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

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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

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