July 2005: Picture Construction With Reference to Digital Printing

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

Part I: The Bottom Edge

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

This month’s emphasis is on the bottom edge. We will start with concrete, practical matters, with an emphasis on the nature and function of bottom edges as observable in specific pictures. Toward the end of the column we will discuss the importance of structure to a picture’s very existence as a picture.

As in May, we will focus on pictures made with small cameras. And again, we will take our examples from the two great pioneers of 35mm photography, Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

We began our investigation of line with this photograph by Cartier-Bresson.

The tracing, below, emphasizes the bottom edge rigorously conceived as a series of closed shapes whose bottoms or points are contiguous with the bottom edge of the picture. (To emphasize Cartier-Bresson’s use of and love for line, I have disregarded picture’s the various shades of gray.)

By forming a strong horizontal passage at the bottom of the picture, this series of triangles and irregular geometric shapes supports the criss-crossing network of curved and spiraling lines and diagonals that go off in contradictory directions. But it also functions as a foundation in the sense of giving the picture stability. Starting from a rough center just to the right of the bicyclist, the picture has a centrifugal thrust along the diverging diagonals and expanding spiral. The picture’s energy is toward the top and side edges. However, as the tracing below shows,

the strong diagonals on either side of the bottom passage, together with slightly weaker ones toward the center, imply vanishing points beyond the picture’s bottom edge. Thus they provide a counter-balancing downward force.

But the forms along the bottom also create a strong horizontal passage of shapes wedged tightly into each other. Many of them are triangles, some with steep sides, some with jagged ones, and all pointing strongly up into the frame. Thus the passage closes and contains the image at the bottom of the frame. The picture is solid.

The Lesson from Tapestry, 2

I had been thinking about bottom edges for a long time, with respect to photographs generally, my students’ photographs and my own. But my interest in them was enhanced by my December’s experience, recounted in last month’s column, of observing very large pictures (2x3 feet to 4x6 feet and larger) by graduate students in a prestigious photography program.

These pictures, I said, were coherent images only when seen from a specific viewing distance somewhere between four and five feet. Seen from farther away, the images didn’t seem to be contained by the edges of their respective pictures. This gave one the disturbing sensation that the pictures weren’t there.

At first I thought that perhaps this weakness was a property of very large pictures with a uniform surface. To test this theory I looked at tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tapestries, after all, have uniform surfaces (all knots at the same level). Also, as can be seen in the backgrounds of these medieval miniatures,

they were meant to be seen from a distance. But the museum’s tapestries were coherent from as far away as one could get.

Like the Cartier-Bresson photograph, the tapestries in the museum and those in book reproductions I saw later, had strong bottom passages. And like the bottom passage in the Cartier-Bresson photograph above, the bottom passages in tapestries hold the image in.

Here, in a scan from a reproduction in a Metropolitan Museum of Art catalog, is an early 16th-century tapestry, one of nine representing the various stages of a unicorn hunt.

Here is a scan of the catalog’s detail of the bottom right corner.

In the tracing, below, I have emphasized the plant forms in order to draw attention to the fact that they are, roughly, triangles, inverted triangles and diamond-like shapes —as indicated by the one plant form I’ve outlined in red, in the top left corner.

Below, for emphasis, is a two-color tracing with more of the triangular forms roughly outlined in red.

Seen more schematically and, perhaps abstractly, the whole bottom passage of plant forms and the dark green forms of the earth between them can be understood as a horizontal band of interlocking triangles, as is roughly indicated in this tracing:

In the image of the hunt itself, the astonishing figure group of nine men, eight dogs and the unicorn (the form that determines the space of the whole scene)

rests on six points of contact between the figure group and this bottom passage which is as solid and strong as a fieldstone wall.

Bottom Edges in Art: A Brief Survey

Bottom passages have been supporting imagery and pictures at least since ancient Egypt and Greece, where they are part of the painted or sculpted border or frame:

We see strong bottom edges in Greek vases and Roman sarcophagi (in which the low relief functions both as sculpture and as picture),

in 11th-century tapestries and 12th-century sculpture,

and in early Renaissance painting.

Later Italian Renaissance painters painted ledges at the bottoms of their paintings in order to hold the imagery up:

Later still, the ledge underwent a metamorphosis and appeared in paintings as a detail of the pictured scene. In the Fillipino Lippi triptych, below (recently exhibited, on loan, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) the ledge is an architectural detail.

In the two nudes below, by Giorgione (r) and Titian (l,) the supporting horizontal passage is a detail of the décor: the drapery (and, in Titian, the bed) upon which the figure lies.

In the painting, below, by Piero della Francesca (also recently exhibited on loan at the Metropolitan Museum), the shadow falling across the bottom of the throne is darker than the picture’s other shadows and strangely unlike the left-most figure whose shadow it is. It seems painted expressly in order to intensify the forms along the bottom edge both of the throne and of the painting itself.

One can follow the development of the bottom passage as a structural element in painting into the present, but we will stop with four examples from the 19th century. In them we can see the beginnings of this century’s great variety of ways with this one pictorial element, and pave the way for our examination of it in early 20th-century photography.

Immediately below we can see Courbet (l) and Manet (r.) challenging themselves with a classic construction of the bottom edge as seen in the Giorgione and Titian nudes above.

In Winslow Homer’s painting, below, the bottom passage is subtle, a matter of a few lines and some changes in tonal value:

In the Thomas Eakins painting , below, the bottom edge invades the image and would overwhelm it were it not for the horizon’s functioning as a top edge containing the image of the man and boat:

Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz

As is consistent with his emphasis on line, Cartier-Bresson often built his bottom edges out of strongly outlined fragments of objects within the scene.

As we saw, in the picture above, these were fragments of the steps, railings, walls and stains on the walls. In the photograph below the major fragments are of garments, the minor ones of wall and shadow, and most are outlined by the contours of body parts. The shallow curve formed by the tops of all these fragments cups the rest of the picture, like the palm of a hand holding a bowl.

In the picture below, taken in a Spanish brothel, Cartier-Bresson makes his bottom edge out of floor tiles and the shadow a woman’s body casts on them:

Similarly, in the picture below, the bottom edge is built out of fragments of sidewalk panels, together with faint shadows and stains in concrete and stone. (The shading in my tracing here and in tracings to follow are to emphasize the shapes that form the bottom edge so as to distinguish them from the rest of the picture area.)

In the next picture, body parts, shadows, drapery (too dark to be seen here but obvious in June’s reproduction) and sidewalk details form the foundation.

Consistent with this picture’s over-all dream-like nature, the foundation is slight, and based on shapes far apart from each other. Like the events of dreams, it is disjunctive and the connections between its instances are fugitive. However, the slight triangle at the center (formed by the shadow at the base of the building, together with diagonal lines in the pavement), the pyramidal form of the boy at the left, and the many triangles in the drapery, right, provide an upward thrust that counterbalances the downward one of the picture’s sharply etched inverted triangles. Thus the bottom edge supports the principal imagery.

In the picture below, taken in a bullring in Spain, the fragmented details in the barriers and shadows are another version of Cartier-Bresson’s interest in having small forms support a picture that is otherwise built out of strong forms—strong forms, moreover that appear to dominate the field and sweep toward its edges. And like the forms at the bottom of the picture immediately above, these small forms at the bottom of the barrier contribute to the dream-like nature of the out-of-focus boy in the background. By giving his form support they enhance the picture’s impression that he is suspended in the shadows, or – improbably, surrealistically—caught between two barriers some ten or fifteen feet distant from each other.

Although Cartier-Bresson’s method is consistent the effects he achieved with it are various. In the following picture the effect is in part musical.

Fragments of street, costume, shadow and the shoe of the shadowy figure on the right add a strange and almost violent syncopation to the slow curved staccato passage of small forms around the right of the central figure and to the slower vertical passage of the man along the right edge, and the slow development of shadows, forms and light within the figure and his cases.

Here Cartier-Bresson has supported over 90% of his frame by putting a slender rough triangle in one corner, like a carpenter using triangles to stabilize a frame of two-by-fours.

As in June’s column we now turn to Cartier-Bresson’s predecessor Andre Kertesz. His use of the bottom edge is so delicate and elusive that it easier to see it in contrast to Cartier-Bresson’s than to see Cartier-Bresson’s in contrast to Kertesz’s.

Whereas Cartier-Bresson tended to build his bottom passages out of large, dramatic and contiguous forms along all or most of a picture’s bottom edge, Kertesz often used small, subtle, almost fugitive forms,

and often left gaps between them,

letting light, air and atmosphere into his pictures, from the bottom, but without allowing the central imagery to become weak and seem to peter out.

In the picture below the bottom passage is made up of such small forms, some of them defined by the faintest of lines, that it’s astonishing that it can support and, in part, contain such an extraordinary construction of light, form, mood, and heat as this view from above the platform of the Poughkeepsie, New York railroad station. (The tracing’s shading is much darker than the original’s in order to define and isolate the various forms.)

Why Is This Important?

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.

The bottom passages we have examined here not only hold the picture in at the bottom but in many cases also seemed to support the picture the way the foundation of a building supports the whole edifice.

When, in future columns, we turn to landscape photography we will study a practice of classic landscape pictures that is analogous to the practice of carpentry. Just as a carpenter stabilizes a frame with triangular pieces of wood in the corners, so the makers of landscapes often put triangular forms in the bottom corners of their pictures, as in this example from the British painter J. M. W. Turner:

These triangular forms stabilize the rectangle and strengthen the vertical edges against the strong horizontal sweep of the pictured land and our tendency to read images horizontally, as we read text.

In addition to containing and supporting a picture’s imagery, bottom edges identify a picture as a picture and so distinguish it from its surroundings and distinguish the imaginary world it represents from the reality in which it resides. This function in turn helps the picture hold the eye long enough for the observer to contemplate the world of the picture so that it affects his soul.

But we can see this function more clearly and understand it more fully in August’s column, where we will consider the borders of pictures, of which the bottom passage is only one side.

What Can We Learn from All This?

That although bottom edges or passages have been essential to pictures since pictures began, their variety is infinite.

That every bottom passage 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 these passages look or how they are used.

That a bottom passage that functions as such is necessary to your pictures if your pictures are to be pictures.

That even if you intentionally 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 bottom passages can be yours and nobody else’s, that is, become one of the hallmarks of your style. 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. With this control, once can enhance and strengthen the bottom edge of a picture so that it, the edge, does the work we have examined throughout this column.

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, www.benlifson.com

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