About This Image: To Build

July 21, 2013

To BuildTo Build

This is the title image of a personal project that I began sometime in 2006.  My "To Build" project is devoted to capturing large construction projects from an artful, rather than documentary, perspective.  I'll offer much more about the project later this year when I plan to open a gallery of the project's images here.  Right now I want to look just at the title image (which I've temporarily posted in the "As Seen" gallery).

First, a (mercifully) brief micro-essay on my thoughts on composition.  Amateur photography how-to libraries are awash in "composition" guidance, most of which is devoted towards mechanical rules of organization.  But making pictures  -- photos, drawings, paintings, etc. -- that communicate your intentions distills to coordinating and manipulating just three factors.  The organization of the final image generally becomes a natural resultant of attending to these three factors independent of template rules.

Elements  What's actually in the picture?  Is anything missing?  Is anything distracting or extraneous?  Everything in a picture matters to some degree.

Relationships  What are the relationships between these elements?  Everything in a picture is related to everything else in the picture, if only by virtue of inclusion in the frame.  Size, tone/color, relative position, visual/correspondent lines establish relationships that either congeal the elements into a cohesive whole or produce incoherency.

Gesture  This is the secret sauce of pictures and the least understood outside the art world.  Every picture can feature gesture even if it's a picture of rocks.  If elements and their relationships represent the basic ingredients of your message gesture is the power tool for accenting and emphasizing message.  The tools and methods of establishing gesture in a picture are varied.  In a portrait they might be body position, eyes and brows, hand positions, etc.  In a landscape it might be how the relationships of elements are organized to induce an impression or recollection from the viewer.

These are the three factors to which I pay most attention while making photographs.  Review some of your favorite pictures with these three factors in mind and I guarantee that you will gain a much better, and very practical, understanding of how pictures of all kinds communicate messages.

Realistically, however, few candid images offer possibilities to capture all three of these factors in as strong of measures as this scene offered.  I had several months to anticipate this scene.  My camera position, a window, was completely static so I could only wait for the scene to literally rise in front of me.  To the contrary of what you might imagine the photo opportunity on such a project from a static position can appear and vanish remarkably quickly, particularly on a steel project such as this.  Installation of columns, beams, and floor decking quickly erase the transparency and potential impact of such a scene forever.  Such is the joy of waiting for just the right moment to make photographs.

The moment had clearly arrived on the day I made this image.  All of the elements were in place and arranged in powerfully expressive relationships to each other.  The massive steel skeleton and crane mostly silhouetted against a white overcast summer sky.  The shimmer of light reflected from an adjacent building relieved the darkness of the steel and gave it a visual materiality for just a brief time.  The tall building in the background suggested the urban legacy of such projects.

But without gesture, especially as expressed by human scale, the scene would never rise above static and mildly interesting.   Fortunately after a long wait I was able to capture this one ironworker in the perfect position and in the perfect gesture to give the image the heroicism and scale that I had originally envisioned, making this one of the very few of my images that I would consider as close to perfect as I'm likely to get.


- Ken Tanaka -


Camera:  Canon 1Ds Mark III