Whenever I see people concentrating on an activity — any activity — I start to think of the photographic possibilities. It’s the very act of concentration that interests me.
Why? Because it’s inherently photographic. Concentration is focus — and focus is one of the main components of photography.
In optics, focus is all about bringing light rays as close together as possible. The pinhole in a pinhole camera does it — and so does the lens in a normal camera. A lens concentrates light rays into a tiny “circle of confusion” which always has a diameter, just as a pinhole does, so the focus is never perfect mathmatically. However, with a quality lens the focus is good enough to fool the eye, even when you enlarge the image.
Focus as Metaphor
We use the metaphor of “focus” all the time in daily life. The present moment is usually the focal point of human consciousness, even though memory can take us back a few moments, hours or even years, while our expectations can project us forward into the future. Most of the time, however, we’re aware of the “here and now,” even when “here” is somewhere in cyberspace and “now” has disappeared before we’ve had time to appreciate it.
By deliberately concentrating, we’re trying to reduce the circle of confusion, thereby bringing something into sharper focus in order to better understand or manipulate it. Think of the seamstress, concentrating on some intricate stitching; or think of the surgeon, reconnecting a nerve.
Every art, science, trade and profession requires concentration and focus. Without this deliberate narrowing of attention, nothing of value can be created.
Why Does It Work in Street Photography?
Images of people concentrating on a task in front of them can be as compelling as those which portray strong emotions. In fact, I’d go further and say they’re often better. By showing the act of concentration they also help onlooker to concentrate on the image. In photography — where sharpness directs the onlooker’s attention — concentration is contagious.
The principle at work here is the well-known one of “ideated sensations,” described succinctly by Bernard Berenson in his works on the visual arts. For Berenson, a person looking at a great Italian painting would be able to imagine the physical sensations felt by the subjects — particularly the stretching of muscles, an action which communicates a sense of energy and vitality. Not only that, in our minds we “feel” the weight of objects in the image and feel the textures of different materials, almost as if we were there in reality.
These ideated sensations of tactile values and movement are so powerful, Berenson believed, that they had the effect of being “life enhancing.” It’s a process by which onlookers recreate the image in their own living consciousness, aided by the skill of the artist (deceased long ago) who made this apparently magical transference possible.
Where Can You Place the Point of Concentration?
Conventionally, most photographers tend to place the focal point of concentration somethere fairly close to the centre of the image. For example, a photograph of a watchmaker works best if the subject’s face and the watch he’s working on are close together. This is because the idea of concentration is shown by the face as well as by the intricate task being performed.
The Featured Image
I’ve tried to be more adventurious in my featured image (above). Here’s a man who’s battling to concentrate on his mobile phone, despite all the distractions of real life.
I think it works very well as a whole frame, with the blurred background and the sharp point of focus at the top left. You may think otherwise, so here, for comparison, is a crop which places the point of concentration closer to the centre of the image.
Well, that’s not bad either, but it changes the meaning of the photo. While it increases our “ideated sensation” — because the man’s concentration now fills the image and we’re inclined to feel it more intensely — we’re missing the surrounding context. It’s this huge out-of-focus area that is every bit as important.
In my photo, the man’s view of reality has narrowed to a point which is far outside the picture frame. Perhaps he is taking a photo of a tall building, or else he may be trying to read the football scores or take a selfie. We don’t know exactly what he’s doing, but this doesn’t matter. He’s mentally focusing. In turn, I’ve focused my camera on him and thrown the rest of the scene out-of-focus, echoing the subject’s experience of the same moment.