IMAGE TALK with Noella Ballenger: What makes that photo work…

Creating simplicity out of the chaos of your surroundings can be a very difficult task. As photographers, it is important to pay attention to and eliminate any objects or elements that can distract from the essence of our chosen subject. Learning what should remain or be removed from the image frame is a challenge that some never quite master, but it is a goal worth acquiring.

In this Image Talk, Karen Pleasant took the time to really observe her surroundings. She not only found, but captured an image that isolated the subject with beautiful simplicity. Then, in her digital darkroom, she transformed her image with a texture and frame that emphasized the timeless art of Chinese calligraphy.

Ancient Writings
by Karen Pleasant

© 2012 Karen Pleasant. All rights reserved.

Subject: Chinese man writing on the sidewalk

Conditions: Very early one morning we arrived at Jingshan Park. It is located just outside the gates to the Forbidden City in Beijing. The park is a popular place for Chinese men and women to not only exercise, dance, and sing, but to dip large brushes in water and write Chinese characters on the pavement. Mothers also used this method to teach their children how to write. We were told that this helped them maintain their eye-hand coordination.


1. The strong diagonal of the Chinese characters leads into the image frame and takes your eye right to the subject of the brush and its implied writing motion.

2. The man’s arms and legs anchor the design and stop the viewer from leaving the image.

3. The simplicity of subject matter in the space contributes to a calming photograph.

4. Monochromatic color scheme adds to the quiet simplicity of the image.

5. The artistic use of the border and the texture enhance the image’s ethnic design.

Noella’s comments:

Karen has done a masterful job of seeing and then creating a very simple image that captures a location, along with an activity that is special to the region. The tendency of many photographers is to include too much in an image. Can you take a single seashell and say an entire ocean in an image, or as in this case, can you simplify a large scene so it represents a symbol of an entire culture? I think that is what comes through in this image very clearly. 

Is it necessary to show the face of a person when they are included in an image? In this instance, the man writing is not the subject, but the action of his writing is. Therefore, his face would not have been a beneficial addition.

The communication between the man and the characters being painted on the sidewalk trap the viewer’s eye. The strong diagonal of the characters pulls our attention to the tip of the brush as it writes. The position of the legs and the arms effectively block and interrupt our vision so that it is impossible to leave the image.

The beauty of this monochromatic color scheme enhances its design and adds to the images calming effect. Sepia tones also create a sense of days gone by. This could have been happening 1000 years ago or just yesterday. The impact is very subtle but very important.

In addition, Karen created a frame and texture within the digital darkroom that converted what was already an incredible image into something quite special.

Very nice work indeed Karen.

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