Photography and Art

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Third Dimension

Today, I went for a walk at noon hour and dropped in at the Stephen Bulger Gallery on Queen West here in Toronto. The current exhibit is by a wonderful Canadian photographer called Larry Towell.

Towell earned his stripes as a photo journalist, travelling the world to document the dispossessed. Wearying of the continual wars and general trampling of human rights around the world, he moved to Lambton County in south-western Ontario, bought a 75 acre farm and started raising crops.

His current photo exhibition is entitled "The World from My Front Porch", a huge departure from photographing worldwide human disasters and hardship. The photos are traditional black and white prints, 16x20 or larger, depicting Towell's family and pets in and around their farm. The scenes are pastoral, the mood is tranquil and the images are absolutely fabulous.

I first saw the photos in a newspaper article, then on the web, but I was not at all prepared for the impact that these photos have in person. The thing that strikes you when you stand in front of each image is the powerful depth of the composition. It's almost as if viewers were armed with 3D glasses at the front door of the gallery. There is something about each one of them that creates a powerful suction that pulls your eyeballs out of their sockets and into the image. Part of it is the quality of the prints themselves. These are traditional gelatin silver prints and the tonality of the images is just a thing of beauty. But, there is more to it than that. Each image is constructed so that the scene is three dimensional. There are cues to the eye and the brain everywhere, like dirt roads going into the background, a porch littered with trikes and toys leading to the subject, a boy in the foreground painting a picture of a truck in the background.

Towell has this amazing gift to see things in three dimensions and arrange the elements of the image to convey his vision. Here's an example. In the photo, you see three boys standing on a dirt road. The road recedes into the background. But, the boys are not arranged in a row - they are standing one behind another, all in focus. As a result, the image takes on this wonderful third dimension from the front boy, through to the middle, the back and then on down the road.

It reminds me of one of those optical illusions that were all the rage years ago, where at first you see a random pattern of coloured dots, but if you stare at the photo for long enough, you start to see a 3D image emerge. I get the same feeling as I stare at one of Towell's works. At first, you see a nicely composed black and white image with some handsome children or a pretty wife. Then, the image slowly resolves itself and the third dimension starts to appear. The photo seems to extend backwards into the wall.

This has given me lots to think about indeed. I look at my images and I see a lot of two dimensional works. In fact, when I take a photo, I tend to visualize the result in two-dimensional space. I compose the objects in the photo using guidelines like the rule of thirds that arrange them in a pleasing way along the x and y axis.

Now, I'm going to have to engage with the third dimension. I'm going to have to look for cues that place objects in relation to one another on the z axis, extending back away from the camera. The choice of lens probably factors into this as well. My guess would be that Towell uses telephoto lenses to compress the image and stress the depth of the scene. This calls for some experimentation!

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