Balmoral Mist – Deconstructed
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In early March, 2008 I did a speaking tour of Asia and Australia. In Sydney I had the pleasure of visiting the home of Bruce Pottinger, the owner of L&P Digital, one of the country's largest pro dealers and distributors of photographic equipment .
In addition to being involved in the business side of photography Bruce is an accomplished fine art photographer himself, and a collector of the work of other leading Australian photographers. Visiting his home was therefore a special treat, as I wandered from room to room looking at not just his fine work, but prints by some of Australia's finest image makers as well.
In the dinning room one print jumped off the wall at me, so to speak. It is titled Balmoral Mist, by David Oliver. I found this image to be completely captivating and compelling. The following day, at my request, we visited David at his studio and gallery. The candid shot of David which I took that day shows him seated in his gallery's parlor with Balmoral Mist over the mantelpiece behind him.
Seeing the picture again that morning I knew that I had to own a copy, and as I write this, a print which I carried home with me is at the framer, destined to join the rest of my small collection of prints by photographers whose work I admire.
One of the questions which beginning photographers often ask is – what makes a great photograph? Firstly, as with any art it is the eye of the beholder that is the ultimate judge. What appeals to me may not for you, and there are often personal and even ephemeral reasons behind why one person is gobsmacked and another is left cold.
With this in mind I am going to deconstruct this photograph, based not on classical art-school compositional analysis but rather through an attempt to determine what it is about Balmoral Mist that makes it so compelling for me.
Firstly, let me say that though it will make gear-heads wince, I don't know what camera was used to shoot this, nor what lens, nor do I care. I'm guessing it's film, because of the grain, but none of these factors has anything to do with anything. The image stands on its own for its content, not anything associated with the tools used to create it. (That David's car has the personalized license plate LEICA may provide a hint, but maybe not. Most pros use many different tools.)
My first impression is one of profound mystery. Where is this place? Who are these people? What's going on?
I then start taking note of the individual elements in the image – the woman in a bathing suit, the hunched-over walking figure, the temple-like structure, the bird, the lower-left passageway. Then, my eye sweeps back and forth trying to integrate them; trying to make sense of the story – assuming that there is one.
The partially clothed woman is the images focal point, but at first disconcerting. Then you realize that she is showering, and a piece of the puzzle falls into place. She is likely at some sort of beach. But the dark and slightly ominous tunnel to the left of frame is at odds with the seeming defenselessness of a woman in a bikini. Who knows what could be lurking there? She seems so exposed.
The figure walking past the pagoda is similarly out of the ordinary as well. At first his body looks misshapen, almost hunchbacked. It's only when one looks closely that it becomes clear that it's simply a man with a large backpack. But in anything other than a nose-against-the-glass examination (or a large blow-up on the net) the figure has an air of ominous mystery.
It wasn't until several moments after I first looked at the photograph that I really noticed the bird on the bridge. Is that a raven? How synchronistic! It almost looks like a set-up. Hmm. What do I need to complete the mystery? Ahh. I've got it. A raven on the bridge.
And finally there's the doorway under the bridge. Almost Tolkinesque. What lies through the doorway? I can visualize a troll creeping around the pillar ready to do dastardly things to the unsuspecting woman. (Hey – I told you this was a personal interpretation).
All of the above is simply intellectualizing an emotional experience. Like much street photography Balmoral Mist tells a story, and without any clues other than what we see in the image it is up to us to bring to it our curiosity and our imaginations.
To my mind, the secret of an image's staying power lies in its ability to keep drawing us back to it – to make us want to look at it again, and again, because whatever story it told us at first viewing still resonates or has as yet unanswered questions. Sometimes, as with Balmoral Mist, these can be almost literal questions, such as the ones posed above. With other images, such as landscapes or more abstract subjects, the questions can be more emotional or esthetic rather than ones easily verbalized. It is this aspect, call in an enigmatic quality, that keeps the viewer coming back for more.
Other more traditional analysis can also be brought into play. The image reads. By this I mean, to any one educated in a western literary culture the fact is inescapable that we read not just text but images from left to right. With Balmoral Mist our eye therefore flows from left to right and top to bottom.
The bird, the woman and the troll are all taken in at first glace. There is also a top left / bottom right, and then bottom left, top right symmetry of tonal values. Each side balances the other, and by doing so leads the eye in predefined directions that also happen to match the subject matter. These symmetries help ground the image, as does its almost square aspect ratio, also something that usually gives an image presence.
"I was on a portrait assignment when I spotted the lady coming out of the water heading for the shower, as you can see in the image it was a very misty morning, when I composed the picture the guy with the backpack wasn't visible, he came out later when I lifted the contrasts. I guess you could say it was a lucky shot, although over the years I have been told by lots of photographers that I am a lucky bugger!!! I like to think I am in control of my luck as I always have a camera at the ready to capture the luck!!!!". – David Oliver