Working with Layers in Street Photography, Part One – John Lewell Photography

In street photography, layers are successive areas of interest and action, occupying the foreground, midground, and background, each holding information of interest to the viewer.

Together, these layers form a complete “symphonic” image, captured in one shot.

I use the term symphony in the same way that EM Forster uses it Aspect Novl. 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 his readers.

For example, a symphonic novel will have many themes, each of which brings contrast or reinforcement to the main point of the work. Instead of “symphony,” you can talk about a novel that has “layers”: as in, for example, DH Lawrence’s complex work Rainbow not in the hilarious Thomas Love Peacock satire but basically one-dimensional Headlong Hall.

Unfortunately, the layers of complexity are even more difficult for street photographers than they are for novelists. Therefore, it is not a good idea to say: “Today I will concentrate on taking photos with layers” because the opportunities for them are few and far between.

Not Too Blur
A shot that exemplifies the layering technique is one that has each layer in fairly sharp focus. If there is a layer that is very hazy then it is automatically visible to the viewer becomes less important.

For example, I think I can claim the shot (below) contains layers, but the foreground is really very blurry. I don’t think it really matters much in this case 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 at us, and beyond them the visitors, and beyond them a layer of columns.

Stop
To avoid foreground blur, you should forgo using a wide-open ultra-fast lens and instead make sure your lens is stopped to capture sufficient depth of field from the foreground to the background. Phones meet these criteria very well, but what they fall short of is a lack of image quality when you want to do a big zoom. The good thing (there’s always an upside!) is that you can stop worrying about bokeh, the soft out-of-focus effect you get from only the most expensive lenses.

One of the most famous layered photographs taken by Alex Webb in Mexico, entitled Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, 1985 (please Google!) and featured in his La Calle exhibition. It depicts Mexican children playing in the yard with one boy in front, with soft focus, spinning a blue ball in his fingertips. Behind it are successive layers of interest: more boys, passersby, and several spectacular examples of blue and white ecclesiastical architecture, with striped columns and columns.

In an interview with Security, Alex Webb said of his work in general: “The words ‘planning and forethought’ imply a degree of rationality. Instead, I feel the possibility of an image. I know what he means because that’s how I work myself.

Generations Through Time
In my featured image (above), I intentionally used a layer technique to express the pace of generations over time. I took it at the local carnival, a sort of street event that offers lots of great photo opportunities.

My point of focus is on a tall woman with brown hair, so that both the girl closest to the camera and the elderly couple are in somewhat soft focus. I think this is acceptable, even preferable, for that matter. After all, it was a central figure who was in the prime of life, surrounded by those much younger or older. He seems to take his responsibilities very seriously, as if contemplating the impermanence of events.

But I think the single element that stands out the most in the shot is the fact that the two tallest lined up girls, both in sharp focus, are the ones furthest from the camera. They, as well as their companions, towered with youthful vigor over the elderly couple.

Here’s the point about layers: they help you communicate ideas. It’s not just a visual trick to add “eye candy” to your photos.

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

For example, take Raphael’s large mural Athens School (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 the complex arrangement of groups of figures, each with its own dynamics, plus the overall effect of the recession chamber and all its charming literary qualities (which philosopher? which mathematician?) Athens School makes the viewer’s eye search and move across the image plane.

This reaction is what we look for when presenting a layered photo to the viewer. When the viewer is compelled to “read” the photo rather than just glancing at it, that’s when you can bond with your audience and gain more appreciation for your work.

I will post Part II of Working With Layers at a later time. I promise: this next section will be even more practical, with tips and advice on how to take layer shots!

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