Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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I wanted to show the theme "What happened??" here. I showed this to some non-photographers, they couldn't make out anything out of this.

What can I do here to improve the composition?

enter image description here

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Makes me think of meta.photo.stackexchange.com/questions/509/… –  rfusca Mar 26 '12 at 20:17
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@rfusca - I was going to suggest that to her, even if it was tooting my own horn. I have another on Flickr flickr.com/photos/spqr_ca/5044445242/in/set-72157624954249951 that suggests title helps. –  John Cavan Mar 26 '12 at 23:47
    
@JohnCavan That is very natural and very creative. Thanks. –  TheIndependentAquarius Mar 27 '12 at 1:42
    
@rfusca That is very creative for sure, but doesn't look natural. –  TheIndependentAquarius Mar 27 '12 at 1:42
    
@AnishaKaul: Note...John Cavan titled his photo on flicker. Without the label, his photo could be interpreted in a variety of ways...but with the title, the possibilities are greatly reduced. CONTEXT, as mattdm stated, is very important when it comes to storytelling with photography. –  jrista Mar 27 '12 at 19:55

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

I probably fall into the ‘non-photographer’ category you’ve mentioned, as I primarily use photography to capture the moment (rather than create compositional art which is what you’re attempting). I have little to no art / compositional background so feel free to ignore / down vote if you disagree with what follows 

My initial impression on seeing the image was that it looked quite sterile and composed. There’s nothing wrong with composed pictures but it didn’t suggest a story to me (and possibly because of my lack of art background I didn’t try to seek one out).

Why do I see a composition, rather than a story? There’s five elements to the picture (at least that I’ve noticed).

The book:

Unlike @mattdm, I didn’t read the title (whilst it may be easy to read on a larger version, on the version posted with the book upside down and partially obscured I saw no reason to struggle with the title). The book itself is open on a page, face down. There are no ruffled/bent pages under the book, it looks like it has been placed in its current position rather than fallen there.

The glasses:

From the angle, it’s unclear to me if they are broken or not (the left lens looks a little odd), but they’re left on the book. Their positioning obscures the title enough that I didn’t read it, but on top of the book seems like a reasonable place for somebody to have left their glasses.

The glass:

It feels placed. If you were to stand the glass up in its natural fall line (just tilt it towards the book until it was standing), the base of the glass would be on the book. The glass could have rolled to its location; however it has a square base which would probably have hampered this. Perhaps it was knocked over and then the book placed nearby, but that seems odd, hence the feeling that it has been placed. The glass has no liquid in it (not even a drop left from previously having contents), and with nothing else in the picture suggesting liquid would be forthcoming it seems placed.

The pencil:

The positioning again looks placed. The top half of the pencil is at an angle to the bottom half, yet touching it. The broken end is pointing away from the other pencil. If it were a normal break, I’d expect the broken ends to be together, or for the ends not to be touching. The position just feels artificial. There’s nothing obvious to be written on, other than the book itself. Perhaps that’s the point.

The candle:

It’s positioning feels artificial. There is some wax over by the pencil. The wax is quite round, suggesting it was formed as a result of drops, being created prior to the candle being positioned (not as a result of the candle falling down, which I would expect to create elongated splatters). There’s also no trail between the wax and the candle, giving it a slightly unnatural feel. The candle is broken, yet still alight, lying across the book, with the flame close enough to drip wax near the book but not close enough to get wax on / burn the book. It feels placed.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with compositional art, it can be effective but trying to tell the theme ‘What happened??’ is not a small task. The least I would expect you to have to do is ask the people you are talking to what story / question / message the picture is trying to convey. If you get back a variety of answers (from somebody fell asleep, through to somebody has been abducted by aliens), then perhaps the message is there by they don’t know how to verbalise/generalise it.

For me, the dominant story in the scene was, you’ve placed some objects. The primary reason being that it didn’t feel like the objects fit together to tell a story in their current states / positions. I think part of the reason this composition is hard is because ‘What happened??’ is very abstract. I’d consider having a theory as to what you think happened. Playing the part of those involved in the scene to the point at which the scene is ready for the picture to be taken. Take a picture. Does that capture the scene you’ve just played out? Think about another possible way that the same endpoint could have been achieved. Does it work for multiple journeys? If not then maybe you need to start again and walk through the second scene... then repeat until you’re happy.

I believe this will lead to a scene that perhaps feels more natural to the outside observer. If it feels more natural, then I for one am more likely to look at what the picture may be trying to say/suggest rather than fixating on the artificiality.

I don’t think you’ve said, but how do/did you believe the photograph fit the theme?

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Now, that's called a brilliant answer. I love calling a spade a spade like you've done here. –  TheIndependentAquarius Mar 27 '12 at 11:34
    
"I probably fall into the ‘non-photographer’ category" Non-photographers are those who hate spending time on photography, and laugh on those who do. You are not one of them. –  TheIndependentAquarius Mar 27 '12 at 11:35
    
" possibly because of my lack of art" Please don't say so. The fault is mine not yours. –  TheIndependentAquarius Mar 27 '12 at 11:37
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@AnishaKaul: Just remember that even though I’ve called it a spade, doesn’t mean it’s not somebody else’s garden, escape route, door stop, crutch... There are as many interpretations as there are people :) –  forsvarir Mar 27 '12 at 11:45
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Note that you got this particular feedback and explanation precisely because it was presented in the context of "please explore this image". That's exactly my suggestion. –  mattdm Mar 28 '12 at 16:41

This is where context comes in.

Titles or captions are a common approach. By attaching the simple words What Happened? to your image, you tell your viewers that this photograph is a riddle, and they will naturally start to look for clues to answer the question. Or, your title can be something else which hints at a story: The Night Bjarne Stroustrup Destroyed My House might prompt a viewer to wonder exactly what the photo depicts that relates to that title — i.e., "What happened?"

Without this, it's completely natural to think Still Life With Random Junk and move on. Instead, put it in context first. Attaching a title provides a hint, and human curiosity plus interesting elements in your photograph should do the rest.

Alternately, the photo itself can be put in a context which invites exploration. If you have a collection (or exhibition) of photographs where each image is a story or a riddle, individual titles aren't needed. Or if you are a well-known artist, or even a lesser-known artist working in the realm of art, where that is the expectation of your works, that's pretty much done for you.

In any case, though, I think the key to this particular idea is context.

That said, choosing a book with more spiritual — or sordid — title might also contribute. Here, the programming book tends to make me think that the collection is random.

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@Anisha, I think you misunderstand. I think you should attach words, or otherwise set a context. I'm discussing the title because that's important. It sounds like part of the problem might be showing it to people and trying to extract a response right away. That's a lot of pressure and maybe not the best way. It sets up a context of "What does Anisha want me to say about her photo?", not of "This is an interesting puzzle...." –  mattdm Mar 27 '12 at 2:13
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Anisha, maybe that's part of the game. You have an idea and the medium that you are using to express it (photo) is non verbal. So you have to accept that people will have a different reading of your idea, which resonates with them, which is stimulated by your photo, but which will probably be different from your idea. Notice that this happens with verbal transmission, too (think of literary criticism!). So either you put a title or something like mattdm suggested, or you live with the fact that viewers of your images will think of different things. Why should you "force" them? –  Francesco Mar 27 '12 at 10:23
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A final note: so, in my opinion, this is not a "failure" of the photographer... –  Francesco Mar 27 '12 at 10:24
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@Anisha: I think if you're more creative you need to be prepared for more people to not get it. It's only by following exact existing clichés that complicated meanings will be immediately obvious — and there's no depth to that. –  mattdm Mar 27 '12 at 11:10
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@Anisha: take a look at the photographs in the links near the end of my answer above. These images are both untitled, but because they are presented by people working within the world of fine art, the context is set. It's completely valid to want to avoid titles, but you need to set the context of "this is a photo with something you can get out, if you put in the time looking at the details" in some way — and then you need to step back and let people get it or not. –  mattdm Mar 27 '12 at 12:25

I don't think there's any secret formula for these kind of shots. I would just play around with different types of lighting. I know that in cinematography strong top lighting gives a mysterious feeling. When I look at the picture that you have here, I think that the candlelight creates the feeling of a campfire or something to me. You might be able to create a more mysterious feeling if the candle was extinguished and maybe some more things were broken. In this picture, most of it seems 'in place'. You have a book, some reading glasses and some pencils. It is not immediately apparent that the candle is broken. The first thing that is seen is the book, then the reading glasses, then the cup and the pencil. Lastly, we see that the candle is broken. In order to create a mysterious feeling in this image, I would perhaps break the glasses, or crack the cup. I think in order to create a mysterious atmosphere, the first thing the viewer should see is something out of place. IE. A broken cup, a bullet in the book, broken glasses or whatever else you want to be the focus of the image.

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Or maybe a bit of drink spilled from the glass onto the table, and the book less neatly set down. –  Olin Lathrop Mar 26 '12 at 22:51
    
I'll try to find some broken items next time. thanks. –  TheIndependentAquarius Mar 27 '12 at 11:58

No matter what you do you will never get the answer "what happened" (at least from non-artists) people just don't think like that when they title things.

Even if you do manage to create a picture that causes people to think "what just happened here?" when you ask them they will either tell you about the surprising detail (for example, from rfusca's image in the comments, the person is missing) or their answer to the "what happened" question (for example, an alien vaporized the person).

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