May 11, 2021

Figure and Ground


Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters

Typically, our focus is on the political and media narrative of a particular image. In doing so, we always consider the more formal elements of a picture even if we don’t call them out specifically. That includes the relationship between figure and ground and the extent to which it compliments, obscures, or complicates the image’s narrative impact.

How does the relationship between figure and ground inform our reading of powerful and important news photos in the most powerful images of the past two weeks?

Often figure predominates, as it does in the wrenching photo of a man suffering the full force of a water cannon while protesting Covid restrictions in Brussels.

Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Other times, it is the layer behind the figure that keys the impact.

Horrific scenes of funeral pyres are not new to you if you’ve been following the spiraling Covid crisis in India. What is unique in Adnan Abidi’s image for Reuters, however, is the foregrounded view of the person running through them. In this case, it’s the raging pyres in orderly rows and their proximity to the figure that instills such shock and horror.

Photo: Anna Ogordonik/AP News

In Anna Ogordonik’s photograph of a police face-off in Russia, the confrontation in the foreground is all too interesting. It is so interesting, in fact, that you hardly notice the officer in the background as the source of an untoward gesture.

Photo: Mads Nissen/Politiken, Panos Pictures

In the 2021 World Press Photo of the Year by Mads Nissen, is the patient the figure and the caregiver the ground? Are “the butterfly wings” the figure and the patient the ground? Is the hug the figure and the pandemic the ground? What makes it a winning photo is that, in each case, the answer is yes. We discuss this photograph in more depth on a recent episode of Chatting the Pictures.

Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images

In Mexico City, Hector Vivas’ wide-angle view of the metro collapse on May 4, 2021, provides both dramatic composition and visual commentary. As both figure and ground, the train car points to a singular catastrophe and also a civic disaster. If you happen to see the photo on Instagram, by the way, the experience of “moving through the city” as you scroll from top to bottom to “discover” the horror accentuates the effect.

Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty

Courtney Pedroza’s photo for Getty has no figure or ground. And that is what makes the image of the Republican’s suspect presidential election audit in Arizona so powerful. Depicting an exercise without a factual basis, it’s a dizzying metaphor connoting a parallel political universe.

Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Matt McClain’s file photo is also a stand-out example. The file photo from 2019 is used to illustrates a current story about Liz Cheney’s expulsion from the GOP’s House leadership team. She has become a pariah for also challenging groundless claims that Trump somehow won the 2020 presidential election.  From the standpoint of art, gender and politics, it’s a textbook example of figure and ground.

Post By

Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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