Composition – Creating Something Meaningful: A Video Interview with Craig Reilly
NOTE: This is a Guest Blog post written by Timothy Lunn exclusively for www.streethunters.net.
Craig Reilly from Street Photography International shares his background in street photography and offers advice for those struggling to compose a street shot.
Sombreness and Serenity
Three years ago, Craig Reilly was walking through Peckham Rye, London.
Before he co-founded Street Photography International, before was published in TimeOut, and before became an Olympus Ambassador, he was just an amateur photographer, hopping jobs, moving flats and growing desperately tired of his (very) occasional landscape photography.
Something had to change.
Out of the mist reared a tree. It spread its near-empty branches through the empty park, withered and stark. Beneath it cycled a man, barely visible beneath the branches.
Craig clicked the shutter.
This photo marked the start of his career in street photography, the first photograph that combined a human form with an urban landscape – and it was a fine example at that.
The composition was exact, the tree positioned in the centre of the image, the darkness of the trunk contrasted with the sheer white of the mist. The figure was weighted perfectly, balanced against the enormous scale of the tree. And the mist lent some depth to the image, receding into the edges of the frame.
More than anything, the composition was meaningful – it wasn’t just pretty, it created a feeling, an atmosphere. Craig explains,
‘It was the serene mood, the quietness of it. It was very sombre. Maybe I felt quite alone at that moment of my life.’
Posting the photo online, Craig felt less alone, as he began to discover the genre of street photography – its community and its figureheads – as well as the joys of composing photographs on the street. Around this time, he also discovered the work of the Swiss photographer, René Burri.
Burri was a kindred spirit who worked for Magnum in the 1950s, streethunting across the world in countries as diverse as Brazil and Cuba. Both photographers, past and present, sought to master the complex art of composition.
Men on a Rooftop
Four men pass across a square of light. One wipes his face, another swaggers with a bouncing gait. The third and fourth rest their hands in their pockets, coolly stepping toward the edge. Camera left, the city of São Paulo bellows below, smoke rising steadily.
This photograph, Men on a Rooftop, counts among Burri’s most famous compositions. It was a key influence on Craig’s early work, for like the amateur photographer standing before a tree in mist, Burri well understood the difficulties of composition.
An early student of Cartier Bresson, he worked hard to match the formal precision of his master. In an interview with Phaidon Press, he commented:
‘ … Henri aggravated me very often. Why? He would look through your contacts upside down! He did this because he always wanted to see the composition.’
Of Bresson’s comments, Burri need not have worried. Men on a Rooftop displays the same perfection of form as Bresson, whichever way round you look at it.
Notably, the frame itself is split across thirds, our eye moving between them. We start with the men in suits, their shadows occupying the brightest third of the frame, silhouetted against the white tiles of the rooftop. Then our eye is dragged to the duller light of the city streets; we follow the traffic up and down, picking out the details of cars and buses. Finally, and after much scouring, we rest in the final third of the frame: glum shadows, repeating rectangles, smoke.
And somewhere, between all these elements, questions arise. Craig explains:
‘What I feel composition needs to do is get you to ask questions. With Men on a Rooftop, the questions I was asking were what are they doing? Is there something sinister about them? Is it completely innocent?’
Studying Burri’s work, Craig began to develop his own experiments in composition, to tell his own stories, to take photographs that experimented with ‘perspectives’ and ‘geometries’ and that raised ‘more questions than answers’.
Fast forward 3 years. Craig’s work has taken off, Street Photography International have hundreds of thousands of followers and exhibited in numerous galleries. On his Instagram feed, one image in particular stands out.
A man folds his hands behind his back, walking across the bright burn of an orange square. Who is he and why does he appear expressionless? Where is he going and what lies in that white lit room beyond? Where is this, and are we in a real place or an imaginary state of limbo?
By now, Craig’s photos have mastered the art of asking questions – and his compositions have grown accordingly. Red squares, white rectangles, reflections, leading lines, figure, ground and gestalt –we could go on.
In fact, his compositions are so successful, that he now leads the Street Photography International workshops on them. Here he often reminds students:
‘As an amateur, your main focus is the subject, but you totally forget to look at the background, the edges of the frame. In street photography, you’ve got no control over it, so you have to take control by studying a scene and framing it.’
Given Craig’s ability to frame compositions and ask questions with photography, we decided to ask him some of our own.
Here Craig Reilly shares his top tips for composition in street photography.
A Guide to Composition
Shapes feature heavily in your work. Triangles, Circles and Rectangles abound. Why are shapes such a central part of your composition?
Shapes catch my eye the most when I walk the streets. Early on it was people engaging with each other or in their own thoughts, so a lot of my work was candid portraits with eye contact, shot in black and white.
But composition was another way of seeing things, something different from focusing on those moments of emotion or interaction. It felt like I was moving up and developing – and now composition has become my focal point.
Many amateur photographers will struggle to find these shapes on the street. How do you use a location and its architecture to help construct this geometry?
Once a particular location has caught my eye, I will study the scene by looking at it from different angles (high, low, left, right) and make minor adjustments each time, either with my camera’s position or my own.
In particular, I like to look for straight edges, triangles, rectangles and squares. I’ve often used windows – from office blocks to train doors – to create internal frames and interesting shapes. In Spain, I even used the round circles of a gate! Anything can be used to create shape on the street.
You also use architecture to construct leading lines. What are the importance of leading lines, and why do you incorporate them into your images?
Well I’ll also use shapes to create a leading line, and when I’m happy with how it’s composed, I look to see where I want to capture my subject in the scene. I wait until they hit the point and then take the shot.
I always try and make my work look as clean as possible, with as few distractions as I can. Having a leading line helps the viewer to see the image how I want them to view it. I want them to know exactly what and who I’m trying to show, and a leading line helps with that.
Landscape photographers have rivers, tracks and those famous jetties leading into water; what leading lines do street photographers have?
We have everything the street offers! It’s up to us as creatives to determine how we use our landscape in that way.
Whether it’s a banister, line of trees, cars, benches, row of buildings, cracks in a pavement, steps, bricks in a wall. It really can be anything – it’s just a case of looking closely.
Light is a separate topic, but you also use highlights and shadows to guide the eye around an image. What kind of light helps build such a composition?
Hard light works best for the high contrast shots. Of course, there’s always natural light, such as sunlight coming through window lattices, creating reflections of light. But there’s also the overhead, artificial light of a city street.
I’ve even used Christmas lights and car lights before – anything works!
Pattern and Texture occasionally crop up in your work. The repetition of shapes, lines or colours can certainly appear visually appealing. But how do you find and create patterns on the streets?
For me personally it’s just a case of how I see the world around me, rather than finding them. On my workshops I show how I see things, and thankfully the attendees are able to pick it up as well.
But in particular, hoardings can be used as a background for patterns. I often use the hoardings with decorative shapes and patterns that are sometimes found outside building sites. For example, I found the above at Canary Wharf.
Some of your shots feature a balanced and centred subject. But many of your photographs leave a great deal of space around the subject, with a silhouette squished to the edge of the frame. How do you organise and frame your subjects? What mood or emotion is this framing you are trying to create?
It really depends on the scene. The available light, weather, location, and of course the subject are the most important factors to determine a mood or emotion. In terms of organising and framing the subjects, it’s purely working with what’s there and working it into something interesting.
For example, this was also shot in Canary Wharf. I saw the leading lines of the stairs, with the banister leading up from the bottom corner to the top corner. It made a clean, diagonal line. At first, I framed the shot and waited for a subject to hit a cross point on the rule of thirds. But as there was only one light source, (in the top corner – right in the edge of the frame) it was the only place I could get the person visible in the shot.
Likewise, some of your images, like the one on Peckham Rye, reduce composition down to a bare minimum. Your perspective shots flatten all sense of depth, whilst your black and whites crush colour and detail in the shadows. Is there a place for minimalism in street photography?
Absolutely! There’s a place for all styles of street photography and something I passionately encourage. How boring would it be if we all saw things the same way?
You can create flatter perspectives by shooting from high up and using a long focal length. Some of my best pictures are taken up on a balcony in Tate Modern, or standing at the top of the City Hall building, looking down on the street below.
But there are other, more unusual ways to flatten perspective, such as merging two planes together to flatten the image. Here it looks as if the two people are sitting on the rail.
Thank you Craig!
Creating Something Meaningful
With minimalism in mind, we decided to ask Craig why composition mattered in the first place.
If his most popular image reduced line, shape, light, pattern and balance to a minimum, why bother with composition at all?
At first, Craig gave us the usual lines about aesthetic reflection, contemplation, art for art’s sake, etcetera.
Perfectly valid reasons.
But coming from the man who told us about the memory of the tree, admired the street stories of Burri, and defined a good photograph as one that asked questions, we thought Craig was backpedalling.
So we asked him again: is there more to composition than meets the eye?
Craig’s own eyes widen a little as he turns to look out the window. His foot moves anxiously under the table, and he circles the thumb and forefinger of his right hand over the little finger of his left.
‘I just don’t know.’
We struggle like this for some time, Craig working through the problem, head propped up on his left hand, offering a solution, before refusing it in turn.
‘It’s meticulous, it’s a thought process, it’s about creating something clean…’
Still he struggles for some time, looking away and avoiding our eye. Outside the window, the light sinks, the streetlights switch on, and a siren calls in the background.
And suddenly, something clicks, and all the significance of shapes, lines and light – indeed the whole principle of visual composition – becomes apparent in an instant.
This time he turns toward us, smiles, and looks us straight in the eye:
‘It’s about creating an artistic form out of everyday life.’
As we get up to leave, an image appears before us: that of a young man standing before a threadbare tree, camera in hand, surrounded by mist, mud and winter rain, trying his hardest to compose something meaningful out of everyday life.
Whichever way you turn that image, something seems to have made sense.
Craig’s work can be seen at: https://www.instagram.com/craig__reilly/
For more on SPi, follow their Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/streetphotographyinternational/