Elements of Design – Value and Texture

Value

Value is a description of an area’s relative lightness or darkness. Therefore, it relates to a greyscale more than the color wheel. In a sense, value mostly ignores hue and operates only on the level of how much tint (addition of white), or shade (addition of black), a color may have. Value does not ignore hue completely though because all fully saturated hues will fall on a different natural levels of a value scale (grey scale).

Values help create forms and differentiate space or distance. Gradation of values within a space or shape create forms, or the illusion of volume and mass.

Values can be loosely predicted by looking at the color of the object. Pure yellow will fall near the top of a grey scale, while pure blue-violet will fall near the bottom of the grey scale. All other pure hues fall somewhere in between. Looking at the two images below, the second image is a grey scale conversion of the first. Note how light the value of the yellow circle is compared to the others, also note how little difference there is between values of some of the other colors. This affect is used in B&W to remove any emotional and psychological reaction to color. In return, the viewer responds more directly to the formal constructions of the image and the message.

Today, most photographers are not consciously aware of the colors in their photos. Whatever colors are in front of the camera are of no major concern. There is no attempt at controlling the palette of the image, so unfortunately, value control is also of less concern.The fact is, value can impart as much, or more, emotional response than color. It is the main component of black and white photography. High value or high key images have a light, pure feel to them. By manipulating values through exposure control, a high-key or low-key image can be created. A great example for tone is the work of Edward Steichen.

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was one of the first commercially successful fashion photographers. He is considered the first modern fashion photographer and worked for large ad agencies. Hired by Condé Nast, he shot for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines from 1923–1938, the most famous and highest paid photographer in the world during that time. He won an Academy Award for a documentary film in 1945 and became the head of the Photography section of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Below are examples of his work. Note the use of tones to create drama in the images. His work had a major influence on both the commercial and film industries through WWII.

Edward Steichen, "Norma Shearer, 1935"

Edward Steichen, “Norma Shearer, 1935”

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High valued or high-key images illustrate lightness, airy, open, friendly spaces and aid the impression of confident success. In this image of model Norma Shearer, one can see how the high key tonal use helps elevate the impressions of high culture, wealth and well-being. The placement of her head in front of the mirror subliminally places a halo around her head. This halo becomes a crown when ones vision registers the crystal ornamentation truncated at the top of the mirror. This is an instance where the figure-ground can reverse in the black shape within the mirror. It seems to stand forward of her head at times.

Edward Steichen, "J P Morgan, 1903"

Edward Steichen, “J P Morgan, 1903”

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Dark value or low-key images usually have a heavy or oppressive feel to them. Steichen has used low key lighting and dark tones in presenting us with a menacing image of financier J P Morgan, one of the most feared and hated men of his day. Note how the arm rest on the right side of the image takes on the appearance of a knife.This was not entirely unintentional and shows one approach to strengthening the message of an image.

Edward Steichen, "Margaret Horan, 1935" for Vogue

Edward Steichen, “Margaret Horan, 1935” for Vogue

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Using heavy darks in concert with vibrant whites adds drama.This image of Margaret Horan, shot for Vogue Magazine, is a study in shapes, lines, forms, space and tones. Steichen could easily have used an overall darker palette but would have lost the drama and elegance of the image. A high-key treatment would have become too much of an abstraction dismissing the pose and human element. Consider also how the image would change just by shifting the camera 1 foot to the left. The near tangent of her upper thigh would have disappeared into the rectangular shadow on the rear wall. The elegant line created by her left side would no longer show, resulting in a less glamorous image.

If you are observant you will also catch the implied line traveling from the statuette down both arms to the piano. Only to be turned back by the right triangle in the white space created by the curved shape of the piano top and her arm.

Texture

Texture is created by contrast changes along the surface of an object. It is a byproduct of the angle of the light and the roughness of the surface of an object. The illusion of texture in a photograph is created by small, localized changes in contrast. If a surface is rough, there will irregularities on the surface. As long as the light illuminates the object from aside or rear angle, it will create a shadow and highlight on the irregularities. This creates changes in value or color, higher in the highlight side and lower in the shadow side. These differences in local value, contrast, are what we perceive as texture on the object.

A smooth surface has no irregularities so it exhibits little localized contrast and so appears to have no texture.

Texture gives an object a sense of being real and tactile. Presented correctly, texture becomes a quality we can “feel” without actually touching. The brain sends a feeling to receptors in the fingers and we experience a “sense” of the texture. Coarse textures exhibiting high localized contrast will have a rough or severe character. Smooth textures exhibiting lower localized contrast will have a calm or sensuous character.

These images by Edward Weston (arguably the most influential photographer of the 20th Century) exhibit entirely different textures. The first image, titled, “Church Door, Hornitos, 1940 is a good illustration of how localized changes in the surface create the feeling of rough texture. Notice that the light is coming in from a high, side angle. Without the right lighting, texture becomes nothing more than the tonal changes we see in the shadow area of the door.

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

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The second image, titled, “Nautilus, 1927” illustrates how a lack of texture enhances the illusion of an objects smooth surface on the two-dimensional print. Using rather flat lighting enhances the affect by filling in any local texture. This reduces contrast changes even more.

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

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The same applies to Weston’s, “Pepper No. 30, 1930”.

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

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Unrelated to texture, notice how the figure-ground relationship of the upper portion of the shell itself can change, resulting in an ambiguous form. At any one moment, the upper hollow of the shell seems to take a shape, projecting forward, toward the viewer. At another moment it reverts to a literal reading of the shape and recedes behind the base of the shell. Both of these photographs are illustrative of photography’s ability to transform an objects image from a record of an object to a sensual, organic form created in the viewer’s mind. The shell might remind one of a toadstool or a phallus The pepper imitates a human form rendered into a twisted shape and is mirrored in Weston’s most famous nude of Charis Wilson.

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Elements of Design – Shape and Form

Shape

Shape describes two-dimensional space. The actual defining of shape is done by other elements of design: line, space, value, or color. In combination, these other elements form the shapes we see in a work. Shape occurs when tone or color fills the area between lines. Shape is the brains attempt at resolving an object as recognizable (logical) to one’s experience. In the two-dimensional world, there are three simple geometric shapes – the square, the triangle, and the circle. All other geometric shapes are some combination of these three.

There are also more the more complex organic shapes we see in natural and man-made objects, such as the silhouette of leaves, trees, cars or other everyday objects. Shape is the foundation of form.

Form

Form is the three-dimensional counterpart to shape. Shape is to form as a square is to a cube. In the three-dimensional world, the basic geometric forms are cube, sphere, pyramid, cylinder and cones. Form is shape with dimension or volume. To change a shape to a form, dimension must be created by the addition of tone or color transitions within the shape. This results is the illusion of three-dimensions in a two-dimensional space.

In the first decades of the 20th Century photography was moving away from Pictorialism, the trend of photographers attempting to imitate painterly effects in photos, mostly through soft focus and romantic subject matter.  Some of the influences drawing photographers away from Pictorialism were Dadaism, Cubism and a move toward images in sharp focus. It was during this transitional time that Edward Weston took this early masterpiece of composition, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921. This is clearly a transitional piece borrowing from Pictorialism and touching on elements of gestalt. It also seems to  echo some of the modernist notions of space that were explored in the two decades leading to the production of this image.

This is an image that uses shapes almost exclusively in its design. The framing of the image presents the viewer with an ambiguous space where we don’t know if the central dark form is projecting forward into the space or receding toward the left due to the the figure-ground flip-flops. Is the woman, Betty Katz, leaning against the wall? Or is she looking at it head-on, while being separated from another space on the far side of the projection? A third reading could be of the entire wall being perfectly flat with an abstract design painted on it. The woman’s organic dark form counters the geometric lines and lighter tones of the space. Her size and placement within the frame balance the otherwise expansive mass of shapes and tones.

Edward Weston, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921Tone map of Westons, Attic.

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In this image, Weston is obviously playing with the shapes as geometric planes in space. Texture is non-existent and  any volume in the image is generated by tonal changes determined by the angle of the surface.  The tone map indicates a simple, yet appealing set of lines and tones.

Below is another famous photograph,  this time by the Master Photographer Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946. Even if you don’t know that Stravinsky was one of the 20th Centuries greatest composers, the shapes within the frame leave no doubt that he was connected to music in some way.

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Tone Map

Tone Map

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This is a very graphic design and just an outline of the shapes would be interesting. Here is another instance where creating a tone map breaks the image down into a collection of shapes without any form or other information. The arrangement of shapes within the frame is interesting for its own design.

Below is another Newman portrait, this time of Alfred Hitchcock, the famous film director/producer and master of the psychological thriller and suspense genre in the middle of the last century. Newman, master of the environmental portrait, has him sitting quite far forward so that his body seems detached from the head in a way that the head seems magically attached yet ready to roll down front by its own weight. Notice the simplicity of the image with only 3 objects in the frame: the forms of the body and head, and the background shape. The graphic quality of the image being obvious.

Alfred Neuman, Alfred Hitchcock, date unk.Image Source

Returning to Weston, during the middle of his career Edward Weston’s work often concentrated on finding the “essence” of is subject matter. His work by then had evolved from the Pictorialist soft focus image to the sharp, maximum focus practices of the F-64 Group. Now everything possible was in focus and finding the composition leading to a deep connection with the subject was paramount. Form now became important when photographing a subject and the details found in the local contrasts of objects became important. The essence of the object itself became the subject, as well as what the image by itself could elicit emotionally.

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

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In this shot of sand dunes in on the Central California Coast, we see a study of lines, shapes, forms and textures. Weston is using nature’s ever-present design as a subject of its own. This image can be viewed in numerous ways. It can be seen as a realistic study of the land, with all of its details sharply delineated from the foreground to the mountains in the far distance. Alternatively, it might be viewed as a counter-comment to a realistic reading of the image, abstracted into nothing more than a study of shape, form, line, and tone. Still others may see it in a spiritual sense, as an equivalent to a deeply felt personal event or other experience from life. Regardless of Weston’s original intent, he was highly aware of the formal elements of design within the ground glass and used them to his advantage.

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

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The image above, Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern contains some of the elements we have discussed over in the past few posts. See how many of the items you can pick out.  Include any Gestalt elements you might recognize. As a starting point realize the photo is a picture of leaves in front of a white wall and the shadows they cast on that wall.

Don’t think that all of this discussion about line, form, shape etc. is just “old bunk” that no longer applies. Practiced every day, the Elements of Design still hold true and in the worlds of design, publishing, photography and Art. Familiarizing yourself with, and utilizing these concepts, but not letting them control your vision, is one of the best ways to improve your photography. As an exercise, spend the next few photo outings looking for designs in nature or at man made locations, they exist all over. When you find them, spend some time considering the best way to frame them in a way that the design becomes  part of the subject of the image. You will find that over time, your brain will start to connect more with design and you will be utilizing it naturally without effort. The end result will be improved vision and better photographs.

 

Next Time: Space

 

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.