Detail is one path toward reducing, refining and distilling the essence of a subject
As mentioned previously in this article, detail in photography is a multipurpose tool. One valuable purpose is that in some – actually many – subjects, you can find the concentration of what is going on at this smaller scale. Here, the subject is the most traditional of Chinese musical instruments, the guqin – a seven-stringed instrument that was invented centuries ago. They’re as important musically to the Chinese as the violin or piano is to us. So, without sound, how to get a strong image out of this?
I’ve photographed them a few times before, as the smaller pictures (right) show, and while the full scale gets the information across, including the facial expression of a musician’s concentration, the most expressive part by far is the hand.
As with a piano or violin, there’s a huge range of movement, and if you’re photographing, it boils down to just one or two brief positions, according to the way you feel about it. This is where photographing detail becomes demanding, because there’s often so much choice at a smaller scale.
For the main image here, there was an added inspiration, which was the changing afternoon light through a window. This added something special because of the play of light and shadow. Coordinating and timing the shot for both the hand position and the light called for much more
concentration than a normal-scale picture, and this was the best of dozens of frames. In particular, I was aiming for this ‘spreading’ effect, extended by the bar of light across the strings, as if the hand is ‘holding’ the entire image.
The example here is a hand, and this connects to something that is almost a sub genre of photography. When photographing people, details of the human body always fascinate – the more so because the viewer is invited to imagine the person from just one part. Even without getting rude, there are several specific body bits that can be intriguing and photogenic. Chief among them are hands, lips, eyes, fingers and nails, and, I suppose, the growing popularity of tattoos makes them a worthy detail also. For lips, just think of Erwin Blumenfeld’s 1950 Vogue cover and Irving Penn’s Bee Stung Lips (literally, with a bee on a plump lipsticked half-open sexy mouth). For eyes, there’s Man Ray’s image
Tears from the 1930s, and even the yellow-out-of-blue Na’vi eye from the poster for James Cameron’s Avatar.
But one of the easiest-to-find yet richest source of photographable detail is the hand, and one of the main reasons why it’s expressive is because it acts. We do things with our hands, and they’re very much at the sharp end of artisanship, craft and the arts. So, a lot of energy and effort in human action gets channelled through them, making them an endlessly fascinating subject for the camera.
The hand of a player of a traditional Chinese musical instrument hovers over the strings in a short-lived shaft of afternoon sunlight
A more conventional framing takes in the instrument, musician and the full spread of his or her hands — all fine, but not quite capable of getting across the intensity of action conveyed by the close-up of the fingers
The position of the fingers, almost like a puppeteer’s, encompasses the image, with the diagonal bar of light on the strings, at the left, connecting with them