyptian wall around 1360 B.C.

Every Madonna and Child, from the early Renaissance through Mannerism and beyond, is built around one,

Duccio was a master of them (L), as was Giotto (R).

They fill the Renaissance, in Italy,

in Germany and in the Netherlands,

They are everywhere in the Baroque era,

The eighteenth century,

and the nineteenth.

Hardly any modern artist, no matter how revolutionary or how radical, has neglected them,

And they have charged photography with form and feeling from the very beginning into our era.

They are, in fact, everywhere you look.

4. Making Pictures: A Belated Introduction, Part 2

I assume that every Raw Work Flow reader has his or her stories to tell. We all have them, and we’ve had some of them since we were very young.

Also, I believe that it is not the place of any writer to tell you how to tell your stories. If you tell them any way but your own they won’t be yours any more.

If follows that the only legitimate concern of a column called Making Pictures is with the elements of form that a photographer must master and employ in his/her own way in order to tell his/her own story – to tell, as the photographer Leo Rubinfien put it, “your truth.”

“If you tell your truth,” Rubinfein said, “your pictures will move us, and last.”

5. Specificity and the Figure Group.

In January I said that our photographs of people will contain strong moving characters to the degree that, drawing our living subjects with the lens, we transform them into strong figures considered as forms in pictures.

The same is true for groups of people. The form we give to a group of people watching a street performer, to a group of sunbathers in the park or on a beach, to spectators around us at an athletic event, to our families opening Christmas presents–to any group that moves us because of who they are, or what they are doing, or because of the event they are part of...The form we give the group when we draw it with a lens and place it in our frame can make the difference between a photograph that moves anyone because it tells our story, and one that falls flat and, later on, fails to move even ourselves.

In the Tim Gidal, Ilse Bing and Hill and Adamson photographs above,

consider, as we did in January, the specificity of each figure within the group – the variations, as we called them, on various motifs, including the motif of human figure itself and those of heads, hands, limbs, and articles of clothing. Each group, with its specific, unique and strong outside form, contains equally specific, unique and strong internal forms. Because of these internal forms, the group’s individual figures strike us as unique and strong characters, or personalities. And so in each work the figure group, with its charged form, has in turn charged the picture with the illusion of affecting, memorable living human beings.

These three pictures are reports by photographers who consciously chronicled their times. Gidal and Bing were working photojournalists, The successful Edinburgh academic painter David O. Hill became an innovative photographer because he felt compelled to capture Edinburgh as it was changing, for which purpose he learned photography and went into collaboration with the engineer-turned-photographer Robert Adamson.

Hill and Adamson’s characters, here, are mid-19th century Edinburgh businessmen; Tim Gidal’s, late afternoon drinkers in a Munich beer hall, 1931; Bing’s are dancers at Montmartre’s Moulin Rouge, also in 1931. Long after the troubled and often violent worlds of these three pictures’ historical eras have become truly ancient history, the pictures themselves, by virtue of their forms, will strike viewers as Bing’s picture struck a 1931 Parisian critic: “Mystery and reality, and, above all, something new.”

When your figure groups begin to achieve this kind of specificity with respect both to the form of the group itself and to the forms of the figures within it, your pictures will begin to express your world, that is, the mystery and reality of how you lived, experienced, felt and imagined our common world during this specific historical time – even if your pictures, like Bing’s here, only alludes to history. If it tells your story, so defined, it will also tell of what Flannery O’Connor called “the actual mystery of our position on this earth.” When told clearly and strongly by a unique voice, this is news that stays news.

6. The Obvious and Not-So Obvious.

Not every picture of two or more people contains a figure group.

Here are two recent pictures by the Harrisburg, PA photographer Carl Socolow, part of his work-in-progress, a study of the northern Mexican village of Mata Ortiz.

Although the three girls running through the park in the picture on the left are clearly a group of friends, the picture has three individual figures but no figure group. The picture on the right, of six people in a Mata Ortiz kitchen, has three figure groups, each of which contributes importantly to the picture’s visual and dramatic structure and helps create its social space. Together with the light, they also establish its emotional theme.

The figures in a group can be physically connected, as in this well known picture by Henri Cartier-Bresson,

or they can be distant from each other in reality and connected only visually. either because their contours touch, as in this radical figure group by the Japanese wood-block printer Utamaro (1754-1806), in which only the contour line of a cheek, tangentially and briefly touching that of a shoulder, unites the standing woman with her reclining companion a few feet behind her.

A group uniting foreground and background figures is also formed when one figure overlap another, as the head of Utamaro’s standing woman overlaps the image of the woman several feet behind her, within the building--a figure whom Utamaro has pictured against a screen as a faint, ghostly image.

A more radical version of Utamaro’s group occurs in this 1965 picture by Garry Winogrand, in which a only the thinnest of lines—a few strands of hair!—turn a group of three into one of five (two of its figures being as out of focus as Utamaro’s third woman is faint) to create a visual poem on the natural history of the body and desire.

One sees groups made up of distant figures throughout photography:

These pictures by Alfred Stieglitz (left) and Walker Evans (right) show us that a figure group can be made entirely out of shadows, or out of real figures and shadows,

and this picture by Charles Negre’s 200-print survey of the South of France (mid-1850s) shows that a group can be made out of trees separated by tens and, in the case of one tree, hundreds of yards of space.

7. Some of the Work Figure Groups Do in Pictures

As can be seen in the reproductions of Part 6, in the hands of skilled makers, a figure group made out of unconnected near and far characters in the deep space of the picture creates a form, on the first plane of the picture, thus contributing to what John Szarkowski called (above) the “play between pattern and deep space.”

Considered as a form on the surface the figure group does a wide range of other visual work, not the least of which is the structuring of the frame. In this picture by Helen Levitt, taken on the streets of East Harlem in the 1940s,

consider the angular figure group of seven boys. Its explosive force lifts a commonplace event into the realm of high drama. The group also structures both the space of the picture (form) and the space it represents (a Harlem street corner) into an imaginary space containing a number of variously shaped events both human (the boys’ actions) and visual (all the forms, including those of the empty street, as powerful in its emptiness as the group is in its fullness). Moreover, as a consequence of the way Levitt placed the group within her frame, the boys seem to support not only the picture but also the whole of this East Harlem intersection.

The result is a group of children, their actions, and a street corner, none of which existed anywhere until Levitt, with her lens and following her feelings and imaginative vision, drew the forms we see, structured her frame, and created the picture’s extraordinary form and fiction of this extraordinary street corner which exists now only in this picture’s structure, its resulting forms, and the composition that holds them.

Moreover, the thin band of sidewalk on the far side of the intersection that decorates the frame as it forms its top border contains four and possibly five small figure groups. These, in turn, help syncopate the decoration’s rhythm. To do this with any group of distant details shoved up against the top edge of your picture requires considerable skill. Levitt’s ability to see and perform it with small, incidental versions of her picture’s principle form is one thing that makes her one of the twentieth century’s masters of the figure group in any visual medium. (Future columns will be addressed to the themes of borders and decoration.)

Elsewhere in Levitt’s work we see how a simple figure group of two people, conceived as a form on the picture’s first plane,

can contribute to the overall emotional mood or impact of the picture: here, to its disquieting effect: an impression of forces at play beyond the knowledge or control of the characters, together with comedy and visual strangeness.

And in this tour-de-force of figure group construction, the two groups are the drum roll leading to the climax of the boy on the tricycle and the punctuating cymbal clash of the elderly lady strolling down the street in her crazy outfit.

Photographs from Garry Winogrand’s The Animals shows us how the figure group assists in the design of the frame:

and, like the Winogrand picture of Part 6, create a poetry beyond the picture’s literal content:

In January’s column we considered this picture by Paul Strand,

and observed its variations on the individual figure. Compared with many such variations within the figure groups reproduced here, Strand’s are subtle. It is the variation of the two figure groups with each other and with the form of the single figure on the right:

together with the facts that each figure group is a variation on the form of the man with the bicycle,

and that within the group of three, there are two groups, each of which is also a variation on the same form

(the right side being a variation of the form in mirror image)

that dramatizes the theme of the various emotions within this family of a mother and five sons. The theme is only begun in the faces. It is continued in the subtle variations on the human figure but it is only dramatized by this play, on the surface, of these figure-group forms with each other. It is completed via the play of these forms with the forms on the pictured surface of the building.

I think we must also bear in mind the fact that at least part of the time when Strand was composing this picture on his view camera’s ground glass he saw it like this:

Was he also sometimes seeing this?

8. Looking Ahead

We have looked only briefly at only one element of pictorial form. Nonetheless, what we’ve seen is enough to suggest, at least to this writer, that taking a picture has very little to do with selecting a subject out of the plenitude of reality, placing four edges around it , and capturing a piece of time and space. Even this brief examination of one small thing suggests that what photographers really do, physically, at least, is to start with emptiness. Just as the writer starts with an empty page, the choreographer with an empty stage, the painter with an empty canvas, the photographer starts with an empty frame. What he does is to fill it with forms that create a composition – forms drawn by the lens from the appearances in the real world in front of him.

This proposition has informed this column so far and will inform it into the foreseeable future.

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

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