Cre­ative paths

The im­por­tant point you want to get across may be at a smaller scale than you think

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Michael Free­man ex­plains how show­ing a frac­tion of a sub­ject can tell more of a story

Chang­ing the scale of what we pay at­ten­tion to re­veals an­other world with dif­fer­ent vis­ual pos­si­bil­i­ties. Why do we love de­tails? Among pho­tog­ra­phers it’s al­most a uni­ver­sal love, and even land­scape spe­cial­ists find them­selves drawn every so of­ten into the closely fo­cused worlds that sit within their ex­pan­sive sub­jects. Ansel Adams was as happy with a bark de­tail or rock sur­face as he was with El Cap­i­tan or Half Dome. In his sem­i­nal book Yosemite and the Range of

Light, more than a fifth of the photographs are ac­tu­ally of de­tails. One rea­son, as any pic­ture ed­i­tor knows, is that va­ri­ety is the key to a se­ries of images, and va­ri­ety of scale is one way to achieve this. De­tails of things can stand in for a big­ger sub­ject. Diane Ar­bus said: “The more spe­cific you are, the more gen­eral it’ll be,” and by that she meant that a well-cho­sen and well­cap­tured de­tail can ex­pand in the viewer’s mind to be more uni­ver­sal. De­tail al­ways hints at some­thing larger.

An­other ob­vi­ous at­trac­tion is that the world of de­tail of­fers many more op­por­tu­ni­ties for fresh images than the big­ger scenes that ev­ery­one can see. One of the less sat­is­fy­ing as­pects of pho­tograph­ing dra­matic land­scapes is that the ‘per­fect’ view­points are well known, and at any good shoot­ing time, the main view­points for Cam­bo­dia’s Angkor Wat tem­ples, Utah’s Del­i­cate Arch, China’s Yuanyang Rice Ter­races or you-name-it are crowded, and ev­ery­one gets the same im­age. Dig­ging around for de­tail, how­ever, is al­ways re­ward­ing. Ex­plor­ing de­tail can throw up some un­ex­pect­edly beau­ti­ful and/or graphic images, al­most re­gard­less of the ug­li­ness, messi­ness, or even ob­vi­ous­ness of their sur­round­ings.

Scal­ing down

The Cam­bo­dian tem­ples at Angkor, just men­tioned, are hugely pop­u­lar and these days be­sieged by tourists. I’ve been pho­tograph­ing them since be­fore there was any tourism, so I prob­a­bly have a skewed and ide­al­ized at­ti­tude, but one of the ba­sic ap­peals of this place is that they were, for cen­turies, aban­doned, and were the per­fect ex­am­ple of an­cient and mys­te­ri­ous tem­ples lost in the for­est. Clearly that’s no longer the case over­all, but there’s still that lin­ger­ing as­pect of ad­ven­ture and romance. So, now that the long shot that takes in an en­tire tem­ple is very dif­fi­cult to shoot,

Even land­scape spe­cial­ists find them­selves drawn into the closely fo­cused worlds that sit within their ex­pan­sive sub­jects

how else to get across the idea of a trop­i­cal for­est tak­ing over the an­cient works of man? The an­swer for me was to show the for­est tak­ing over at the scale of plant growth, and af­ter quite some time look­ing, I found this bro­ken but rec­og­niz­able de­tail of a small carv­ing of an ap­sara (ce­les­tial dancer in Hindu mythol­ogy), com­pletely over­grown, and with a bud just emerg­ing from the crook of her arm.

De­tail shots, by the way, tend to work best when they are a part of a se­quence of other images that com­plete the story. As here, re­vers­ing the size and im­por­tance of de­tail ver­sus long shot is usu­ally enough to make the im­age work.

If you en­joy this ar­ti­cle and want to learn more, there are 50 more paths to be dis­cov­ered in Michael’s new book Fifty Paths to Cre­ative Pho­tog­ra­phy (NB: all 50 are dif­fer­ent from those that will be fea­tured here in the mag­a­zine).

Three small vis­ual el­e­ments ac­tu­ally en­hance the sense of empti­ness, and pro­vide struc­ture to the im­age In this im­age, which is just 20cm across, the plant life takes over the im­age, as it does the tem­ple carv­ings

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