HANDS ON

De­tail is one path to­ward re­duc­ing, refin­ing and dis­till­ing the essence of a sub­ject

NPhoto - - Nikopedia -

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.

Help­ing hand

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

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