Two of my favorite Daily Journal photos were made in Museums. But whenever I see the two photos together, I am reminded of how important backgrounds are. More specifically, we are talking about the ratio of background to foreground. Both of these assignments were about exhibits that would open shortly, and the purpose of the photo was to promote interest in the exhibit.
The first shot is a photo of Martine Franck, widow of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs helped define photojournalism in the post World War Two years. Franck was answering questions about a retrospective showing of her late husband's best known photographs. The exhibit included Behind the Gare St. Lazare, seen behind her.
I wanted to make a photo that showed Franck in the foreground and the iconic image, out of focus but recognizable, in the background. Since she had her well-worn 35mm Leica rangefinder camera with her, I had her hold it in her hands as though she was preparing to make a photograph. Since the museum's lights were incandescent and coming directly from above, I used the pop-up flash on my camera to provide some additional light into her eyes. I adjusted my vantage point to position the famous photo behind her. This is the photo I submitted.
While I was very pleased with the photo, the paper did not run the image, and after discussing it with my editor, agreed with her reasoning. The most important shortcoming was the photo's lack of context. With the single photo in the background, it is completely removed from a exhibit context. In addition, Franck completely dominates the image, making this photo a portrait of a photographer rather than a photo of an exhibit of a photographer's work. No one has denied that it's a good portrait, but it didn't meet the specific needs of the article.
A second assignment came with the opening of Japanesque, an exhibit showing the influence of the west on eastern art. Here Karin Breuer, the exhibit's curator, stands beside the easily recognized color woodcut “Cresting Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai. Luckily for me the light was coming from a relatively low angle so fill-flash was not necessary.
I was fortunate in both the visual elements of the background and the placement of Breuer within the image. The print on the wall is easily recognized, and the exhibit description is visible on the wall beside it. The four smaller prints add to the "museum" quality of the image. I was also fortunate that Breuer was explaining the print's significance to some journalists to my right, thereby anchoring her role as exhibit curator and allowing a more candid portrayal.
The moral of the story is this: Before you set about making a photograph, clarify the message the photo is to convey. That message will often go beyond the simple issues of choosing the foreground subject, since all of the visual elements in the background should help advance the the ambiance you are trying to convey.