During one of the many discussions on composition that took place during the Lisbon Masterclass a few months ago, one of the participants suggested that my compositions were reminiscent of something called Wimmelbild in German. Loosely translated, it’s the concept of ‘teeming pictures’ – or a composition that is extremely full of detail and sub-scenes within the main composition. Two of the better-known examples of wimmelbild are the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and childrens books by authors such as Richard Scarry, Ali Mitgutsch, Rotraut Susanne Berner, and Eva Scherbarth – and of course the ‘Where’s Wally’ series by illustrator Martin Handford. If there’s a single gestalt that best describes the nature of most of my compositions – wimmelbild would be it. So it’s probably worth spending a little time explaining exactly what it is…
To the best of my understanding – and limited German – the concept of wimmelbild centres around the idea of a full frame with no wasted space. It however does not mean that elements are chaotic – the opposite, in fact, They’re controlled, ordered, and every part – no matter how small – is relevant to the overall scene and idea. It is the idea of infinite sub-compositions in a frame taken further – recursion in extremis Even though the idea may appear to be one of chaos, it’s really one of ‘busyness’ – or perhaps that of a very complex and sophisticated machine. A bit like a watch, actually – perhaps this has something to do with its personal appeal to me. There are a lot of moving parts, but nothing extra.
In this sense, it’s actually a very difficult type of image to execute: not only do you have to maintain overall structure, balance, aesthetics and composition, but you can’t use large elements to do so without the risk of them dominating the frame. In fact, I think the only way to control the way such an image is read is to use extremely low frequency structures to direct the eyes of your audience – subtle shifts in luminance or color, or perhaps big divisions of the frame. I still haven’t quite determined where empty or negative space is permissible without ruining the overall effect – sometimes it can appear imbalanced, at other times quite dynamic.
Perhaps we need to take a step back and ask why a wimmelbild image is interesting and/or desirable. The natural answer might seem to be something along the lines of ‘because there’s a lot going on’ – I think this is a mistake, because it’s too easy to lose sight of the harmonious individual details that make wimmelbild images work. Rather, I think it’s the best way to present either the idea of complexity in a non-abstract way for a fairly static object such as a watch or building; but above that it allows the photographer to create an effective impression of overwhelmingness when you are initially confronted with a new location, or unfamiliar activity – the kind of feeling you get when you are a bit jet lagged and dropped into a completely foreign place. Over time – and viewing – the mind is able to break down and analyse the little details into some semblance of order, and thus decode the events that are actually taking place. On further viewing, our familiarity with the image is able to break it down instantly into its constituent pieces – and it no longer feels foreign or confusing.
I suppose this also has something to do with the appeal of fractal subjects – clouds, trees, water, mountains and the like. We can take in the scene as a whole, but spend as much time as we wish exploring each individual element at our leisure. In photographic form, the preserved moment offers the audience to do the same with a scene that might be far too fast-moving and dynamic in reality – a high speed photograph of an explosion, or a crowd, for instance. Here we have multiple levels of underlying audience attraction: the ability to explore a scene at leisure in a form that is not otherwise physically possible with the naked eye, the usual aesthetics of a photographic capture, and of course any underlying appeal of the subject matter itself.
There’s one big complication, of course: the output medium. If you are only presenting images at web size, then the effect is severely diminished. There’s a big difference between even that and say enough to fill a 2.5k monitor; even more of a difference to 4K, and we need not talk about print. Size matters, too: bigger is better, but only if information density stays above the threshold of the eye to discern at a comfortable viewing distance for the entire image. The reason for this is the illusion of endless activity and detail is broken if we can make up the constituent parts – especially if those parts are not part of the underlying scene structure. The only way we’re going to view all of the captured information at once is in a large print of sufficient resolution.
It’s also necessary to either maintain and maximise the illusion of transparency by ensuring there are no capture or postprocessing idiosyncrasies that call attention to themselves – over-recovery of shadows or highlights in an attempt to ‘keep everything visible’ is the first problem. The next is the clipping of very small specular highlights – or specifically, the difficulty in reproducing a smooth transition between unclipped and clipped when the elements are very small and there are insufficient spatial ‘steps’ to render the change in luminance. I won’t argue that at this point more pixels are certainly better, but I’d prefer a little noise to a little clipping: the former disappears somewhat into the scene and gives the impression of continuing detail at a level beyond what our eyes can resolve (which is somewhat faithful to actual reality), but the latter simply reads as a digital capture artefact.
I want to leave you with some thoughts on how I approach these scenes, and in effect a little primer on how to compose them. Firstly, the scene itself must be wimmelbild-able; there has to be firstly enough ‘visual density’ to fill the whole frame more or less uniformly. I still like to have a main anchor subject in the scene, which helps differentiate the intention of the photograph from being a pure abstract (in which the entire scene is the subject). Ensure there are no empty holes, or those holes are intentional and contain your subject, or are perhaps significant of some other concept – space vs clutter, chaos vs order, for example. There then has to be some low-frequency underlying structure: if there isn’t, then the audience’s eyes do not know where to enter, in what order to progress through the image, and how to re-direct through the frame in order to be encouraged to stay inside and be encouraged to linger on individual areas of the frame and in turn discover new elements.
This low frequency structure can be a simple luminance gradient, a shadow shape, or perhaps some leading lines; it can also be even more subtle and take the form of layered reflections: here we would read the most ‘literal’ and strongest reflection first, followed by subsequent fainter layers. In that way, some form of narrative can be constructed – assuming you can of course get all of your elements to cooperate. There is probably a way to do this using multiple exposures, too – but I feel that one of the strengths of an image involving reflections is of course the fact that you must be able to tell you are looking at a reflection, and therefore creating the implication of the juxtaposed elements being in close spatial proximity.
Finally, I’m not sure there’s a set formula to follow or a fixed definition of what wimmelbild must be – I am only now in the process of solidifying what it means for myself, and how to use it in my images. I think wimmelbild takes on three primary forms in my own work: the first are the cityscapes, landscapes and other scenes in which most elements are at the same scale, and employ lines or shadows or luminance or color to lead the eye. The second are the documentary scenes in which all subjects exist in one inclined plane extending away from the camera, creating endless context and nuance around a primary subject or subjects. The last is the reflection application from the previous paragraph – which can be combine with either of the previous two.
Unfortunately, wimmelbild isn’t a technique or style that can be applied to every subject and situation – it has perhaps the most narrow application of any of the styles I currently pursue, because it is quite dependent on subject and scene (thought can be applied to a reasonable range, as the example photos attempt to demonstrate), and nigh on impossible to construct – unless you are Gregory Crewdson (though I feel his images are somewhat on the low-density side for wimmelbild). It does feel very much like the way my own mind works and interprets the world, though: lots of simultaneously moving pieces and not a lot of empty room…perhaps it’s time for me to find a larger production budget. Anybody here want to be an extra? MT
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