Photography is one of the youngest visual arts, it is not even 200 years old. According to archeologists, the oldest rock paintings found in Spanish caves are more than 40,000 years old, that’s how young photography is!
Photography is like a curious kid in the world of grown-ups of visual arts, but kids grow fast, don’t they? It is quite logical that for about first hundred years, photography was the “younger brother” of painting in the sense of composition. I mean, photographers used exactly the same compositional principles that had been developed by generations of painters. It was as if photography imitated the painting, trying to reach its expressiveness. Only in the 1920s, the photographers began to use purely photographic techniques – experimenting with the layout of the image by using the concept of unusual point of view.
Before we explore how point of view changed the photography, I want to touch on the concept of foreshortening which was used in fine arts long before the first photo was made. Foreshortening means perspective shortening of the shape, that change the usual outline of the object. Sounds difficult, but it’s simple really, you’ve seen it many times in different photos! For example, a man with huge feet and a small head in the distance, or vice versa.
The first cameras were bulky and resembled the canvas on the easel in many ways. Therefore, all photos of that time are taken from the same eye-level point of view. Only with the release of compact cameras photographers began to experiment with other points of shooting but not immediately, many continued to shoot traditionally, even compact “leicas”, as if they still had a giant clumsy tripod in their hands.
First Unusual Photos
It is fair to point out that the first pictures from an unusual point of view were taken at the beginning of the 19th century exactly by bulky tripod large-format cameras, not the compact ones. These photos of Paris and Boston were taken from a bird’s-eye view, respectively by the Frenchman Nadar and the American James Blake.
Nadar was mocked by contemporaries, with “witty” notes saying “he raised the photo to the height of true art”. However, true pioneers of point of view photography should be considered the people that were born a half-century later. This is the Soviet photographer and artist Alexander Rodchenko and the Hungarian (who lived in Paris) Andre Kertesz.
There is a huge difference and at the same time a significant similarity between these two photographers. The difference is that Kertesz was not interested only in documentary photography and he was not captivated by the search of unusual points of view. To say something similar about Rodchenko would be a big simplification, but his legacy is defined by the photos that are taken from very unusual points of view.
Kertesz also liked to see the world from above (though not as high as Nadar):
What can we say about this point of view? First, you can see more from the above. Much more than from the bottom or eye level. This was very popular among the photographers in the ‘20s. Photographers were eager to make their pictures filled with extremely rich information. That was the time when everyone wanted their pictures to be accompanied by the inscription “For the first time in the world!”
Historic Point Of View
By the way, photos with the point of view “strictly perpendicular to the top”, in which people turn into optional companions to their own shadows, were also taken in that time of “for the first time in the world.” Funny thing, sometimes modern photographers find it difficult to resist the temptation to repeat this angle, despite the fact that when this type of photo appeared in media, it almost immediately became a cliché. Let’s compare, for example, a photo of Rodchenko and Kertesz:
It is obvious that in the 1920s it was new and fresh, and these two great people reached the peak of this type of point of view fast.
The lower angle is used in photography for very different purposes. It was pioneered by Alexander Rodchenko, let us remember his work “Pioneer”.
“Pioneer” is a special case; this photo does not fall under the general rule of using the lower angle (I’ll explain this a bit later). Rather, it is quite a successful attempt to find new means of artistic expression for the depiction of a “new” person, a messenger of a new era. Rodchenko managed to create an expressive and memorable image. However, more often than not, the use of such a perspective is risky and can transform the character into a caricature of him- or herself.
The general rule of thumb is that the point of view from the bottom level is commonly used to show that the subject is of great significance. This way anyone will look much more monumental and impressive than if the same person was shot in a “normal” way, that is, from the level of eyes or chest. A next example can be found in the work of Rodchenko:
Robert Capa was very fond of photographing his characters from this point of view:
The same technique is also used in his famous picture “Death of a Republican”. You can doubt the documentary part of this picture, but it is difficult to argue that the author managed to create an absolutely monumental image, conveying the pathos of this tragic moment impeccably.
And here’s another picture of Robert Capa. The moment it shows is not so tragic: no one is dying (at least in the picture), there’s just a little crying girl. From the captions, we can find out that the scene is shot in the transit camp for refugees, but it does not explain why the girl is crying. Maybe she doesn’t have her parents around, or maybe she wasn’t given candy, or she’s just tired. But the question does not matter, the point of view, which is below the face of the girl, turns this moment into a symbol of the camp for immigrants – disorder, fear of the future, empty hopes…
If the camera would have been slightly higher – just above the level of the child’s face, the picture would not become either monumental or metaphorical. It would turn out to be just human. In everyday life, we look down on children and treat them in a condescending manner. If we take pictures at the eye level of the child, it gives the viewer a special feeling: a look at the world through his or her eyes.
In the same way, it is possible to show to the audience the world through the eyes of a dog. I think the general principle is very clear (the world through the dog’s eyes of Elliott Erwitt).
So, do I use classic techniques now? Every time! The hunt for an unusual point of view is exhilarating, but fun. I always try to find spots to shoot from below or from the top, especially when shooting an event. To leave you wanting to start experimenting with different angles, I’ll show you some pictures from the fashion show I shot not so long ago. I had a chance to partake in raw backstage action where young models were all in a hurry to get ready for the show.
It was a real opportunity to shoot from many interesting points of view and experiment because every time I’d come by to take a picture, all models (even though they had to prepare for the stage) were helping me out by posing for the camera. And since all the girls are basically upcoming professionals, they knew how to show their best self at any angle I was shooting from. I hope you’ll like B&W editing I did for these pictures using Rockshutter presets that help me a lot these days. I hope these pictures will encourage you to do something new and exciting!