Join Ben Long for an in-depth discussion in this video Looking at a case study by George Byrne, part of Photography: Advanced Composition.
- George Byrne is an Australian photographer who makes a lot of photographs of mundane things, mostly things found in everyday life in cities. But his ability to organize these things into satisfying compositions is spectacular. He recently opened a solo exhibit in New York of images shot in Los Angeles and while there are plenty of recognizable objects in these photos, I'm still including them in this discussion of abstraction because the point of these images are the deeply satisfying compositions. Here's an example.
It doesn't take long to figure out what this is. That yellow pole is something that's in a parking lot so I assume he's standing in a parking lot, shooting a building, but who cares what this is. This is such a beautiful combination of colored squares and that green detail that's pained on the peach rectangle there is just fantastic. I could try to take apart why this works, but it's no that hard to do. You should be able to figure this out on your own.
It is just a satisfying, complete, balanced image. Look at how the yellow vertical line of the pole in the lower right hand corner reflects the tiny bit of vertical blue line in the upper left hand corner there. They're not the same length, but they balance each other somehow. We're going to talk later about shooting in layers and while on the one hand this looks flat, there's also great depth to it. The shadow under the peach rectangle there, the light blue appearing to be behind the white, and the sky behind all of that, the yellow pole in front. There's depth to this and I'm going to shut up because the main thing about this is it just feels right and this is the power of abstract composition.
Again, there's plenty that's recognizable here. What I like about this is that little bit of crosswalk there on the left. It's a recognizable shape but in the context of this image, it's just some very well-used little dashed lines. It's hard not to see depth in these images. It's hard not to understand that we are looking at a plane that's intersecting with a wall and it works in that sense but it's also nice to try to get your eyes to separate yourself from the depth of this image and look at it as if these are just shapes that have been painted on a piece of paper and image them just as a collection of lines and shapes.
Again, everything here is exactly where it needs to be. There's not a hair out of place in this image. How he recognized that he could take that yellow bit down in the lower right hand corner and reinforce it with the yellow bit over there on the left side. Again, think about the fact that he is seeing an entire scene here and just cutting this bit out of it. Here's kind of a reflection of that last one that we saw, the other end of the parking lot. These images look like they're very easy to pull off but when you imagine the much larger context that he's cutting these out of, these are just incredible acts of seeing.
Very pleasing combination of shapes. We're not having a lot of color play in this one like we had in the other one but wow, what a great thing, that little bit of blue and white is in the lower left hand corner. I do not think these images mean anything. I do not think they look like anything. They are pure composition. They are perfect expressions of the fact that composition itself can give an emotional response. Everything we've been talking about in this chapter. I think this image would be still great but somehow not as effective if there wasn't that little cutout air vent or something in the lower right hand corner.
I just like the extra something that adds to this image. These images are incredibly simple and this is going to be something that we hit a lot in this course. Simplicity is critical to composition. We talk about that a lot in foundations of photography composition. There's nothing extra in these images. He's really paired them down to only what he needs to make an emotionally satisfying composition. And then we hit images like this one where there are things that are so recognizable that you can't get your head into too abstract a space about it and this has several of them.
First of all, my eye goes immediately to that beige gate or whatever it is, and it's just so obviously a gate and that's a light pole next to it in the shadow of a lamp and whatnot. And I think he has built these together into really well executed compositions. That pink accent in the upper left hand corner balances out the strong red in the lower right hand corner but I don't feel that this image is as abstract. I don't go into quite a state of pure abstraction that I do on the others. I still really like it, I still think it's masterfully composed and still an expression of what we're talking about, but I struggle a little bit more with this as an act of pure abstraction because there are these recognizable shapes.
However, we've been talking and here's another one like that about the fact that you do eventually tread into a line between abstract and representational. So he's walking that line here. He's showing me some things that I can recognize and he's keeping me in this abstract space and that's a place that I'm going to ask you to practice a lot in later. One thing that I really like about these images. Yes, they are abstractions. Yes, they are fantastically composed. But they're also amazingly really truly a capture of LA, in my opinion.
If you spend much time in Los Angeles, these images should all feel very familiar. The light that he's captured is that scalding white light that we get on the west coast, particularly in LA. It's one of the reasons that they chose to put the movie industry there. And these are just so many of the colors and textures that you see as you walk around LA. This is probably the most specifically representational of all the images in here. I think for that reason, it's my least favorite of these. But still, the composition is dead on. This one also brings up something that's really spectacular about the other images.
If you've spent much time in LA, you know that you spend a lot of time around cars, and he's managed to find so many slices that are car-free, I think that's a real achievement. Again, just perfectly executed and put together. Those two light posts bookended by two identically colored fire hydrants and the ability to see this stuff while you're walking around town. He makes it look very simple. It's not. I want to go back real quick for a moment to these two images. You saw these as individuals but I think it's important that you see them side by side because this is pretty extraordinary.
He shot these two separately and when you see them side by side, they're almost perfect mirrors. And you may think well he just flipped one and recolored that purple pole to be yellow, no. The pole's not in the same place. Here, it's closer to this blue thing. This one is further from this blue thing. The symmetry is spectacular. These match, these match, the curve of the road, the color of the pavement here, the similar crosswalk arrangements here. About the only thing that's different is this yellow stripe is missing over here and things are in slightly different places.
What's amazing is these must be on different ends of a parking lot or something and he recognized that they fit together but there's something else going on here. If they're at different ends of a parking lot on the same plane, then this shadow should match this shadow, this should be going over here and it doesn't and this should be coming this way and it doesn't so either this was on the other side of the building or he shot this one at a different time of day to set up the shadows so that they would point inwards to finish his symmetry.
All of these images but particularly these two are great examples of what is required, what the nuts and bolts, everyday just basic hard work is a good composition and that is that you've got to have everything in the right place. You have to work with care, you have to really pay attention to every single line and take note of how they all fit together. You can see a lot more of George Byrne's work on his Instagram feed. There's a lot great stuff there. You're going to see a lot more of this type of work but it's fun to see him working with other locations and other material.
- Best practices for advanced composition
- Reviewing other photographers' work
- Composing a scene
- Placing objects
- Composing around light and geometry
- Composing with layers: foreground and background
- Compositional exercises