What’s Going On Here?

I’m sometimes amazed when I put together portfolios for publication or exhibit. I find images with strong unifying themes that I was consciously unaware of at the time of shooting, or even afterward. It’s only when prints are placed together that I realize that I must have been dealing subconsciously with some of the unifying elements.


                                        Sandbanks                                                                           White Sands

The photograph at left was taken atSandbanks Provincial Parkin Ontario, Canada in September of 2001 while the one on the right was taken atWhite Sands National Monumentin New Mexico, USA some 90 days later.

Coincidence? I’m not sure. Let’s look at what’s going on.

Thecomponentsof many images can fall into three main types —Substrate,Primary SubjectandBackground. Each has a role to play.


This is the"environment"of the image — the underlying visual element. In both photographs this is sand — but that’s not surprising since I chose to shoot in sand dunes on both occasions. The sand in the frame fromSandbankshas no particular pattern or texture, but certainly the grass stalks play that role well. TheWhite Sandsframe on the right has strong and clean wave patterns — what one expects from sand. In both cases they form thesubstratefor the composition.

Primary Subject

The three dead trees and the strong shadow of the one in the foreground form the dominant subject of theSandbanksframe. They attract the eye first and provide the point of return after the eye has scanned the rest of the frame. In theWhite Sandsframe at right the two plants are the primary subject. They are strengthened by casting strong diagonal shadows, just as do the trees in the other frame.

The angle of the dead trees, the plants and their shadows play different though similar roles. In the frame at left they play a more dominant graphic role. So much so that the composition almost ceases to be a "nature" or landscape image and it instead verges on becoming a graphical abstraction. In the frame at right the plants and their strong shadows serve to lead the eye to the moon, aBackgroundobject, but a vital part of the composition.

Worth noting as well is that in theSandbanksphotograph the three trees lead to avanishing pointwell outside the frame. This creates considerable dynamic tension. TheWhite Sandsimage is self contained, making it more balanced and less aggressive. 


In both images the sky is theBackgroundelement. In theSandbanksframe it fills almost half the frame but it is made interesting by the jagged stratus clouds which visually echo the jaggedness of the grasses and tree trunks.

In theWhite Sandsframe the sky is clear, but the composition is completed by the moon in the upper right which balances the plants in the lower left. The shadow of the foreground plant stalk alsopointsto the moon, drawing the composition together.

In both images a polarizing filter was used to darken the top of the sky creating an almost subliminal "frame", bringing the eye back into the image.

Not all images lend themselves to this type of analysis, or warrant it. But, when I first saw these two prints laying on the table in front of me I was taken by their similarities, and was curious to seewhythey shared certain elements and also how the differed. 

I hope you’ve found this analysis of interest.  Usually art needs no explanation, but sometimes attempting to explain it can help us "see" better the next time. Why not try it with some of your own work?

There is nowa discussionregarding these two images on the Forum. You may find it of interest.

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