The Mysterious Far-Away

Plains Song. Near Carr, Colorado, 2020.

I suppose it goes without saying that, as a photographer, it’s important to pay attention to the backgrounds of your images as you are composing them.  I’m sure most photographers do this, but sometimes I get the feeling it’s done pro forma, as kind of a chore that goes along with making a photograph of an interesting  foreground subject.  The background is something that’s necessarily there, but the task is simply to make sure nothing in it detracts from whatever the main subject of the image is.

Me, it’s almost the opposite.  I’ve said before that I feel like many of the subjects of my images are simply excuses to be able to make a photograph of an interesting background.  It’s an exaggeration, I don’t really believe that, but it’s not that far from the truth, either.  The content of the background contributes just as much to the meaning of the image as the content of the foreground, be the background a sky, a horizon, a collection of buildings, whatever.  It has to work in the composition as a matter of visual design, and it has to exist in meaningful relationship to whatever is placed in the foreground.  It’s not an afterthought, it’s that important.

But, I’ve also come to realize that, for me at least, the importance of the background extends even further, to a metaphysical level.  Backgrounds have the characteristic of being the mysterious far-away.  Whatever is in the foreground generally is definite, described, known.  That which is in the background generally is indefinite — again, to greater or lesser degrees, mysterious and far-away.

Take the image in this post.  it’s fairly easy to take the measure of the broken fence post that is the subject of the image because it is close, observable, and easily seen.  As a matter of visual communication, you know most of what there is to know about it because you can see it clearly.  The background, not so much.  What’s there, on that distant horizon?  Do you see the range of mountains?  Do you see the break in the clouds?  What lies in those mountains to be discovered?  What light shines there on what is to be seen?  How unlike the plains, with its broken fences and dangling barbed wire, must those mountain landscapes be?

I guess it’s in my nature to think the grass is greener on the other side.  That’s the appeal of the mysterious far-away.  It’s all about possibility and what is not yet known, rather than the immediacy and definiteness of what’s happening in the here-and-now.  And, maybe, it’s useful food for thought when thinking about backgrounds, foregrounds, and photographs.

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