A Long Thing About Foregrounds, Set Ups and O. Winston Link

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own photography lately. Mostly, what I take are “timeless” scenes of small town or desert life. While most have some evidence of humans, rarely do they have humans in them. I’m cool with that. But what I’m not cool with is my lack of foreground.

The photos I’m posting were taken by O. Winston Link. In the late 50s and early 60s, he rode along with the Norfolk & Western RR through Virginia and West Virginia, capturing some of the most amazing night shots ever. His use of huge flash arrays and staged shots is eons beyond what I’m even trying to do.

Here are some shots by Mr. Link:

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But his use of foreground is something I could actually pull off. Granted, Link often spent hours setting up shots. The “Solitude” one took four hours of waiting. The “Water” one was completely staged with the help of the railroad (though they only gave him one shot at it).

Though staged, he was keen enough to see the photo in his head and either use or plant something in the foreground. Looking through my own photos now, it seems as if I basically never do it. This is weird as it’s kind of the difference between taking a photo and taking a photo *of* something.

Here are some shots by me that I believe are okay in regards to foreground subjects:

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There are a couple of reasons for this. First, since I like my shots to have nothing in them that’s obviously younger than me, I often have to shoot around things that might otherwise be in my foreground. Second, I’m always worried about focusing, and would have to figure out which should be in focus – the foreground or the background. There are ways around this (including pinhole photography, which I might end up exploring), but also I’m kind of lazy.

Whenever I do this myself, it tend to involve signs. The same is true with Mr. Link. Many (but far from all) of his shots with foreground subjects involve signs – water, solitude, railroad crossing, etc.

But the rub is in this question: What is Mr. Link shooting? Was he taking a photo of the “water” sign? Was the “solitude” sign really his subject? How about the father and son watching the train – were they really what we’re to be focused upon? What about the kids splashing in the water?

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The answer isn’t really an easy one. He set up the shots to include all of those things while taking photographs of trains. Everything in his photo – the foreground and the background – was important and essential. I don’t know if I can say that about any of my shots.

In a way, what Link captured were two shots in one. They’re sort of like double exposures. Take the photo of the train moving above the kids playing in the water. With either of the subjects missing, it would still be a fine photo. But with both in the frame, even though neither are interacting with the each other, it works on multiple levels.

And that is what I’m after. I want to be able to take photos that could work with or without their foreground/background subjects, but work better because both are present.

The photos of my own that I’m sharing on this post, I hope, come somewhat close-ish to that goal. More importantly, I need to take more photos like this.

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2 thoughts on “A Long Thing About Foregrounds, Set Ups and O. Winston Link

  1. His work is brilliant. But… so is yours. I think the truck in front of the Kings store is my favorite image of yours. My jaw dropped the first time I saw it.

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