Perceiving potential Narratives as a source of composition

This title  describes a situation where my initial impressions of a scene result (usually) in anthropomorphic narratives being applied to inanimate objects and their relationships within a scene. I then compose the image to emphasise the narratives I have seen. I emphasise these are almost instantaneous visions of relationships and potential narratives. These are compositions that I used to consider wholly intuitive until I started this research and began to unravel my motivations image by image.

In this image I had perceived a relationship between the power pole and the children’s slide. The pole appears powerful, upright and, with a high viewpoint, it appears attentive, as if scanning for threats.

The pole’s juxtaposition, relative to the slide (representing a child) made this scene appear to be of a metaphorical parent and child. The parent protective and observant whilst the child slide is bright, curved (stress-free) and enjoying itself.

This next image, taken at the same time as the Slide and Pole above, is all about the violence inflicted upon the hedge.

It was photographed head on, to give the impression of our facing a soldiers’ advance, as on a WW1 battlefield. The soldiers in the foreground have been mown down whilst the tall, strong trees behind (generals perhaps?) are untouched and focused above and beyond the ranks towards a higher purpose.

This is another image seen and very quickly taken because I knew (intuitively?) that there was a story here, in this composition. It was part of my BA (hons) final degree exhibition in 2011.

The painting is of an early, Lord Wraxall, creator of the 600 acre, Tyntesfield House Estate, near Bristol. His wealth and the building of the estate was funded by the import and sales of guano from South America. The house and estate are now owned by the National Trust.

My narrative for this image is founded upon Tyntesfield House no longer being the private home of a wealthy aristocratic family but having been turned, by the National Trust, into a zoo of objects for the general public to gaze upon. Instead of Lord Wraxall’s image being displayed prominently, in a way he might consider appropriate to his standing, it is behind a cord with his face is covered. Not perhaps a dignified situation for the former owner of the house. His image has been reduced to that of just another stately home object with its meaning removed for all except those few who take a direct interest in the history. For me this is an image about mortality, the triviality of our existences, whoever we are, and the world moving on regardless.

Another image where the composition was quickly formulated after perceiving some key factors about the location. First, the rock colours and the conical piles reminded me of treasure. This idea was reinforced by the aggressive looking bulldozer, not looking at us, but appearing attentive, cowering behind its own little gravel pile. Is it protecting the treasure? The final elements that formulated the narrative were the tracks appearing from the bottom left. A few have ventured passed the “teeth” of the bulldozer but more have turned around, not risking annoying the guard.


These are fanciful, anthropomorphic narratives that work for me. I am explaining them here as part of my research, but I have learned that I should not normally provide viewers with such stories as this limits their own creation of narratives. Additionally, if the viewer rejects my interpretation, they may not go on to develop their own.

I have now learned to have confidence in my images. If I can develop such complicated, metaphorical narratives from my photographs, then others can also do it for themselves.

Same location, similar content but very different origins

I have noticed that some of my images, whilst superficially very similar, have quite different origins for their compositions. For example, these images, were both taken at Skaw on Unst on the same day:

This image followed a pattern I have seen and used before. I instantly saw its potential as a piece of “Public Art” and arranged the composition to make it look far more like I am celebrating an artist’s installation rather than a mundane concrete support for an antenna – its actual purpose. The positioning of the clouds was also deliberate so as to give the impression that the steel girders are chimneys. Overall, this image was deliberately contrived and composed to achieve a quirky, mildly humorous photograph.

This image, whilst superficially, very similar, had a quite different origin. I did not initially perceive this brick construct as an independent element within the scene. Rather I saw it, halved, as shown here, with the pool of water cradling its base, and the clouds plus the horizons of the land and the sea pointing towards it. In other words, I saw the whole picture as a series of interrelated shapes rather than as individual elements of a composition.

The next diagrammatic version explains what I perceived more clearly.

Was my seeing this a moment of “visual indeterminacy”? It was certainly a fleeting moment of initial perception that was soon replaced by an understanding of the various parts as discrete elements.

From then on, I used my memory of my initial perceptions to compose the final image.

The following image was conceived quite differently to either of the ones discussed above.

I saw this as a pleasing arrangement and alignment of the lines that connected the foundations to the derelict shed and the horizon. It is a consciously composed image where the reality of independent elements has been challenged by moving the camera until the separate components were forced to connect.

The next image has no narrative perceived by me and was seen as no more than a nicely balanced arrangement of disparate elements, in particular the tracks, block houses and the rocks.

It is a conscious design that leaves everything except the stability of the image unexplained.

Here are further examples, from different locations, where I had an initial, short, almost two-dimensional perception of the scene that was then used to construct a final image from my memory of it:

Initial (indeterminate) 2D perceptions

This instantaneous visualisation of the whole and or relationships between elements that exist visually but not in reality is not a new phenomena for me. However, having recognised, in 2018, and understood they way it works for me, I am now deliberately following that path and not trying to over-think the compositions.

Images from the same locations as those above but that were more “traditionally” seen and composed follow: 


By “traditionally” composed I mean that I saw what looked like a pleasing arrangement of elements and moved around to achieve the final composition. There was no instant visualisation and usually little “potential narrative” to be developed.

Of course there is narrative potential in this image below. However, at the time I only saw it a an interesting arrangement of the building, the man-hole and the fence. Unlike the earlier scene from this location this is easily perceived as a three-dimensional image rather than being seen in just two-dimensions.

“Potential narratives” as a source of composition will be discussed in a later blog.


The above demonstrates that even at a single location, on the same day, my motivations for making individual images can vary significantly. There are at least 4 different sources of inspiration from my day at Skaw on Unst!