Archive for September 28th, 2020

For several days I’ve had a tab on my computer for this image of a recent California wildfire.  I would open this photo, stare at it and feel mesmerized.  What must that be like, to have left these houses or to still be in them? What is the sound of that enormous roaring fire in the proximate distance?  How fast is it approaching?  How terrified these people must be!

After several days of this intense emotional involvement with the scene in the photo, I noticed that I found the photo “beautiful.”  Given the content of the photo, this was disturbing.  So I asked myself if the photo was constructed to have this mesmerizing effect on the viewer. I turned on the part of my brain that does analysis.

What I found was a centrally focused composition.  The houses in the middle of the image, i.e. the human interest, were perfectly in the middle. The house in the middle of this cluster stands out because it is brighter than all the rest.  The hills on both sides sloped perfectly towards the middle of the cluster of houses.

Thus we have a symmetrical composition with human life in the middle. The symmetry makes it static with the message that this is not going to change. Human life in the middle hooks us emotionally.  No wonder this image is mesmerizing.  The composition tells us that this terror of the fire is enormous:  it’s here to stay, permanent without any dynamic that may bring change.

You can be sure that the photographer took dozens or even hundreds of frames on this assignment.  We don’t know if this frame came out as we see it here or if it was cropped to achieve this feeling of terror.  Either way, it was not randomly chosen.

A second example makes this power of composition even clearer.  The firefighter is in the middle of the frame.  Because of the stability inherent in symmetry, he appears to be there forever. This makes his situation all the more hopeless and makes the image painful to contemplate.

You can test this out be cropping and moving him off-center. Now the composition is unbalanced and we feel that he is moving.  He’s in danger but he’s at least not stuck.

Analyzing an image like this does not desentize you to its content.  Not at all. You’re still shocked by the content but you’ve added the awareness of how emotions are communicated visually.


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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