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The View From the Back

Suggesting things in pictures often means leaving something out and substituting an observer's reaction for our own, direct observation, Jim Richardson writes.

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

It's a mystery to me. I never did get inside the arena. And I never did see what was going on inside at the medieval festival in Provence. But given the profusion of knights in full armor I can imagine a good bit of whacking and skull crashing was taking place. Just generally a lot of good-natured mayhem.

But not all was lost. Wandering outside I came across the scene, fans scaling the ramparts, perched on ladders and craning for a view, even a couple enjoying a little canoodling. The ladders pointed skyward, focusing on the clouds. The clouds obligingly pointed vaguely at the unseen action. All in all, it was a bit like listening to radio, where your imagination provides a much more vivid picture than the real scene.

The power of suggestion is a powerful tool in photography, and it worked for me that day in France. Suggesting things in pictures often means leaving something out and substituting an observer's reaction for our own, direct observation. Movies do that all the time; when the character's face registers fear, we feel fear. When we see that special twinkle in the actor's eye we feel the romance that is in the air.

And getting behind the action is sometimes the key to pulling off this little feat of visual innuendo. I first learned this back in my newspaper photography days. By necessity. News photographers find themselves returning over and over to the same events year after year. The county fair is always a fun shoot, but it is also repetitive. The events are much the same year after year. After a few years of photographing the young kid receiving the blue ribbon for their prize-winning calf, or having to figure out a new way to shoot a Ferris wheel picture, you either get very creative or you get out of the news photography business.

One of the tricks I learned was to wander around to the "wrong" side of events. Most affairs are organized to be seen from one angle: out front where everybody is putting their best foot forward. It all looks nice but ordinary. Around back, behind stage as it were, is an entirely different story. And real things may be happening that are very interesting indeed.

But more than that, images taken from the back have a different quality. They very often become symbolic. Instead of being a record of events, they seem to speak more broadly, about the nature of things in a more timeless way. Without the faces these pictures become insights into humanity.

Below are a few tips and images to show just what I mean.

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Get behind the band.

Ireland's dances are always a hoot and not to be missed. This one on the Aran Islands was no exception. I got lucky here and could get behind the band looking out over the hall, an essential trick when you want to include the band and the dance action. Usually I would use the musicians as a frame while I focused on the dancers. But this time it worked well to focus just on the hands of the flute player and leave the dance action out of focus. And the stage lighting really made the hands stand out.

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Focus on fashion.

The women's fashions at Tynwald Day on the Isle of Man were a sight to see. But all too often when you focus on the people's faces, the fashion becomes secondary. Move around back and the fashion (and those wonderful hats) becomes the primary subject of the picture. As an added bonus this woman was a revered public official, festooned with official regalia, making the colors and design work even better. Then just a bit of the photographer out of focus in the background adds to the point that this is a high-power social event. And nary a face in sight.

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Shoot against the light.

From the front the stage lighting at Festival Interceltique (the Celtic Festival) in Lorient, Brittany, was brilliant, flat and dull. Perfect for the audience, boring for pictures. But around from the back it was magic! The French Navy Band of Brittany was playing, the bass drummer really strutting his stuff, and the scene was full of atmosphere. There is one trick to remember here: move to block the spotlight with one of the subjects. If the spotlight is directly visible in the picture it will often be way, way too bright for the rest of the scene. Just move over a bit, as I did here, and cover it up with the drummer and the light becomes much prettier. You'll probably do better putting your camera on manual and adjusting the exposure with a few experimental shots. This kind of lighting is really tough for autoexposure metering to get right.

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Use an observer to convey emotion.

Just as the sun was going down up on Castel Dinas Bran in Wales this lad came hiking up the hill with his three dogs and sat down to admire the scene. He and the dogs were a perfect addition, he admiring the sunset and the dogs lolling about casually. Their emotions expressed what I was feeling about this lovely moment. This substitution of someone else expressing an emotion is common in the movie world and equally effective in still pictures. Besides that, the scene had a lovely hazy quality, which unfortunately rendered the scene quite flat. Having them up front added a much needed layer of contrast, depth, and scale.

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