See how an extra layer creates intrigue
Shooting through one part of a scene to another adds complexity and ambiguity and avoids the obvious, explains Michael Freeman
There are several kinds of layering in photography. It’s a flexible concept, although most people tend to stick to one definition. What all kinds have in common is they in some way put more into a photograph than one single, simple scene, so they complicate the image. That might sound like it’s going against one of those universal mantras in photography – to simplify and reduce – but that’s because there are many different paths towards being interesting and, well, creative.
Complicating an image deliberately certainly runs risks, but the saving grace of good layering is that what you add to the photograph still remains (at least, it should remain) separated, not jumbled in. Each layer is a plane, and when the viewer has finished resolving the image, they should be able to identify these two – or occasionally more – planes.
There’s probably an entire book in the idea of layering, so first I’ll pare away the kinds that I won’t deal with here. Let’s start off with the most rarefied, which is conceptual layering. This comes straight out of the world of art crit, where there’s a distinction made between visual and conceptual, and the latter is about how the viewer experiences a painting, sculpture or photograph. This can get pretentious. Here’s a description from the V&A of a photography project: “The group compiled the images into a single ‘portrait’ that combines the physical layering of the photographs with a conceptual layering of the different approaches and processes explored throughout the course, and an in-depth exploration into the layers of history found in the museum.” Mmm, maybe.
And then there’s the long tradition of combining entirely different images into one, which has its roots in double exposure, and which was at one time admired for being difficult to pull off.
A variation of this was to print from two negatives, which was pioneered back in the
19th century by Pictorialists such as Oscar Gustave Rejlander, who used this technique to create ‘allegorical’ photo montages. Much later, the American photographer Jerry Uelsmann, among others, became famous for his surrealistic combinations. This kind of technique has taken a hit since the demise of film photography, as a large part of its appeal used to be the cleverness of achieving the effect in-camera. Now anyone can do it in Photoshop.
The most literal kind of layering, which is what I’ll explore here, happens in-camera and all in one shot, and basically means using transparency or reflections to shoot through one plane to another behind. What’s intriguing about this is that it takes visual skill to find the layers and make them work, not conceptual skill.
A touch of ambiguity
Complicating a photograph with layering like this actually has a purpose, which is to give the viewer more to look at, and to encourage them to spend more time looking at it, enjoying the mix of imagery and puzzle – even if it’s only a small puzzle. This of course assumes that people enjoy working out pictures!
In the photograph above, it doesn’t take too many seconds to work out what’s going on – an archetypal London double-decker bus is multiply reflected in an old window – but it’s not completely obvious right off the bat, because the glass panes are old and distorted. It wouldn’t be as interesting if this were a single reflection in a regular shop window, for example.
Getting this shot took some effort, as it needed two kinds of technical precision: one was the exact combination of focal length and viewpoint to have the bus fill each pane of glass, which turned out to be 180mm from around 5m distant; the other was good depth of field so that it would be mainly sharp from window to distance.
A London bus reflected in the window of a 17th-century church in Piccadilly