People often ask me why certain things catch my eyes when I’m walking the streets, urging me to pick up my camera and photograph them. What is it that makes certain scenes a real potential for becoming an artwork while others don’t intrigue me.
My immediate reaction to these questions is “I don’t know”. It’s the sort of magic I don’t think about. In a sense, I’m afraid that analyzing it will kill part of the magic. There’s nothing I love more in my work than being surprised at what I find.
Having said that, when I’m trying to analyze what happens in my mind when taking a photograph in retrospect there are a few things that keep popping up. One of these things is Contrast.
So, when we think about contrast, the first thing that comes to mind is the difference between light and shadow, or between the how light is reflected from one object and how the objects around it are lighted. And indeed, such a difference catches the eye. It is if our brain is programmed to set its attention to such differences, so we are naturally drawn to the objects or scenes that include such contrast.
However, contrast is not only a matter of light. The difference in lighting is only but one type of contrast. What makes scenes eye (and mind) catching is multiple levels of contrast.
Consider for example this work from the Real Estate project:
First off, I love the contrast in its basic sense. The light curtain in contrast to the darker frame of the shop and the contrast inside the model poster is what made me stop and look at this scene in the first place. But this is where the story just begins. Let’s have a more focused look.
See the direction of the stripes on the curtain. They are aligned with the orientation of the photograph, going vertically from the bottom of the image upwards, where they so nicely clash with the horizontal placement of the neon lights. This contrast in the orientation of the movement of our eyes as it follows different objects in the scene add another level of interest to the photograph. It creates some geometrical drama in the scene.
But there’s more contrast in this work. Let’s consider the conceptual contrast. The name of this hairdresser shop, as the sign suggests, is Unique. It is hard not to notice the clash between the name and plainest and ordinary look of the shop. This contrast between what the sign suggests and the reality around it is striking. For me, this is where the story lies in this photograph. You can add to that the missing neon sign, which leaves only the plain generic neon lamps, and the model poster which also looks like a generic hairdresser decor. All these dimensions of contrast create drama. They make the photograph alive and with depth because it is hard not to wonder and start imagining what’s the story of this shop, its owner, and its clients.
Let’s look at another example: the opening photograph of the Urbanity series.
Again, the photograph has a lot of contrast in the luminance sense. But less dive deeper into it. This graffiti flower embeds some inherent contrast: it is a two dimensional, even abstract, representation of a real living thing. It is a black image of a colorful object. It looks like a drawing made by a kid although most chances it was made by a grown up.
When you look at it in the context of the complete scene, the contrast becomes even greater: this two-dimensional flower seems to be placed on a real three-dimensional bench. This interaction that can never really happen creates yet another level of interest: an imaginary world in which the flat graffiti interacts with reality.
Contrast creates interest and drama. Creating multiple levels of contrast in the picture makes it even more dramatic. It becomes alive and dynamic. It creates a story or a setup for a story that will continue to form in the mind of the viewer.
Look around you. Try to find scenes with multiple levels of contrast, and then try to capture the scene while combining them into a visual story.