Composition :: Pattern & Structure

For many people, street photography is more about the subjects (people) than the environs (background / foreground). The fact that human beings are more naturally drawn to human faces sometimes leads street photography practitioners to blur the the boundary of portrait and street photography by throwing everything outside of the subject into bokeh, effectively taking a portrait in the street. This is not my view about street photography but a simple search on the internets will turn up lots of such photos - many with either attractive young ladies or the texturized faces of senior people.

To the extent that street photography is all about story-telling, the reverse can actually be taken to effect, if done properly. In other words, the environs could sometimes tell an effective story better than the subjects.

Here enter composition through pattern & structure. With deliberate thought and careful composition, pattern & structure in the background (or foreground) can be immensely effective in telling stories.

Institut d'Art et d'Archéologie © 2019 Jerry Yang

The shot above was taken across the street of Institut d'Art et d'Archéologie, an extraordinary building that’s hard to miss for anyone who has spent time wandering around Jardin du Luxembourg. Built in red bricks in the 1920’s, its distinct color stood out against an overwhelmingly Haussmannian Paris from the 1860’s.

The building started out as a library of art collections by fashion designer Jacques Doucet, who in 1917 donnated his art collections to Université de Paris, which then launched a campaign to openly look for the best building designs to host these collections. The winner of the campaign, architect Paul Bigot, chose against the most popular styles in the era, modernité and art deco. Instead he opted for red bricks from Vaugirard and Bourgogne, as well as an edifice style that reminds one of African art as well as Islamic art.

The distinct pattern of the brick wall, accentuated by the patterned iron front gate, provides the background for my photo above. As can be seen though the focus was on the two young persons in the foreground lit by morning sunlight, the actual subject of this photo in the eyes of the viewers is the slightly out-of-focus architecture in the shadow.

Despite being just part of the whole architecture, the repetition of the bricks conveys without an effort the enormity of this architectural gem.

Below is another photo that applies the same principle. The two young ladies in focus were not really doing anything, but by keeping the camera focal plane as parallel as possible to the cathedral façade in the far background — I had to half kneel to get this right — I was able to highlight its gothic style in a subtle way.

The fact that gothic cathedrals are usually grand makes this the most effective. As all their elements — façades, windows, flying buttresses, etc — are all huge and grand. Their structures remain intact even in a distant out-of-focus rendering, while the blurring incurs actually more awe and imagination than a perfectly in-focus, informational tourist magazine photo.


Les jeunes filles devant l’Église Saint-Eustache © 2019 Jerry Yang


In fact, this is also the technique taken by Victor Hugo in writing his most famous novel « Notre-Dame de Paris ». The novel is more well-known in the English world as « The Hunchback of Notre Dame » when in fact the main character is the cathedral itself as the writer opened the novel with a very long and vivid description of the look of the cathedral. Quasimodo, Esmeralda and Frollo are all but characters to highlight the cathedral. Obviously we can also always blame Disney for such misunderstanding.

Victor Hugo’s purpose of writing this novel was also to save the cathedral, which the government in the 1830’s was considering tearing down. The best-selling novel successfully resuscitated the passion the Parisians had for the cathedral and the rest was history.

Until obviously the unfortunate fire in April 2019 that brought down the roof …