You might say it’s obvious. The subject of the photograph is a wooden path laid over a pebble beach. And thanks to either the viewer’s own recognition or by way of the photographer’s narrative, you’d know the path is on Dungeness Beach, Kent. The path is undulating and leads up to a crest, before the beach slopes down to the English Channel. The blue-overcast day with strange lower level mottled clouds provides an unusual shade of light but doesn’t change the core subject. The picture is about the path.
Fair enough. Your literal interpretation of the scene is perfectly valid. And in the absence of any guiding words – a title or accompanying description, what else could it be about?
But what if I told you the photograph isn’t about the path? Nor indeed about the pebbles, the sky, or the place? What if I then gave you a title? Symmetry. Have another look.
(I must say at this point that the idea behind the photograph isn’t new or original. I got it from my studies in photography and particularly from appreciating how photographs (and before them paintings and drawings) can reflect a state of mind, mood, or feeling).
When I saw this scene on Dungeness beach, something from my studies must have kicked in. I didn’t see footpath over a beach, or another literal interpretation. I saw symmetry and, related to this, finding balance in life.
Sceptically, you might ask: do photographers, honestly, go around seeking scenes that reflect states of mind, moods, or feelings? Well, based on my reading, yes, they do. Indeed, photography writers encourage it. I was given an excellent photo-journal book once* (in which you stick photographs that correspond with a statement – effectively a book of photography tasks). It asks photographers things like:
I’ve also seen this task in several places:
I’ll be honest, on the day I took Symmetry in Dungeness, I didn’t set out to capture human mindsets. I went looking for beach, boat, lighthouse and nuclear power station shots. And I did capture these types of images. But while the path was interesting and worth scouting for a possible shot, I’d say my sub-conscious steered me towards looking at the scene in this more abstract way.
To start with, the photograph breaks a photography ‘rule’, by having the horizon line in the middle of the frame. But that just plays into the whole feeling of symmetry. There are rules to follow but sometimes we have to bend or break them for some greater good. Then, there’s the path leading in from bottom centre of the frame and creating a ‘T’ with the horizon. This shares out (about) equal share of beach either side. Considering the light, it’s neither bright nor dull. And there are highlights but also some shadows in the clouds and on the ground. Looking at the colours, the blue in the sky compliments it’s opposite colour on the colour wheel, orange. And when it comes to the strangely mottled sky, though a bit more contentious, I would argue that it balances against the pebbles on the beach. Finally, an irony in all of this; for the image to have balance, it requires some small imbalances. This is so that it doesn’t (at least for me) appear too mathematical or sterile. Like life, there are always chinks. Thus, the green beach vegetation isn’t uniform either side of the path. Also, more importantly, the path isn’t a dead straight line but contains a cheeky hump part way along and a slight skew to the right with a guide rail handle at the end.
“All moderately interesting”, you might say, “but what’s the take-away from this photograph’s story?” Well, it’s to always take a second glance at photographs that hold your attention for that little moment longer. Because it might be that what held your gaze for that extra split second, isn’t what the image appears to be about but what it’s really about. And that might be something more to do with our, your, state of mind, mood, or feeling, than the literal scene. Which surely gives such photographs more viewer insight and value.
*Use This If You Want To Take Great Photographs. A photo journal – Henry Carroll - ISBN 978-1-78067-888-7 www.laurenceking.com