Composition: Obscurity

This is going to be quite a long one. If that’s not your thing, that’s perfectly fine, and I’ll be back to posting new images soon enough. However, if you are interested in my approach to composition, and the mindset behind my images, this is the post for you. This is the first in a series of posts that I want to write covering various compositional elements that I draw from when shooting. These aren’t rules that you need to follow to create a good image – more a matter of my personal preference in trying to achieve what I aim for in my photography.

The first of these is obscuring details of an image, and instead emphasising its form. As any long-term followers will know, I take a lot of inspiration from Michael Kenna, and he uses this technique in many of his images to great effect. Kenna’s photography always has a peaceful air, and part of that is in the minimal composition.

Glastonbury Tor Study 3
Glastonbury Tor, Study 3, © Michael Kenna
Huangshan Mountains Study 2
Huangshan Mountains, Study 2, © Michael Kenna

I find that this simplifies the image – scenes with lots of detail can get cluttered and confusing for the viewer, and that is the antithesis of what I am trying to communicate with my photography.

Chapel Hill Tree, Skipton, 03
Chapel Hill Tree, #03

In the image above, the landscape in the foreground is completely black, leaving only its form. Coupled with the detail in the clouds above, this makes for a dramatic image.

Often, obscuring the details of the subject simplifies the composition, and helps to capture my state of mind when I’m shooting. In this way, the photography becomes almost meditative. The philosophy behind my work is a whole other blog post, and one that I would love to write, but for now, I will try to focus on the composition itself.

Another aspect is the implied detail of obscurity. I find this important in my architectural work, especially with my photographs of the religious buildings of York. The viewer can see but a glimpse of the detail in the image, but the rest is hidden from them, and they can only interpolate it. As human beings we like to be able to see all the details, and having that taken away from us can be intimidating. This is what I am trying to do with these photographs – a far cry from the calmer landscape images that I create.

York Minster, 01
York Minster, #01
Church of St Lawrence, 01
Church of St Lawrence, #01

Another topic that I find fascinating is the relationship between a photograph and its viewer. One of my current projects, Ghosts, is an experiment in communicating an atmosphere through a series of images. One way (although by no means the only way) to do this is to hide details from the viewer, forcing them to really study the photograph, and imagine the details themselves. In the process they place some part of themselves into the image, and the work becomes a two-way exchange – I provide the image, but it is up to the viewer to figure out where it sits in relation to themselves.

By the River Ouse
By the River Ouse

I could go on and on about the various ways in which I use darkness and obscurity in my photographs, but I doubt you’d want to read it all. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this post, and I have plenty more ideas for entries into this series. I hope you have found it an interesting read, and if you have anything you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment!


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