Framing photographs: no, I’m not talking about the physical act of putting your photograph in a picture frame. This week, we’re looking at the ways our photographs are visually composed, and what this composition tells us – or doesn’t tell us.

As photographers, let’s think about how we view the world through the camera. What unique vantage points or perspectives can we achieve with photography? How is looking through the lens different from looking through the eye?

The Russian artist Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) was noted for placing his camera at odd angles to his subjects, challenging the way we view everyday scenes. Look at this photograph. From this slanted perspective, the stairs look weirdly flat, like black stripes on the floor. The title, Levels, is somewhat ironic.

levels1929 Alexander Rodchenko, Levels, 1929

Sometimes, photographs remind us how complicated the act of looking can be. In his series America by Car, Lee Friedlander shoots scenes of the American landscape from inside his vehicle. We’re all used to seeing the world from the inside of a car; that’s how many of us go from place to place. But Friedlander’s photographs reveal the many ways our cars frame what we see. The windows, the windshield, even the side and rear-view mirrors: each one frames a different image at any given time.

ambycar19952009 Lee Friedlander, America by Car, 1995-2009, gelatin silver print

And it’s easy to overlook this, until a good photographer shows it to us.

Looking at your starting images, ask yourselves: where was the camera when this image was shot? And how would a different distance or angle have changed the photograph?

It goes without saying that whatever you’ve included in your shot has a major impact on your artwork. But what about the things left outside the frame? If you’re staging a photograph, like Larry Sultan did with his Pictures from Home series, keeping something just off-camera can build intrigue or drama.

PFH12_SULTAN_Mom_In_Doorway_1992-792x1000Larry Sultan, Mom in doorway, 1992, archival pigment print

Since Sultan was photographing his parents, we know that his dad is probably very close by – but not in the frame. What emotional effect does it achieve to have only his mother, looking off-camera? Interpretations can range, but I’d argue it’s a more interesting shot than the two of them standing there talking to each other.

The opposite approach is to have your subject hiding in plain sight. Look at this fashion photograph by acclaimed photographer Frank Horvat. If the model had been alone, against an empty background, the shot would look very contemporary – and very forced. Instead, Horvat places her in a crowded bar, allowing her to naturally rise above the everyday hubbub. Her elegance becomes casual and effortless, and therefore, all the more attractive.

FH-521x800 Frank Horvat, Au Chien Qui Fume, Jardin des Modes, Paris, 1957, inkjet print

Again, consider the people or objects in your frame, and in some cases, those that lie just outside of it. What relationships can your image build? What stories can it tell? What questions can it raise? These are some things to keep in mind as you place your camera.

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