October: Forced Perspective

Every photograph ever taken is “forced perspective.” To the extent that you look at a photograph, whether willingly or under duress, you are looking at some part of the world from a perspective “forced” on you by the photographer.

Does that seem obvious to you? Perhaps. But I have encountered many, many people in this world who are at least somewhat mislead by the literalism of photography.

This particular image was submitted to an online photo scavenger hunt for the term “forced perspective, and it was awarded an Honorable Mention by one of the judges. For this category, many of the competitors composited an image out of several photographs. Using that approach, a skilled editor can construct an image of a person towering over a house or sitting like a cherry on top of an ice cream cone, and many of those images were very clever indeed

I wanted to do something less obviously “forced” to draw attention to the “forced perspective” nature of photography, so I chose to shoot something completely ordinary, but from a point of view that made it somewhat strange. So…. do you know what you are looking at? Or, more accurately, do you know what this is a photograph of?

Forced Perspective

You would in a heartbeat if I showed you my “take” of this scene. I shot perhaps 7 or 8 frames and this is the only one with no people in it. Once I was looking at thumbnails of those frames on my computer screen, it was quickly obvious which one I would submit.

It’s a wet Chicago sidewalk, and I am standing on an L train platform leaning over the edge to shoot straight down. The worn, scratched yellow areas are shallow curbs painted to show that the sidewalk is not level. That area between the yellow marks is a ramp to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. Notice that from the perspective I forced on you, the fact that the surface you are looking at is not level is pretty much hidden.

So… next time you are looking at a photograph–any photograph by any photographer–it is worth asking some questions: What perspective is being forced on me by this photo? What might be just outside the frame, or more visible from a different point of view, that the photographer chose to NOT show me? How do the framing, point of view, distance, angle, focus and all of the other decisions the photographer made shape what I take away from this photograph?

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