Living with Photography: Ground as Background

By Norman Chan

The relationship between figure and ground is one of the essential attributes of photography composition. Identifying your figure is simple, but what makes up the background?

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:

Here's a simple scene representing three figures standing on a flat surface. The grey foam board that the Figures are standing on represent the literal ground, while the orange foam board is the sky in the spatial background. Where the two pieces of foam board meet would be the horizon. I've shot it the way I would if the paper cutouts were real people standing on a street with nothing but the (orange) sky behind them.

In shots like these, the horizon line plays an important part in the Figure to [back]Ground relationship. The color and reflectivity of the physical ground and background (building walls, ocean, sky etc) are tools you can use to make your Figures stand out. Notice where I have the horizon line placed--right at the cutout's shoulders between the t-shirt and the head. That horizon delineation is a powerful tool you can use to give prominence to a subject, or alternatively, compartmentalize a Figure within the composition. Putting light Figures against a dark Ground (eg. shadow) or dark Figures against a light Ground effectively isolates them.

So when I look at a Figure through the viewfinder, I see less of a three-dimensional space and something more like the photograph below, a flattened view of Figures with the physical ground and sky pieced together as the Ground with a capital G:

Henri Cartier-Bresson once described photography as a study of geometry. That's very much true, but I would like to take that idea one step further and think of photography as origami. But instead of folding sheets of paper together to create a beautiful object, you're folding/collapsing the Figures and Ground of a scene together to create a (hopefully) beautiful image.

As for last column's shooting challenge of knolling, I'm going to give it another week to accept entries. The ones you guys have submitted have been really awesome, but I'd like to see more! And don't be shy about contributing to the Tested group pool. With Flickr's new free accounts, I'm going to be uploading a lot more photos to the stream, especially the ones that don't make it on the site.