Working With Layers in Street Photography, Part One

In street photography, layers are successive planes of interest and action, occupying the foreground, middle ground and background, each one holding information that captures the viewer’s attention.

Together, these layers form a complete, “symphonic” image, taken in a single capture.

I use the term symphonic in much the same way as E.M. Forster used it in Aspects of the Novel. The symphonic novel represents the pinnacle of a writer’s achievement, being the most difficult form to create successfully but also the most rewarding for the reader.

For example, the symphonic novel will have multiple themes, each of which brings contrast or reinforcement to the main thrust of the work. Instead of “symphonic” you could speak of a novel as having “layers”: as in, for example, D.H. Lawrence’s complex work The Rainbow rather than in Thomas Love Peacock’s amusing but essentially one-dimensional satire Headlong Hall.

Alas, layers of complexity are even harder for the street photographer than they are for the novelist. For that reason, it’s not a good idea to say: “Today I’ll concentrate on taking photos with layers” because opportunities for them are few and far between.

Not Too Blurred
A shot that exemplifies the layers technique is one that has each layer in reasonably sharp focus. If any layer is severely blurred then it is automatically seen by the onlooker to be less important.

For example, I think I can claim the shot (below) to contain layers, but the foreground is really very blurred. I don’t think it matters too much in this instance because it creates a sense of mystery. It also provides a foil for the main subject — the two figures — and beyond them the people looking towards us, and beyond them the diners, and beyond them the layer of columns.

Stopping Down
To banish a blurry foreground you have to forget about using ultra-fast lenses wide open and instead make sure your lens is stopped down to capture sufficient depth-of-field from foreground to background. Mobile phones fulfill this criterion very well, but the downside is their lack of image quality when you want to make a big enlargement. The good thing (there’s always an upside!) is that you can stop worrying about bokeh, that lovely creamy out-of-focus effect you get only from the most expensive lenses.

One of the best-known layers shots was taken by Alex Webb in Mexico, entitled Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, 1985 (please Google it!) and shown in his La Calle exhibition. It depicts Mexican children playing in a courtyard with one boy at the front, in soft focus, spinning a blue ball on the tip of his finger. Behind him are successive layers of interest: more boys, passers-by, and some spectacular examples of blue and white ecclesiastical architecture, with striped columns and pilasters.

In an interview with The Guardian, Alex Webb said of his work in general: “The words ‘planning and forethought’ imply a level of rationality. Instead, I sense the possibility of a picture.” I know what he means because that’s exactly how I work myself.

Generations Through Time
In my featured image (above) I’ve deliberately used the layers technique to express the march of the generations through time. I took it at a local carnival, the sort of street event that offers plenty of good photo opportunities.

My point of focus is on the tall woman with the brown hair, hence both the girl nearest the camera and the elderly couple are in slightly soft focus. I think this is acceptable, even preferable, in this case. After all, it is the central figure who’s in the prime of life, surrounded by those much younger or older. She seems to take her responsibility very seriously, as if reflecting on the ephemerality of the event.

Yet I think the single most telling element in the picture is the fact that the two tallest of the marching girls, both of whom are in sharp focus, are those furthest away from the camera. They, as well as their chaperone, tower with the vigour of youth above the old couple.

This is the point about layers: they help you communicate an idea. They’re not just a visual trick to add “eye candy” to your photo.

In Painting
You can find all the compositional tricks of layers in western art from the Renaissance onwards.

For example, take Raphael’s great mural The School of Athens (1510), a virtuoso performance of five or six layers including three occupied by human figures. You can examine this painting for hours and still find visual delight in it. With its complex arrangement of groups of figures, each with its own dynamic, plus the overall effect of recessional space and all its intriguing literary qualities (which philosopher? which mathematician?) The School of Athens keeps the onlooker’s eye questing and moving across the image plane.

It is precisely this reaction we seek when presenting a layered photograph to the onlooker. When the onlooker is compelled to “read” the photograph rather than merely glance at it, that’s when you can deepen the bond with your audience and earn more appreciation for your work.

I’ll post Part II of Working With Layers at a later date. I promise: this next part will be more practical, with tips and advice on how to take a layers shot!

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