I wanted to publish this in two separate posts but I decided to just keep it all together and perhaps that way it will make more sense. This won’t be your usual 30-second read, but if you enjoy photography or visual expression of any kind, this might be a tad more interesting than it seems, so bear with me.
I want to start with the easy and boring part about technique and the obvious application of layers in photographic compositions. Then, I would like to finish with a less technical approach to this topic and remind myself (and hopefully you as well) that street photography can also have a meaningful facet.
My opinions on the subject of art can be a little controversial (just a little), so I’d like to prioritise the significant side of things without getting trapped in the definitions game. I usually prefer to play the meanings game. After all, we feel art more than we can understand it, and sometimes, art means more than we can explain or define.
Okay, so what’s the deal with layers?
Layering is a very useful resource to make a photograph work. This technique could add depth, movement and even bring life into a still image. By integrating two or more levels of complexity, the picture acquires just as many levels of interpretation and excitement, but it also involves just as many challenges in terms of composition, subject matter and editing.
There are quite a few ways of layering photographs and some of the best photographers in history have been masters of these techniques, but even normal humans like you and I can also try them out and make our work much more dynamic and interesting, or at least, have more fun during the process.
Just a few examples:
This last photo was the one I decided to submit to the Framelines magazine “street assignment #8”. All the other examples I’ve shown here were already existing photos of mine that I could’ve used, but for this occasion I wanted to walk the streets of Budapest and create a scene with as many levels of complexity as I could find. I could’ve played it safe, however, the excitement of the challenge and the opportunity to practice and improve upon one of my favourite types of composition was the reward itself. Furthermore, that little homework was the inciting incident that led me to start writing down and sharing my thoughts on the matter. Sometimes these small bets pay off in more than one way.
Anyway, I’m not used to praising my own work, but I must admit that I love that last image. I considered editing it a little more, although I was happy with the way the raw file came out of the camera; in the end, I didn’t want to take away from that eerie feeling I get every time I look at it. It almost makes me feel like I’m vicariously lamenting the decay of modern urban life; an honest reminder of where I come from and where I don’t want to go back. It is dark, I know, perhaps accidentally so, but let’s purposely use this darkness to transition into something a bit more hopeful, shall we?
Let’s dig a little deeper and figure out what the hell is the point of all this layering stuff. Is it just to make cool pictures and have fun? Well, that’s definitely part of it. But is it possible that those cool pictures mean anything at all? For this purpose, I want to concentrate on my favourite layering method: reflections.
So what is the meaning that I find on reflections?
I’ll try my best to put it into words, but in the end, I hope this last series of photos tell you more than I can say. They are all about the extra depth a scene can gain from the proper utilisation of reflective surfaces like mirrors and windows. They are some of the most common and ubiquitous objects in modern cities, yet difficult to successfully use in photography, perhaps due to the fact that they are so prevalent and we are so used to them.
Often we don't consider them as possible creative tools or, when we do, their effect is so obvious and distinctive, that we run the risk of settling for a less than optimal result. That's part of the nature of reflections: we take them for granted and when we stop to admire them, we somehow manage to actively ignore their full capacity by looking at them so superficially.
The reason why I see it this way is rather simple: most of the time, when we look straight into a mirror, what do we see? We see ourselves. We see that ever so familiar face and we can't be bothered to see that there's always something (or someone) else behind us and in front of us at the same time. Such a beautiful paradox rests in front of our very eyes, but we miss it, more than we should, because we can't get past that initial contact with ourselves.
This becomes relevant when we consider that every time we create something, we’re aiming to establish contact with someone else; in this case, the photographer, through the force of his creative choices, connects with his audience. This is what the reflection analogy is all about: in the literal sense, we can use reflections as a creative resource and the art we create is a reflection of who we are. Then, in a less obvious way, we reflect that which we want (or need) others to see, thus our need to project and connect with others gives birth to art in order to defeat loneliness.
We all have our own, very personal reasons to feel detached from the world sometimes. Traumas, fears, resentment, all sorts of frustrations, valid reasons and sometimes even made up excuses to keep ourselves away from those who need us the most. Our own personal struggles will always precede any generic societal issue. However, there is an undeniable, more widespread, modern day ailment that many of us share, regardless of our individual backstories: loneliness and feelings of isolation are now more common than ever, but we’re blinded by the illusion that we’re always connected, through the phone you’re using to read this right now, the same phone that offers you a selfie camera, a pocket size mirror that we thought was meant to help us care more about each other but that unfortunately has ended up reinforcing one of our greatest flaws as human beings: we have the tendency to settle for the obvious and we forget to look for the meaning.
Perhaps it is through that same reflective mechanism that we can start looking at the whole picture. Am I reading too much between the lines here? Maybe. However, I think that we, humans, are too accustomed to not reading enough between the layers of our day to day existence. Maybe after reading this, next time you look in the mirror, next time you walk by a reflective window, or next time you stare at your phone, you will remember that there’s always something or someone else looking back at you and that not everything is as obvious as it seems; maybe next time you take a picture of yourself you will realise that you’re not alone.
Ps: if you want to see more examples of layering in photography, check out this Framelines gallery; it’s totally worth it.