Spectacle competing with Narrative

In movie world, there has long been a discussion over whether narrative has been displaced by spectacle.

“Spectacle is a quality offered by Hollywood in its attempt to maintain the distinctive appeal of cinema, of the big-screen event that is so important to its broader commercial interests. Spectacular imagery, of various kinds, sells. It is an intrinsic part of many of the properties on which the studios draw for their big franchise products.” (King 2002 – p178-9)

So, commerciality drives the film studios towards spectacle and some argue, this is at the expense of narrative. I agree and would cite the Pirates of the Caribbean series as a perfect example of films where the spectacle is all, and narrative, virtually absent.

Gunning describes this as the “cinema of attractions”:

“the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event ….. that is of interest in itself.” (Gunning 1990 – p58)

I believe the same thing is happening in stills photography, particularly in competitive, club photography and urged on by organisations such as PAGB (Photographic Association of Great Britain), FIAP (Federation Internationale de L’Art Photographique) and PSA (Photographic Society of America). Such organisations are themselves commercial and need increasing numbers of paid entries to their competitions (salons) and awards schemes in order to survive.

In pre-digital days, competition and award entries were prints or slides that had to be posted. This was expensive, so relatively few entries were made to each event and turnaround times much slower. Consequently, the event judges had longer to view each entry and spectacle was not the only criteria upon which images were assessed. Today, very few organisations hold salons or competitions for physical images. Instead digital images are now emailed, costs have come down and the numbers of events and the numbers of entries have multiplied many fold.

Judges and their time is now one of the most costly aspects of running such events and so their processes and their throughput must be maximised. From my own observations of salons, the time taken to assess and score each image can be as low as just 2-4 seconds. That is certainly insufficient time to look for any narrative in the image. Only technical aspects such as sharpness and a general appreciation of composition are possible in so short a time. Therefore, I would argue that spectacle is the only criteria upon which these images are now being judged.

In the world of internationally competitive photography, where images from many countries are vying for medals and accolades, again spectacle has an advantage over narrative, much as it has in the movie industry.

“It [spectacle] sells particularly well abroad, in markets where nuances of plot and dialogue might be lost in translation.” (King 2002 – p179)

Photographers from around the world now understand that spectacle has an international appeal whereas the nuances of a particular culture’s metaphor and narrative are impossible to read in just a few seconds.

The above are concerned only with the single image. Few organisations, the RPS (Royal Photographic Society) being a notable exception, accept and consider panels of images. With panels, a strong narrative is the essential ingredient and time should be taken to consider this along with the technical, artistic and other attributes of the images. Here spectacular images could be a disadvantage as they would stand out from the panel and distort rather than enhance the overall narrative. Except in the event that all the panel images are equally spectacular.

Of course, the spectacular image can also contain meaningful narrative but I would argue that the spectacle, by overwhelming the viewer with visual treats, the wow factor, actually inhibits the viewer from engaging at any deeper level. It is like being bombarded with visual noise and so unable to perceive any of the subtleties contained within.

However, I believe that, most often, high spectacle can be a just mask behind which there is very little content. The Emperor’s New Clothes perhaps!

So, for me, spectacle is noisy, it shouts for attention. My personal preference, in photography, and what I seek for my own well-being, is silence. I want to experience and to photograph silence. I want my viewers to feel the quiet and calmness that I experienced when taking my images. I try to achieve this by constructing photographs that have significant narrative potential. I want my mages to engage viewers’ imaginations. In other words, I hope the viewer will take time to ask what, why, who and how about the image and so be driven to make up their own narratives. The narrative they create may be nothing like the one that I told myself when taking the image but that is not important. It is the level of engagement between the image and viewer that is important.

The vast majority of my landscape images include a human construct, marks or other evidence that people live or have lived in a particular place. Evidence of human presence automatically raises the narrative potential of an image in ways that (now rare) “natural” landscapes cannot. That humans (other than the photographer) have been there raises questions of why, who and how and will hopefully prompt speculation and “story making” by the viewer.

For me narrative or narrative potential must always come first. If the image is also spectacular that can be a bonus except where the spectacular masks the narrative. The ultimate format for my images is the panel or series where the narrative of the whole predominates and where no single image shouts for more attention than any other.


Gunning T. The Cinema of Attractions in Elsaessar T. Early Cinema: Space frame Narrative. London BFI Publishing 1990, p58

King G, New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, I.B Tauris, London and New York 2002, p. 178-179.

Banal Art, Robert Adams, and his influence

My friend, Neil Patton, has questioned my use of the term “Banal Art”. This was bothering me too, as it feels more likely to be read as “art that is banal” whereas I mean “art of the banal”.

I started to research the word banal by looking at other photography related uses of the word. One of the first references I found was a paper by Cecile Whiting called “The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West”. In this paper, the book, “The New West” by Robert Adams, is discussed at length. This was a useful lead, as Robert Adams was an early and key influencer of my own photographic style and choice of subject matter. In the paper Whiting describes Adams’ work as the “aesthetic of the banal” (p58).

Adams’ images in The New West are of urban development in the prairies, West of the Colorado Rockies, and show a sprawl of monotonous, flimsily built “tract houses” with the occasional views of the distant mountains. Talking about the chapters of the book Whiting says:

“These sections catalogue the ways in which human-made things – utility poles, power lines, strip malls, billboards, trailers, tract houses, commercial buildings – overwhelm the entire region of The New West.” (p59)

To see images from the book, go to:


Similarly, many of my photographic subjects are also of ordinary, functional, practical things, constructed by humans, but that appear idiosyncratic, out of place when set in the remote, sparsely populated and sometimes sublime landscapes, I choose to photograph.

My choice of subjects, and the way I present them, may be highly influenced by Robert Adams but until recently, there have been significant differences in our motivations. In Adams’ images, the “banal even seems to spread beyond the photographic frame” (p59). He is emphasising the scale of the impact of human constructs upon the landscape whereas I tend to focus on how small the human influence is within my chosen landscapes. Whilst Adams is raising awareness of the effects of too many humans I am typically trying to celebrate the pioneer spirit of the few people trying to make a living in remote landscapes.

“Adams either approached his motifs at such close range that he captured only parts of a house, car, or commercial building, or he remained at such a distance that the suburban development sprawls laterally beyond the photographic borders.” (p60)

Either way, it is the banal elements of the composition that dominate the “natural” landscape. I put “natural” in quotes because, today, it is virtually impossible to find any landscape, anywhere, that has not been modified in some way by human activity. Whiting makes the same point in the following quote, summing up Adams’ work:

“Sublime wilderness may be nothing but a fantasy, but the banal, by coexisting with nature, may be more than banal: transforming a natural setting that has never been timeless or pristine, the banal is, in a sense, naturalised.”

This quote strongly resonates with my own attitudes towards human activity and the environment.

These two images, from Iceland, are examples from my work where I am attempting to show the banal human constructs as insignificant impositions within a large, powerful, and empty landscape.

Here “nature” is not overwhelmed.

My most recent images have taken a new turn. Instead of showing insignificant human constructs, that barely impinge on their environment, with the Lammermuir Windfarm, I was now following Adams’ motivations and techniques. Here I allowed the subjects to flow out of the image frame to imply their endlessness. Like Adams, I have used a strong, banal, foreground element, plus other distant turbines in order to have the windfarm appear to overwhelm the landscape, even beyond the frame.

The message here is of an environment being taken over by humans, rather than my usual message of humans pioneering against the far more powerful landscape.

Here again, the turbines and their service roads appear to spread beyond the edges of the frame, implying their domination of the environment.

Conclusions – Neil Patton’s questioning of my use of the words “banal art” have led me down a very fruitful research path. I have been influenced by Robert Adams for many years but finding this paper has really helped me to understand the ways he has directly influenced my practice.

This exercise has also helped me understand how I can better use scale, quantity and placement of my subject(s) to actively guide (I could never control) the meanings I would like viewers to find.

Regarding subject matter, it is reassuring to read Adams’ quote:

“Many have asked, pointing incredulously towards a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but implies a difficult issue – why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks?”

As a landscape photographer who focuses on apparently banal subjects, I have often been asked similar questions.


Adams R. The New West, Aperture; New Ed edition, 2008

Whiting C. The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West, American Art published by The Smithsonian Institution, Vol27, Number2, 2013

Lammermuir Wind Farm

As a recent and very dramatic example of “human constructions in remote environments” windfarms have been a subject I have wanted to photograph. However, until yesterday, I was unable to get close enough to one to achieve representative images.

As usual I did as much planning as I could, using Google Earth to decide how to approach the wind farm above Gifford in the Lammermuir Hills. The only photographic hint that I gleaned from Google Earth was that the roadways leading to each turbine formed interesting, flower like patterns when viewed from above. I thought these might be compositionally useful. Other than that, I no clear ideas or expectations.

The walk in to the wind farm was across 3 miles of Grouse Moor. That was itself interesting as I disturbed many grouse, lapwings and hares as I passed by. On the way, I saw several of these, which I presume are rat traps laid to help protect the grouse.

I could see the wind turbines for the whole of my walk and started to consider the potential problems in photographing them. How could I include the turbine bases as well as the blades without resorting to distant or very wide-angle shots? I decided that the easiest solution was to make the nearest turbine base into a disruptive, foreground element cutting through the frame.

This was about my 4th attempt at a composition and the first that really appealed to me. I like the way the foreground turbine appears like a sentinel looking over the other turbines. I think it is the, almost face like appearance of the door that makes this work. The tiny electricity pylon on the left is an important element as it stops the eye from leaving the image on that side.

Here was one of several attempts to use the roadways as connecting, pattern elements. It hasn’t worked as well as I had hoped as am not high enough. The roadways are linking some elements but the pattern is not strong enough to lead the eye around the image. I think I will need to try again from the top of the hill off to the left of this frame.

When I think about it this image is not driven by narrative, as are most of my photos. Instead, seeing the flower like patterns on Google Earth led me to expectations around the potential for Design. I have not succeeded with that but I will try again from different locations.

One of the challenges photographing such a wind farm is to ensure there is separation between each of the many turbines. A pair of overlapping turbine masts is very messy and attracts the eye. Also, I must scan the whole image and try to take the shot when the turbine blades are not forming patterns with each other that might attract unnecessary attention. This is not too difficult and just requires a few seconds monitoring the viewfinder to understand the rhythms of the blades.

The cloudy sky was a problem. It is far too lumpy for my taste. Next time I need a smoother, darker sky so I can make the white windmills separate from the background more effectively.

Image Analysis by “Initiative”

I have been trying to analyse what are the factors that initiate my taking a particular composition and have devised the following processes to achieve it.
To start with I had to discover and give names to the factors that caused me to be interested in taking a particular image. By reviewing 76 of my “Iceland 2017” images I was able to identify and give names to the following factors:

Intuition – I see an image, I know it is right but I cannot yet explain why. I am recognising the potential for a narrative in the scene but not the narrative itself.
Recognition – I recognise a relationship to something else, a painting, a film, a style, that has previously inspired me. For me, such a scene already has a built-in narrative.
Design – There is something about the design of the scene that appeals – colours, shapes, etc. However, it may not have much in the way of a narrative.
Belief – A location that appears to have a lot of potential compositions that should have interesting narratives. For example, there are quirky         elements and or juxtapositions.
Spectacle – The lighting or something else makes for a spectacular image but often without other merits such as a strong narrative.

Some images had more than one initiating factor. For example, I may have started at a location with a “Belief” that good images could be found there. Then later I identify some elements of “Design” that appealed to me. Such an image would score for both Belief and Design. Hence a larger total number of “Factors” appear in the data than the number of images.

The second step was to go through each image and give it a score based upon my personal preferences, was I pleased with it, did it have a strong narrative, did it fit with my research goals, etc.

This is a purely subjective scoring system that left me with 35 images out of 76 classified as Good or Very Good.

Here is a chart showing the proportions of images that I classified as successful or not.

I am planning to engage with an independent group of photographers for them to rate my photographs against my stated objectives and against their personal preferences as a reality check of my own analysis.

Only those images rated as Good or Very Good will ever be considered for display in my project.

My aim here is to discover whether any particular factor or factors resulted in more or fewer successful images.

The following data table shows the factors versus image success.

Factor                       Good or Very good images                 All images
Belief                                        15                                               44
Design                                      15                                               28
Intuition                                   7                                                 8
Recognition                             5                                                 6
Spectacle                                  3                                                 6

When these numbers are displayed on a Radar chart (and referencing back to the raw data for Image Success) some interesting conclusions can be made.

The most striking observation is that all 7 images with “Intuition” as an identified factor also scored as “Very Good”.

Five of the 7 images with “Recognition” as a factor scored either “Good” or “Very Good”.

Just 5 of my images were classified as “Spectacle” and of these only 3 achieved a score of “Good” or “Very Good”. So being spectacular is not a strong indicator of success.

“Belief” is by far the most common driver for my actually taking an image. However, only ~34% of such images score “Good” or “Very Good”.

“Design” is not a good predictor that the final image will be a success.

Overall my experiencing feelings of “Intuition” or “Recognition” at a location are by far the best indicators that I will produce successful images.

“Belief”, based upon having seen quirky elements and or juxtapositions at a location, maybe a good starting point for taking images but I am not so good at turning this into successful compositions unless I also experience “Intuition” or “Recognition”.

Most of the locations for the images in this sample were only visited once. Consequently, I had little choice over the lighting conditions and this certainly had an impact upon my success rate.

Additionally, when “Belief” is the sole driver, perhaps I need to visit the location more than once in order to better understand it and its possibilities. This technique did work with my multiple visits to Cramond Island. For future field work I should plan to travel less and spend longer at each location.

Seeing stories versus Making stories

After taking an intuitively composed image I can often find quite complex narratives within it. Given that these images have been intuitively composed, that is quickly and without any overt thought, I wonder whether these narratives were intuitively seen or just made up later from my thoughts when deconstructing the image.

My hypothesis is that most of the narrative is already seen, but probably not yet understood at the instant of intuitive composition. I will us a “thought experiment” to test my hypothesis.

I start with an image that became the catalyst for my final undergraduate project. I saw this scene and immediately knew it was going to be important to the narrative of the whole project. I couldn’t explain why. I just knew!

At this point, I had little idea what my project would be about, except that it would be images of objects and scenes at the National Trust’s, Tyntesfield House that were not normally be visible to the public.

The House was closed to the public whilst the staff performed a major cleaning operation. Here a portrait of Tyntesfield’s founding father has been removed from the wall, placed on the floor with the rope and some tissue providing a little protection.

It was the incongruity of the arrangement and the impression of a face hidden but trying to peer through the tissue that was immediately attractive to me.

However, the fact that this was some form of maintenance work seemed obvious from this composition. There is a narrative here but not a complex one. I wanted to achieve something more enigmatic.

This was certainly an intuitive composition. For the final version, with little more than a few seconds thinking I concluded that a closer crop was required to eliminate information and so create the required enigma.

Here is the final version. The whole process, from seeing the scene to creating this final version, was a matter of a couple of minutes. I knew I had something special but without knowing why.

Consequently, I consider this to be an “intuitive composition”.

Over the next weeks, as I looked at and started to deconstruct the image, the following narratives come out.

This is the portrait of a of a very wealthy and powerful man, Anthony Gibbs. In the 1800’s he made large profits from the South American guano trade. A result of his success was the 100 room Tyntesfield House and its 600-acre estate.

His portrait has looked down upon his descendants and their servants for 200 years.

However, today it is the thousands of National trust visitors who look at him as if he is just an attraction in a zoo.

I wonder what would he think?

Even worse, here he is, with his face hidden by tissue and guarded by a rope. Instead of a demonstration of his authority, his portrait is just another object to be cleaned. Would he be horrified by the indignity?

I knew some of the history of the family and house so how much of this narrative did I unconsciously recognise at the time of taking?

Or was it an intuitive recognition of the narrative potential, created by this unusual scene?

Or was the narrative wholly created later, based upon the composition I had taken?

I do know that I was so excited in the moment of seeing and taking the image that I must have recognised something instantly and intuitively.

I immediately understood that this scene would become the foundation for my whole project.

From then on, my project focused on the quirky juxtapositions of objects, accidentally created by conservators as they went about maintaining the house and its contents.

Today, going back to my “Artist Statement”, written at the time (2010), I found the following:

“My photography is about exposing and giving significance to the unintended compositions and accidental beauty of stored, sometimes forgotten and usually hidden objects within their landscapes. There is no deliberate narrative. These are “found” objects in “found” compositions taken without manipulation.”

I was not trying to create any specific narrative but was more concerned about the visual relationships to be found in the “unintended compositions”.  Later in the statement I wrote:

My viewpoint and composition invite the viewer to invent a narrative and attribute their own significances to each object and its place in the image.

I do want to viewer to be sufficiently intrigued by the composition that they will take time to wonder about and create their own image narratives.

In Conclusion

I am not, as I hypothesised earlier, composing based upon having intuitively seen a narrative that I cannot yet articulate.

Instead I am being intuitively attracted by the juxtapositions of a scene’s elements and the possibilities they create for making narratives.

It is an intuitive recognition of a potential narrative that is driving my compositions.

New Topographics?

I have long been inspired by the “New Topographics” photography. In particular the photographers, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke with their ability to conjure beautiful images out of banal subjects.

When I saw the following scene at Laugarbakki, Iceland I immediately thought it was something that might have been taken by Adams.  The new lamp post, the part-made road and the emptiness of a landscape rolling into the distance all reference his critique of urban expansion into the prairies around Denver, Colorado.

This is NOT an intuitive composition! I saw the potential for an image and then it was a case of trying several different compositions until I achieved something I felt was appropriate for an homage to Adams. I will show the initial attempts further on in the blog.

Adams always used B&W film and so I felt the need to convert my image to B&W as well.

Far from being an Icelandic scene this looks much more like the baking hot prairie as the grasses are so light in tone. The sky is heavily overcast and would never be the same as Adams, Coloradan, wall to wall, clear blue skies, which added to the emptiness of his images.

Here are 3 earlier compositions that did not work.

There is no shape to this image and the tyre tracks, far from adding interest, just appear confusing.

This is better as I now have the triangle of grass on the left providing something of a zig-zag shape to the foreground. The single lamp on the right, appearing to look into the image, is OK but feels too comfortable an arrangement. The distant hedge touching the lamp post is just wrong.

The foreground shape is now more powerful but the composition still lacks something. It feels flat, too symmetrical.

In the final version, shown again below, the base of the lamp is now at a fulcrum point around which the weights of the other image elements could rotate. The lamp itself is now looking out of the image and this feels like a tension point (imagine a rope from the lamp to the left edge of the image) which is supporting all the weight of all the image to the right.



Diary of a Landscape shoot

I’d seen these derelict Cod Drying Racks just south of Husavik. These were far less densely arranged than those at Olafsfjordur, where I had found it very difficult to extract any good compositions. In the end I walked away from Olafsfjordur without any decent images but this was much more promising.

Here is the first, the “intuitive” composition.

Although quite pleased with the arrangement I felt there was too much of a coincidental meeting of the timbers and this attracted my eyes. See where the two arrows are pointing.

Initially, I tried moving about 1 metre to the right. This resolved the overlap but the various elements now seem far too disconnected, the nearest poles too prominent and the overall composition just messy.

Moving back towards the original position I found a good compromise.

The problem overlap is now removed but another created further down the pole. However, this bothers me less as it is closer to the ground (not in the sky area) and so is less noticeable. I now wish I had taken a step back as well because in this version the top pole feels too close and I would now like to have had more sky and more foreground. Another missed opportunity as I did not see this issue at the time!

At this point I was starting to feel more confident with the subject and wanted to find some more radical, less “record shot” compositions. I composed several more images but the following was my final and, I believe, the most successful one.

The purpose of the wooden structures is now, even less obvious than in the previous images. I have now included the Husavik lighthouse and just a few houses, none of which are easy to see. They are just suggestions of a community some way off. The cod drying racks now, to me, appear like some sort of medieval siege weapons that are pointing at the settlement. They are watching from a distance, also from a high vantage point, as if preparing for an attack.

This composition has become quite surreal and raises far more narrative questions than it answers.

Finally, the parallel lines of the horizontal poles, the horizon and, to a lesser extent, the foreground cliff edge form a pleasing repetition.

I spent about an hour at this location. That’s not long compared with other landscape photographers but it was my second “Cod Drying Rack” location and I had already discovered what I didn’t want to do when at Olafsfjordur. Overall I took about 8 different compositions but space limits what is worth discussing here.

Images analysis – Gestalt?


I read the following at http://www.users.totalise.co.uk/~kbroom/Lectures/gestalt.htm

“Gestalt means when parts identified individually have different characteristics to the whole (Gestalt means “organised whole”) e.g. describing a tree – it’s parts are trunk, branches, leaves, perhaps blossoms or fruit. But when you look at an entire tree, you are not conscious of the parts, you are aware of the overall object – the tree.”

This is a very simplistic description of Gestalt Theory but the idea described here set me thinking about some of my compositions, especially those where the individual elements seem trivial but their arrangement, size, colour, tone, etc., make for an integrated whole. For example:

There are 4 key elements in this image: the fence, the hillside, the worn patch of earth and the sky (with small cloud). None of these is particularly interesting on its own but together they form a calm, balanced, and satisfying composition that suggests warmth, quietness, even silence. The elements make an “organised whole”.

The image may not immediately grab the viewer’s attention but it does have intrigue. The view of hills beyond the fence suggests height but there is no other indication of the location. Where is it? Why is the fence here? What caused the worn patch? What lies beyond that horizon? Is it a cliff edge?

The image was, in fact, taken about ½ way up Aonach Mor mountain, near Fort William and the fence is snow fence for a ski run.

The following example is similar but has an additional, and disruptive element.

Without the bulldozer, this image would be about the marks, shapes, and colours of the quarry. That humans are involved in the creation of this scene is obvious from the tracks. Also, the conical gravel piles, which can be created by natural (volcanic) forces, are more than likely made by humans.

The bulldozer is a disruptive element because its straight lines and sharp edges are distinctly mechanical. It immediately attracts the eye for its own qualities and not because it is part of the whole scene. Bulldozers have aggressive associations and the way this one is placed, slightly hiding behind a gravel pile, it could be a mechanical dog, guarding the quarry. It is not facing the viewer but there is a sense in which it is aware of the viewer, waiting, prepared. These feelings are enhanced by the tyre tracks leading past the front of the bulldozer. These imply there is a specific path the viewer should take into the image and this path goes in front of, and close to the bulldozer. Is this safe?

In this image, the quarry has become a canvas upon which the bulldozer sits. The whole is really two images which, when combined, produce a single narrative.

Conclusion – The first image asks us to view it as a whole, as a collection of shapes and colours. There is no dominant narrative element. It is the arrangement of the whole that creates a narrative.

The second image would be similar if it weren’t for the presence of the bulldozer. The bulldozer, its associations and its position dominate the image and create a new narrative that is not present when the bulldozer is absent.

Aonach Mor Ski Resort

Again, I am visiting a ski resort “out of season”. The aim is to show the man-made constructs against the natural hillsides, without the cosmetic effects and contextual information provided by snow. I am attempting to minimise context and create more room for conjecture about the actual purpose of these constructs.

The weather was very sunny and windy, neither of which helped me in creating my usual mood. There was certainly none of the mist that had helped with the sense of isolation I achieved on my visit to the Glen Coe ski resort, last October.

Do these images support my thesis that man-made constructs become attractive focal points for photographic compositions? I’m not sure that is still valid when the constructs are the only really significant elements in the images.

This first image was the “intuitive” composition. There was little active thought about its composition except for the positioning of the pole lying on the right edge.

It was the curves, the complex construction of the fences and the implied path over the horizon that attracted me. I deliberately cut off the pole (right side) as it exited the image. I saw this as a way of holding the right edge, as if it was a support for the white frame of the page. For me this makes the edge seem like a wall stopping the eye from leaving on that side.

There is little, except the small glimpse of ski matting through the fence to indicate the purpose of these fences.  The distant hills help with the impression of remoteness.

I then tried the following composition that includes more contextual information. More ski matting, a metal bridge and a coil of wire are now visible. There is now also a hint of a tree plantation on the distant left side as further evidence of human presence.

Next I abandoned the “curves” in favour of focusing on the fence and, in particular, the gaps in the fence. These gaps look intentional (not due to weathering) which suggests a purpose other than the containment livestock but there are no longer any obvious ski references.

In this final version, I have tried to simplify and remove the context from the image even more. Now we are just left with an isolated fence and a worn piece of earth.

The distant hills are inaccessible (behind the fence) and the sky far more prominent, both of which increase the sense of isolation. By moving further into the scene, by removing the right-hand piece of fence and our inability, now, to clearly see the distant hills, the horizon line seems closer and much more of a cliff edge. There is a sense of danger about this image.

Conclusion – This exercise has shown, again, the value of starting with an intuitive composition but then refining it by working out the narrative and deciding what I want to emphasise and conceal.

I took the images in the order shown here. The second and fourth compositions, I think, work best but in very different ways.

In the second image the plantation and the right-side fence are bowed to the right and seem to be both echoing and balancing each other. Also in this image, the distant hills are balancing the hillside to the right of the fence whereas, in the first image, there is no relationship or connection between these features. Consequently, the second image is the more complete composition.

Similarly, I think the fourth image is better balanced than the third. In the third image the several bits of fence, land and sky are not well balanced and lack coherence. However, in the fourth image the weights of the various shapes (fence, hill, bare earth and sky) fit together such that they could rotate around the point where the gap in the fence meets the ground. Also, in this image a nice addition is that the central cloud now seems to be a statement whereas in the other images it is just a minor feature of the sky.

Finally, I now think my thesis is valid. The fourth image has convinced me that, rather than seeing the fence as the “only significant element”, the patch of bare earth, the hillside, the sky and even the tiny cloud are all equally significant elements. It is the way that they all balance, complement and fit with each other that makes the whole composition work.


Move 2 metres to the right

These two images were taken because the scenes reminded me of when I lived in the prairies of Canada. The endless vista, the long straight road leading into the horizon, the dry, yellow grasses and dark earth are all like Manitoba, in winter, except this is near Flugumyri, on R76, in northern Iceland. This prairie like landscape was something I did not expect to see in Iceland and, in reality and unlike Manitoba, the fog is hiding a mountain range just a few miles distant.


For me, these two images have different narratives despite being taken just 2 metres apart.

The upper image has the large boulder on the left as an anchor point. From there the eye follows the fence as it rolls into the ditch and up to the horizon before coming back down the track. The track has relatively minor significance within the whole image. In fact, there is no one key element in this image.

Across both images there are horizontal diggings in the fields that add to the sense of recession and so emphasise the distance, as you look towards the horizon. But, apart from these there is little to attract the eye away from the ditch and track.

For me, the top image is about the emotions and the memories that it evokes relating to Canada. The narrative about who, when and why the ditch, track and fences were constructed is a minor factor.

In the second image the track has a much more significant role. The gate posts are an entrance, inviting you to go directly along the track toward the distant horizon. The horizon beckons! The ditch and fence, in this image, act as barriers to seeing, or wandering off to the left. The left hand, gate post, cutting across the ditch, also stops the eye from following the ditch rather than the track. Even the dark tyre marks between the gate posts, being much more prominent in this image, force this direction of view. It is a very much more directed view and it is even more difficult to wander around this image.

The second image is about being enticed to start a journey. Again, the who, when, why narrative is less significant.

The intrigue in both is about wondering what is beyond that horizon. Obviously, whatever is there, is attractive to and useful enough for humans to have built the track and fences to get there.


I find it exciting that a very small change in view-point can make such a large difference to my reading of the image. It is both an opportunity to dramatically change meanings with a small shift in position and also a challenge to ensure the composition conveys the meaning the author wants.