JENNY DOWNING

When I first encountered Jenny’s work, it had a certain rawness to it. There was a definite eye for colour and emphasis; a certain natural flair for subtle mood. But the compositional integrity of shots was somewhat hit-and-miss. Many could have been enhanced with a simple crop or rotation; they were powerful, but many had given up with greater potential just within their grasp. Others hit the mark almost perfectly.

Jenny freely admitted: her compositional skills came from what felt right rather than from understanding why the elements, arranged in a certain way, meshed to complement each other.

Over time, this has changed. The proportion of Jenny’s work that has embraced compositional principles has increased at an alarming rate. Now, she can churn out perfect balance across multiple golden ratios without a second thought, as evidenced through her last featured shot.

In her own words:

When I first became interested in understanding composition, I went 100% with gut feeling; a photo would just ‘feel’ right to me. And I don’t mind admitting that I had no idea why.

While this is still somewhat the case (I am sure I will always rely to some extent on my gut; we have been together for a long time, the two of us) it’s now true to say that I am actually thinking about composition principles (if not always) when I take a photograph (certainly when I subsequently crop it).

It has been fascinating for me to discover along the way about quite why this angle works and that one doesn’t; about why an S-curve is so pleasing and about how what we might think of as frames are really borders (to be honest, I am still a little hazy about that one). I remain somewhat bemused by the incredible compositional detail that Rick can see in a photograph; but thanks to him I can pretty consistently line up my horizontals along a golden ratio; my verticals too. And I can recognise a half-decent anchor when I happen to stumble across one.

What next? My husband would probably say that I need to spend just a little less time agonising over my photos… but that bar is so very high!

The featured archive

why did the butterfly?why did the butterfly? (May 2011)

This is another of those pictures that jumped out at me the moment I saw it. There are so many elements here that make for excellent composition. The first is the unusual use of an unmatched triple: two butterflies and a flower; still three but managing to imply the greater intimacy of only two living subjects. Or is it two in focus and the third just slightly receded? …

abacus (June 2011)
abacusAs I consider this image, I find not only a great sense of balance between the dark and light tones, but also plays in lines – and their breaking. Too, a very subtle sense of space. The combination of mechanical (cast iron) symmetry with the organic nature of rock is a fabulous contrast: that the bars are not quite regular but having a slight repeating offset pattern means…

etlingera elatioretlingera elatior (July 2011)

This is one of those images that jumps out, demands to be admired, yet takes deep study to understand. What is it that is so intensely appealing about it? While the base subject is fairly easily identifiable, the limited depth of field and folded layers turns it immediately into an abstract. The complementary tones of green and red – trimmed with white – help emphasise …

snail yogasnail yoga (July 2011)

Where to begin? This image is simply fabulous. the primary compositional element is the uncertainty of the angle. Was it taken just like this? Or was it rotated to emphasise the backwards bend from a vertical? While the position is equally as precarious whichever the case, it comes across more dynamically this way round. She – I say that, despite snails being “simultaneous…

humidityhumidity (Aug 2011)

What can be said about an image like this? Perfect simplicity and stunning colours. The combination of layers – transitional focus on the droplets and tonal variation in the background – creates a virtual 3D effect, like fine spray on a giant apple… a gloriously green apple. The texture of the water feels, because of the focus, to be wrapping around the shape. In that, it …

scrollscroll (Aug 2011)

Despite claims of “it’s just gut feeling,” this image is an excellent piece of balanced minimalism. While the limited focus on the delicate textures just inside the forward edge of the purple petal may capture our attention, it is the way the stalk of green in the background frames this subtle subject that makes it so powerful. The petal itself also provides anchoring, …

fogfog (Aug 2011)

Another minimalist still life, the tiny subject is very clear: with only the one droplet and a fraction of a leaf in focus, the eye is drawn to that one point, hanging off the vertical midpoint, at the double golden ration (0.618 : 1.618). As well as the obvious focal and positional highlighting, there are other elements which help establish that point as the key focus: …

etched (Sept 2011)
etchedWhen one learns the trick, these brushed-water abstracts become rather straightforward to pull off. And the ever-evolving form means that no two will ever be the same. This example has many things going for it: a two-part diagonal streaking, diptych of motion, one of which also provides a solid corner anchor; sharp lighting on the most prominent explosion of streaked foam;…

decomposerdecomposer (Dec 2012)

There are many elements and attributes of this image that make it compelling, but very few are truly obvious. Perhaps the clearest is the the gossamer fibre of the transparent part of the black goo, where it is most precisely in focus. This fine slice of depth-of-field, on such a delicate subject so replete with intricate detail is stunning and captivating. One could very …

java scriptjava script (Mar 2012)

While a little effort reveals to the inquisitive mind what that this is a picture of, it is the abstract nature of it at first glance and the “technical disappearing” act it involves that makes it a good work. Interestingly, the only element of the image in focus is a band of the tabletop, a mottled brown mirror that is – the image’s one weakness – a little too dusty. The …

networknetwork (Mar 2012)

The detailed pattern of a dried leaf is an easy subject, especially when rendered in silhouette. As here, even though it is the more passive colour, the structure catches the imagination, drawing attention. It is almost as though there is nothing else to be seen – all that wonderful green foliage is little more than negative space. There, the power of a tight depth of …

brumous (Apr 2012)
brumousWhile there are only a few elements to this image – if we assume that each blade of grass does not count as an individual element – the whole is fabulously complex in its composition, layers of intrigue. There is form – a roof, possibly – that, out of focus, provides a starting point for splitting the image into a diptych of dark and light along the diagonal. This provides…

ristrettoristretto (Apr 2012)

It is an interesting conundrum – what, precisely, is the subject here? Is it the foreground curve of the mug in focus? Or the bubble transformed by specular highlight? Perhaps there is no subject, only abstraction. My vote is for the second, for it is to the nebulous glow that the eye is drawn, seated as it is on the sharply defined rim-line. Why this point, and not the …

salutationsalutation (Apr 2012)

The most magical element of this shot has to be the palette. The soft pastel-earthy tones make the whole thing feel like a dream, in particular the almost luminous shell that so closely matches the rest of the surroundings. That dreaminess is then offset on closer examination, as we discover the wonderfully sharp detail of the snail’s texture, both in the backlit head and …

lambentlambent (May 2012)

The most amazing way to create a powerful diptych is to do it subtly, without using two image; to divide the composition of the one scene in such a way that there are two parts, clear and distinct. Here, that diptych effect is applied not to the subject, but to the setting – to the the luminosity of the reflection: light and dark; a powerful contrast that hold the eye in …


Jenny’s picks

To add to the above selection, Jenny has selected a few images from her own archive that she feels the composition works for. So, here goes.

beached

beached(July 2009) This example of Jenny’s early compositional work is in several ways a rather subtle piece: while it is dominated by the expanse of negative space, and the oh-so-smooth way in which the focus dissolves as one slips into the distance, it is not the balance of emptiness versus subject that gives the image impact: it is the very slight tilt, combined with the subject being weighted to the left (the seaweed with its sinuous curves and subtle tones is the real subject – the shell is only a pivot for it) that leaves the mind just disturbed enough to take a deeper look; to search in vain for something to anchor to.

Indeed, the lack of an anchor is a powerful compositional element here: a breaking of the rules. Beached, the subject might be, but adrift it leaves the viewer.


rubbish

rubbish

(Oct 2010) Another excellent example of negative space, supplemented by the directional streaking of the light, the power of this shot lies in the anthropomorphising one can easily indulge in prior to understanding the subject: the shape of the light on the left and the main lit bag could easily be the shape of a man, outcast from society… no more than rubbish. In the bright illumination, picking the subject out of the surrounding nothingness, there is hope. Perhaps.

The angle of the light brings a diagonal sense of direction to the scene that is largely about harsh orthogonal lines. There is a rising. There is movement and potential in the off-casts of reality.


the unbearable lightness of being

the unbearable lightness of being(June 2011) A strong example of on Jenny’s quickly-mastered techniques, this image allows the subject – the rather tattered-looking butterfly – to jump out of the screen through a distinct separation of foreground from background. The depth of field is beautifully controlled, leaving a sea of suggestion through which our subject can make his way.

The image also uses anchoring effectively: though the grain stalk is a perch bowing under delicate weight, that it intersects the middle of the edge and provides a direct connection to the subject allows the butterfly’s position within the expanse of out-of-focus negative space to feel intentional. And on that note, we come also to one of Jenny’s first efforts to execute a golden ratio intersection: the lines pass perfectly through our subject’s head, leaving no doubt about where out attention belongs. On a subject bright and dominant.

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