With the excitement building around the impending appearance of Mr A in Hannibal, one easily forgets the work he already has in the can but that is as yet unpublished. Thanks to some persistent fan-
massage engagement on Twitter, director/writer Candida Brady has released a new picture from Urban and the Shed Crew which sheds further light on the film – and allows renewed swooning over a particular long-legged actor… For ulterior reasons I usually prefer *ooof*ing images which show only Mr A on his own. But I have to admit that this one – predictably – poked at my heart and thus convinced me to give it the *ooof* treatment (even without more or less gentle prodding from various terriers… ooops… readers 😉 you know who you are… ) : RA holding on to a little boy? Irresistible. Yeah, you can tell I am a female with a surplus of estrogen… And it doesn’t even matter that there is a female character in the image, she almost blends into the background… but we’ll get to that later. Let’s start with a look at the image:
The first thing we see in this image is a dividing wall made of brick. It divides the photograph into two unequal halves. On the left-hand side of the wall we see a woman, casually dressed in tight grey jeans and a shoulder-exposing grey shirt, leaning her back against the wall. Her face is turned towards the camera, her gaze is further to the right. Matching her on the other side of the dividing wall is a man, equally casually dressed in jeans, t-shirt, checked shirt and knee-length open coat. While his body is turned towards the camera, he has placed his forehead against the wall. With his right hand he in turn holds a young boy who is leaning his back against his side.
When I got stuck into analysing the image, I was taken by surprise how much I could say about it. There was so much more meat in it than only a chop, if you pardon the pun. The composition alone proves to be very telling when one takes some of the background information about the literary source, Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew by Bernard Hare, into account. At first sight, the image exudes an air of symmetry. Focussing on the part of the image that contains the subjects, we superficially perceive a mirror image: If you take the vertical red brick wall as the centre, you will notice that the man’s casually crossed-over leg creates a strong line in the image. It is more or less mirrored by the woman’s legs. Similarly, the crooked line of the broken, white-washed brick wall behind the man is mirrored on the other side of the image by a line on the wall, presumably created by shadow. The shadow line and the white brick line effectively create a frame around the subjects of the photograph, following the contours of their poses from a narrow point at the top (their heads) to a wider point at the bottom (their legs and feet) – a triangular shape. While the symmetry appeals to our sense of aesthetic, the diagonal lines nevertheless add a dynamic feel to the image – they upset our in-built need for right-angled parallel-line harmony. This is a small indication of a message of disharmony in the image.
However, the image is not symmetrical anyway, as you have undoubtedly noticed at first glance. There is an imbalance, caused by the vertical line of the brick wall. The wall is not in the centre of the picture, but Morrison has framed (or cropped) the scene in such a way that the image is divided in two halves at a ratio of roughly 2:1. The image is therefore a nice rule of thirds composition with (a nonetheless aesthetically pleasing) asymmetry. And this has implications for the interpretation. As it is, the photographer chooses to “squeeze” two of his three subjects into the smaller part of the image, to the right of the wall, leaving the bigger part of the image (on the left of the wall) populated with only one subject.
This may seem illogical. Wouldn’t we give more room to two people than to one person, even in an image, and even if only to balance the two sides? But the composition is no coincidence. There is no professional photographer out there who frames and composes their pictures *without* care and deliberation. Morrison knows what he is trying to convey with the image, and by placing the subjects of his image in this way, he helps us understand what is going on in the image. He adds to the obvious clues – one person on her own vs two people together – and emphasises the message: What we see is an imbalance. The single person – whom we can identify as Greta, Urban’s mother and Chop’s casual/occasional partner – looks lost in the bigger space she is given in the image. Chop and Urban, on the other side, are squeezed into the smaller part of the image. Their “togetherness” is emphasised. Effectively, we are presented with the opposition/contrast of “loneliness” vs. “company”.
I am not sure whether this is a sensation that every viewer of this image is experiencing, but when I look at the image, I perceive a sort of dynamic, inherent movement from the left towards the right. This is partly down to the composition – the empty space on the left of the image vs the populated space on the right, and with the turned head of the female subject. But it also has to do with the fact that there seems to be almost a progression of meaning from the left towards the right – from empty space = nothingness on the left to undecided passivity and loneliness of one person in the middle, to two figures, warm company and a decisive stance of longing, conveyed in the bowed head, on the right.
I find it extremely interesting how composition and picture ratio can have an impact on the message of an image. Just for experimentation I cropped the image to a square. Have a look at this:
Do you notice the changed dynamics? Greta is given less space in this version while Chop and Urban all of a sudden seem to have more space (even though I have not cropped anything away from their side of the image). Here, Chop and Urban occupy (roughly) two thirds of the square image. Their togetherness stands out even stronger now, and Greta’s loneliness has been reduced. Instead, there is a claustrophobic feel to the image now. With less space around her, Greta appears to literally have “her back against the wall” and to look more poignantly for a way out, or a way to be part of company, rather than be alone. She also seems to have blended into the background with her grey clothes matching the colour of the rubble and walls around her. The imbalance still occurs but now the dynamic progression I spoke about above seems to move from the right to the left – from the warm company of two towards the lonely person on the left. Fascinating. (Aesthetically, btw, the rectangular image is far more pleasing as it leaves more space for the viewer to rest their eyes on. It gives you room to breathe, to sit back and to take in the image, while the square format is altogether cramped and claustrophobic in this instance. Good thing that Morrison did not muck around with this…)
If you look at the posture of the subjects in the image, the dynamics of the implied conflict are also emphasised by the poses of the two adult characters in the image. We see Greta’s body mostly from the side as she is leaning against the wall with her back (more or less). Her head is turned towards the camera, but by gazing further towards the wall, she appears dynamic or undecided, as if she is in the process of either looking towards the wall or turning away from it. At the same time her dangling arms make her appear passive, frustrated, resigned, unsure what to do. Chop on the other side has turned his body towards the camera, touches the wall with his shoulder, and stares at the wall, resting against the wall, holding Urban to himself. He looks more static than Greta, yet relaxed, at ease, not passive, but more as if he knows what he wants. Both figures could be interpreted to be longing for the person(s) on the other side of the dividing wall. However, Chop appears to be more committed to that than Greta, who has (literally) turned her back on the wall/Chop/Urban.
The contradictory body poses add to the dynamic feel of the image that I mentioned above. And they provide the tension that makes an image interesting. Contradictions and ambiguity raise questions, such as: Is Greta pining or turning? Does she feel alone or does she need space? Is Chop calm or resigned? The more questions we are faced with, the more time we spend with an image. Therefore the ambiguity in this image most likely is wanted by the photographer. As are the contrasts: Plenty of space on the left vs. cramped space on the right. One person on the left vs. two people on the right. Or shadow on the left vs. light on the right – another little enhancing detail that adds to the interpretation: Greta is in shadow whereas Chop and Urban are in the light. Speaking in metaphor, she is lost in darkness while they see the light of day.
Beside the conflict there is also harmony in the image – the visual harmony conveyed through symmetrical composition, and the harmony of identical poses. This is particularly clear when looking at Chop and Urban. Their poses are identical in the sense that both subjects are leaning with one leg crossed over the other. They are “in tune”, so to speak, a common occurrence between two people who are familiar with each other. And not only that – the boy posing the same way as the man alludes to the typical behaviour of a child consciously or subconsciously copying a respected or loved adult.
Awwww. It is a trope that was already visualized in a previous image from the set of UATSC which I *ooof*ed here. This evidence of a child copying an adult, of course, appeals very much to us as adult female viewers. And gently the ovaries pop… If we didn’t know the literary source, we would assume that the man and the boy are father and son – joined by familial love. Yet, in truth they are unlikely friends and thus the impact on the knowledgable viewer is even stronger. The poses speak of trust and admiration on part of the boy, as he leans “on” the man, and convey the care and affection for the boy on part of the man – he holds the boy two himself, giving him stability and shelter. And that is literally what Chop is providing for Urban in the story. This kind of stuff works predictably well on me as a woman – I get all mushy and sentimental when I see a man and a child. Yes, cave woman is still alive in me. Or maybe I have just been head-f*cked by the clever manipulation of the image…
Talking of manipulation – I am slightly suspicious of the central brick wall in this image, and thus with the production of the image as such. What I mean is that I suspect the image was not shot as we see it here, but that it originated as two images and possibly was then stitched together on the computer screen in post-production. The vertical line of the brick wall in the middle to me looks slightly out-of-sync with the rest of the set. Particularly what appears as a white line running down the length of the wall, looks a little bit too regular and straight to me than to be an authentic brick wall. (Compare it with the red brick wall that Greta is leaning on on the left – the edge looks more irregular, and *real*, to me than the one on the right.) Has this been photoshopped onto the picture? If so, maybe the photographer needed a stronger separating line between the two sides of the image. Or maybe I am barking up the wrong
wall, eh, tree, and this wall did exist in situ but was artificiallly built for the set, hence the uncharacteristic, smooth-ish edge? The inconsistent lighting indicates that I could be right: The light source illuminates Urban and Chop slightly from behind, top right. Yet the front side of the wall that is facing the camera does not display any shadow – as it logically should (compare with the shadows on Chop or on the lower wall that juts out towards the camera – there are clear shadows to be seen there, but not on the taller bit of the wall. Curious…).
Manipulation or not – the image affects me as a viewer. Yes, some of that is due to one of the subjects, whom I enjoy seeing in new photos. But it is also due to the composition and subject matter of the image. The photo tells a story. It challenges me to interpret it and find meaning in it, to put the subjects into context with each other. It helps that I have read the book. The image may not exactly convey what I took from the book – I do not remember Greta pining for Chop; in fact, the romantic connection between Chop and Greta seemed secondary to me. In that sense the image leads the viewers on the wrong track: Urban and the Shed Crew is not a love story between a man and a woman. If anything, it is a “love” story between a man and a boy who ultimately rescue each other through mutual affection, and who deliberately have to abandon the woman who is lurking in the shadow of their shared warmth and affection. To me, the image certainly conveys that. Well done to Morrison. He certainly makes me look forward to seeing more meat. Eh. Chop.