The Importance of Background

Recently I did a photographic experiment which involved changing the backgrounds in a set of images. Specifically, I replaced the backgrounds of a fairly standard woman-and-car shoot with fantasy backgrounds. Fortunately, the wardrobe and makeup supported the background change. The result was a completely different set of images, which, with the same subject, communicated an entirely different set of stories. Rather, I should say, communicated stories, which the original images were lacking, since they were part of a quasi-fashion shoot.

Volumes have been written on the importance of the subject and on posing the subject in a photograph or painting. Probably just as many volumes have been written on lighting the subject. Let’s face it; anything approaching a portrait is all about the subject. Of course it is; the subject is the reason for the image. Just as there are volumes about subjects and their treatment, there exists very little about backgrounds, and particularly about background details. This seems to me to be an oversight.

This experiment reinforced just how important the background is. The subject of a piece of art does not exist in isolation; it is part of the whole, and many times a large percentage of that whole is background.

This is a truth that movie-makers seem to have known for a long time. How many of us, upon watching a movie for the second or third time have been completely astounded by the level of detail contained in the background of the film? This is because film-makers learned early on that the totality of the mise-en-scène impacts the viewer, provides information, has psychological impact, communicates meaning, aids in telling the story.

In other arts this seems to be considered less important. In live theatre, for example, critics still consider the sets to be backings for the action rather than in integral part of the piece. The same seems to hold true for dance as well. Perhaps this is a function of economics. Perhaps it’s a function of how we, as audience members, view these various arts. Perhaps it’s just because the arts are different and producers of theatre and dance don’t see the need for the same level of background detail that producers of movies and good narrative television do. Perhaps it’s a function of framing. Those arts which have formal frames seem to value background detail much more than those without such borders.

Whatever the reason and (I think) whatever the art, background is important. Changing the background changes the piece and the story that the piece tells. So background isn’t just a backing for the action; it’s an integral piece of the composition. It’s a significant part of the mise-en-scène that can do for still pictures and painting all that it does for film.

Consider how much better the average portrait or run-of-the-mill engagement picture or even the typical You-Tube video would be if more consideration were given to the background. Think how much better our work would be if we devoted even half as much time and energy to selecting backgrounds and arranging details as Hollywood does. An idea worth contemplating.

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Date: Monday, 30. July 2018 0:12
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Audience, Communication, Photography

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