Alex Webb & M.C. Escher
Masters of Confusion
[ UNDERSTANDING THE MODULE ]
The secret to becoming a Master
is making things which are very
difficult look easy. Escher is the
grandfather of perfectly organized
chaos. Inside his maze of stairs or
tangled lizards lie important lessons
on how to take the chaos of life and
lock it into a single frame.
The Roots of Inspiration
As a young artist Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), later knows simply as M.C. Escher told his father that he did not want to study architecture. His preference was for graphic arts. Escher’s early woodcuts presented enough promise that he was allowed to drop the favored subject of architecture for drawing. To most parents, the career of an artist is too risky. Architecture has a distinctive ring of authority that has a greater appeal. I recall a Spanish friend of mine in college who wanted to major in studio arts. Her parents response was, “What do you think your are Picasso or something?”
For those individuals who commit themselves to art over the more pragmatic endeavors, there are typically generations of younger artists who are grateful for their resistance. Because in all honesty, there will never be a period in history when being an artist is the favored profession.
Travels in Italy
In his twenties the left handed Escher went south from his native Holland to Italy. Day trips from his base in Rome would influence the next sixty years of his artistic career. Before the streets of Italy were widened by the Futurist and Fascist architects (like Antonio Sant’Elia), Rome and its surrounding cities were a web of cobble stone streets reaching back to the time of the Roman Empire. The width of the street was determined by the measurement of a chariot and two war horses and the paths were primarily driven by the trade routes of the Italian peninsula. Over the course of two thousand years, the streets grew organically and homes sprung up in the empty spaces between staircases and piazzas.
Escher set out to explore the lesser developed areas of the Roman province of Lazio. The visual claustrophobia of central Italy’s smaller cities like Castrovalva ignited a fascination in Escher with how the layout of a city can affect the way we feel. In essence this was an architects problem tackled by an artist. Combining the sensation that buildings were piled one on top of the other and the geometric impact that Spain’s Alhambra had on Escher, we can start to see how his inspiration found its roots.
Regular Division of a Plane
For those of you who are not familiar with Escher beyond the calendars and trinkets available at book stores, I recommend looking at one of his books more closely. He managed to combine a number of personal interests into a language that was so clear and so universal that every viewer feels as if they instantly understand his work. The beauty and complexity of each piece does not become apparent until we try to dissect is design or anatomy.
The regular division of a plane looks at the ways in which a single geometric shape can be divided into repeating, interlocking forms that cover the entire surface of the plane. If you need a basic example have a look at your bathroom floor. Any set of repeating tiles will give you the basic layout of an Escher division. Like any sensible artist he started with the most simple shapes, square, diamond, triangle…and then grew into hexagons and expanding or contracting series.
How to apply Escher to Photography
The person who comes closest to Escher’s efforts in photography is probably Alex Webb. When I look at a photographer’s work, one of my main preoccupations is “What is the work doing?” I am interested in what the work does as an action or a verb. The list of nouns and adjectives that often explain Webb’s work are useless. Hearing that his work is magical, enigmatic, or mysterious doesn’t tell us what the images are doing or how they are work.
A few years ago I took a workshop with Alex, so I can briefly speak about his approach, or what he purports as his interests in photography. His background is in literature. As far as I understand he was not formally educated in the visual arts. While he describes his work very eloquently, I found that an off the cuff question by one of the other participants elicited the most straightforward answer. With a group of photographer in front of Webb, the student asked how he would see THIS particular scene. Webb, who only works with a 35mm lens said that he is interested in her (pointing to the girl just to his right) and him pointing to the guy three people back, and him (over there against the wall). The whole scene and the combination of the figures in the scene explains more about Webb’s work that three hours of dedicated lecture. He combines elements throughout the entire frame to make a picture.
Why does this matter?
When photographers ask me for critiques one of the first things I notice is if the photographer looks at the background. Often times they do not. If something could divide the student from the teacher, it would be whether someone even looks at the background. If you want a great example of what happens when a photographer makes a picture while looking at the entire scene study Webb’s work. The difference between someone like Bruce Gilden (who has never looked at a background in his life) or Alex Webb (who has made an entire career out of fully composed images) is striking. If you want to improve your images, start with the background.
My suspicion is that after years of work Webb made a discovery. I can’t say which frame sparked this idea, but somewhere in his contact sheets he discovered that with a 35mm lens he could use bits and pieces of anatomy to create a picture. The head of one person with the legs of another, could make a cinematic effect. Now what I am saying from this point forward is complete speculation, but I believe it to be true.
In Escher’s work we learned that if the top half of a figure gets cut off in the upper portion of a module, the bottom half must re-appear at the base of the module. It sounds like a tongue twister written out, but is easier to understand as a picture. See below, where we lose the top of one man, we must show the bottom of the other. The same goes for the horse.
Is this type of symmetry easy to find in photography? NO WAY. Its a huge challenge, which is probably why it appears in some of Webb’s pictures and not others. It must happen so infrequently and be so difficult to catch that it cannot be a regular part of the portfolio. But, if you are looking for it…the symmetry will happen. It is safe to say that there are many fortunate accidents in photography, but if someone wants to elevate their work above the millions of snapshots taken everyday, they will need a different approach.
I look at photographs everyday. Whether its in print, on the web or people submitting pictures to me for review. The single greatest flaw of any photo is not in the subject or the timing or some technical aspect like focus or exposure, it is the other 90% of the frame beyond the subject. A good way to think about an images is, if its inside of those 35mm, it better be there because you picked it. If its there by luck or accident, chances are its not helping you. But how is it possible to account for your entire frame, ask Alex Webb. He will show you a career of thoughtful design and composition.
Webb shows us just one of the many ways that geometry can create a powerful image. The apparent simplicity of Escher and Webb is actually a trick. While the work reads immediately and feels so effortless, both artists are using complex techniques that require years of dedicated practice. But I hope this little lesson will start you on the way to improving the possibility of success in your own pictures.
ASSIGNMENT: Webb & Escher
Using a piece of tracing paper decode the pattern of one of your favorite M.C. Escher images. Notice where he makes the break in the pattern. If it is an animal, does he cut it at the foot, the neck or anther joint.
See if you can take a photograph that recreates the same division within the frame. (Note: You might want to start by using toys, dolls, or objects instead of jumping right to real life figures)
Good luck! and post your findings below.