Meltdown – analysis of an historic picture

They say this image will go down in history. It probably will. But not just because of the moment, the people involved and the potential ramifications. Even all of that wouldn’t be enough if it wasn’t a great photograph. There’s a renaissance-like quality to it that suits the significance, and it works as a piece of art. Why? It’s all about the geometry and, of course, the lines.

Leading lines

Maybe the most striking geometrical aspect of the image is the leading lines formed by the items on the oval table, particularly the white name plaques, but also the glasses, the papers, the edges of the table itself and the people sitting round it. These lines draw the eye in from the ‘front’ of the image to where the action is, and gives a great sense of depth.

More subtle, perhaps, is the shape of the light cast by the chandelier at the very top of the image. The light falls on the wall at the back in a triangle, coming down towards Pelosi and Trump, helping to direct the eyes to them and also stopping the eyes from continuing up once they’ve followed those leading lines from the bottom.

Eyelines

Eyelines always create strong compositional elements, and here the dominant line is that created by Pelosi and Trump looking at each other. This line cuts across as the viewer’s eyes reach the ends of the leading lines from the bottom, and forms the base of the triangle formed by the light coming from the top.

In fact, the elements create two strong triangles in the image as a whole, drawn here in red and green, and this gives the photograph a solid grounding so that it feels real, almost as if you’re there, as well as energy from the diagonal lines.

Going back to that eyeline, it’s backed up by the direction in which everyone else is looking – the people on each side are looking into the frame, leading you back to those leading lines, and/or at the main characters, leading you to look at them.

The rule of thirds

Finally, we come to the rule of thirds – no image analysis is complete without it. Dividing up this frame, it becomes clear that Pelosi and Trump are sitting close to the upper intersections of the thirds and looking at each across that top third. I think the fact that Pelosi is slightly above and Trump is slightly below creates a nice balance (as well as being potentially symbolic). What’s more, this geometry is reinfored because the edges of that triangle coming down from the light point to those upper intersections, and the leading lines of those name plaques on the table intersect the divisions of the lower thirds.

The only thing that goes against the composition is the guy in the bottom left corner, who’s looking away from the action and is very close to the camera so is slightly distracting. The fact that he’s out of focus and has no light on him, however, means that he doesn’t dominate over the strong lines and geometry elsewhere.

All together, the geometry creates a great balance in the image, giving it the feel of artistic harmony. The story behind the image is anything but harmonious, but that makes the image all the more striking.

Image analysis – making a splash

We all made hundreds of photographs of ducks when we were new to photography, didn’t we? Well, I did. They’re one of the most accessible forms of wildlife to practice photographing, and they’re pretty nice to look at too. My early archive folders are full of duck photographs, 99.9999% of which are boring at best. But this one isn’t. Eight years after I made this photograph, I still love it. When an image stands the test of time like that, it’s worth taking a closer look and thinking about why.

I’ve made several iterations of this image to adjust the contrast and the colours. Looking at it again now, I think the colours could still probably do with some tweaking, but it’s the composition and the lines that make this image for me.

The placement of the duck in the frame (I say placement, but given that it was the sixth day after I’d got my first DLSR, it’s really just where it ended up) leaves a nice amount of empty space to the left (above). This is the direction the duck is facing, and the space gives it room to ‘move’ into – it implies the movement and adds dynamism to the image. This is especially important because the duck is clearly moving, so needs this space. A square crop (below), for example, cuts off this space and restrains the duck so that the image feels unbalanced.

The placement of the duck also roughly adheres to one of the staple ‘rules’ of composition – the rule of thirds (below). I had never heard of this at the time I took the image, so I can’t pretend it was intentional, but the main vertical of the duck’s body sits roughly one third of the way into the frame from the right hand edge.

What’s more, the duck’s face is close to the intersection of the top and right thirds of the frame – prime position for the main point of interest according to composition textbooks. I don’t have a lot of time for such rules, but this image is an illustration that the rule of thirds is a good guide.

Looking at the blue lines in the grid overlay above (which is based on the golden ratio), what’s very obvious is that the wing in the top right sits exactly on the main diagonal of the frame, and the beak is aligned parallel to this diagonal. The diagonal that these two elements imply is strengthened by another diagonal created by the other wing and the bird’s back. This second diagonal sits perpendicular to the first and creates multiple triangles in the frame (below).

In combination, the diagonal implied by the wing and beak and the negative space on the left, create tension in the image. Given that the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the duck’s face and eye, this diagonal then directs the eye down and to the left, into the empty space. Except the empty space isn’t so empty, and I think this is the key to this image.

When the eye moves down, directed by the beak, it meets the curves of the ripples in the water. These curves pull the eye round, back into the image, around the duck and over the dramatic splashes of the water (above). The momentum of the eye along with the second diagonal takes the eye back up to the main diagonal of the wing in the top right, which directs it back to the duck’s face. This creates a loop that keeps the eye moving, and on the second time round, the viewer might notice the small water drops throughout the image, which increase the dynamism.

The final visual element that I think adds strength to this image is the movement of the wings and in the splashes of water. This movement makes the image more more dynamic than it would have been if the movement had been frozen. This was obviously the result of a relatively slow shutter speed, although again, I can’t say this this was deliberate at the time.

Something I’ve always had a problem with in this image is the green of the water on the left. I find the green too dominant when the focus should be on the duck. I’ve had various attempts to alter the balance of the colours, but never quite got it as I’d like. It’s not helped by the fact that the image was recorded only as a JPEG file, so post-processing options are a little limited. Desaturating the greens too much creates an odd look though, and there is potential to make good use of the complementary green and red–orange of the duck’s breast. Perhaps I’ll have a another go.

Does the image work for you? Why? If not, what is it that isn’t right for you?

As a photographer, it’s crucial to look back at your images and think about them, asking yourself not whether you like them or not, but why you like them or, equally importantly, why you don’t like them. Inspired by the #ThrowbackThursday hashtag, I’ve decided to look back through my collections and do just that in an image analysis project.