I have interpreted the brief for this exercise a little more liberally than usual; I have taken the ‘background’ to mean a setting. I’ve also gone a bit off-piste with the background orientation. Most backgrounds are vertical, running from the ground to some indeterminate point in the ‘above’ area. For this short series I have made the ground the background by picturing the subjects from above.
In doing this I have pretty much eliminated one aspect of the generally accepted view of portraiture – the faces. It raises a question though – is it a portrait if you can’t see the face? When it comes to the relative size of the face in a photograph we are quite tolerant as viewers. A big close up, tight enough to lose the ears is a portrait. We’ll accept the term even when the face is tiny, seen at quite a distance. As long as it is readily identifiable as a face – there are facial features – we’re happy with the definition.
When only the tops of heads are visible the definition is stretched. But other factors arise which may add to the personal nature of the picture. The field is profoundly flattened and relevant objects appear to be placed around the subject with equal significance. They all have the same relative size in that they are not diminished by their front-to-back positioning. Mostly they are actually in contact with the background.
Gesture takes on a novel appearance and the positional relationships between figures assume a particular dynamism. The reach of an arm, which in normal view may be foreshortened, is seen as a dramatic stretch. The viewer is pressed into making unfamiliar inferences, prompting a new kind of engagement.
The objects surrounding the figures are plainly laid out. They do not obscure each other and are arranged like a map. Now that I’ve mentioned the ‘map’ word it feels even more like an abstract, somewhat disconnected representation of the people depicted. The flattened perspective renders the scene quite dispassionately and as viewers we have a privileged position from which we can examine the contents of the frame and relate them to the subjects.