I've been reading a lot more about composition since writing my last column, since it's such a complex topic that's not very easy to verbalize. This has me going through old photo libraries, looking at ones that catch my eye, and wondering why a particular photo stands out. For example, one photo I really liked from last year is from New York Maker Faire, of the competitors in the Power Racing Series. Staring at a favorite photo you've taken to scrutinize its composition can be a maddening exercise, but those illuminating moments when you discover something new make the effort very worthwhile. And one of the things I'm becoming more aware of is the use of the ground in photography.
In reading up on composition, I came across several articles about the work of legendary French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson is well known as the father of photojournalism and street photography, and New York-based photographer Adam Marelli has written some excellent analyses of Cartier-Bresson's compositional techniques. Among those tricks he mastered was the Figure-to-Ground relationship, a concept practiced in painting. Not surprising, since Cartier-Bresson began his career as an oil painter before adopting photography.
Let's first define our terms. In thinking about the relationship between Figure and Ground, the Figure represents the subject of a photograph. This can be a person, an animal, or even a smartphone. It's the most important object in the photograph--everything else serves to accentuate it or call attention to it. And that "everything else" is what's referred to as the Ground. The Ground is defined as everything that's not the Figure (or Figures), and the compositional relationship between those elements is the magic sauce that makes a photo stand out. The Ground of a photograph, as you can surmise, is actually short for background--but not necessarily in the spatial sense, since technically your subject could be in the focus in the background of a scene.
But while the real world exists in three dimensions, a photographic image is flat. And in a two-dimensional plane, there is no "background" and "foreground" in the spatial sense. So when I look through a viewfinder to compose an image, my mind has to "flatten" the scene in front of me, much like the flattening layers of a Photoshop file into one single image. In photography and painting, the physical ground becomes the background.
I've created a simple diorama to illustrate this concept: