Photo by Don Rutledge
Every time I hear someone teaching photography and says you need to “Clean Up Your Background” I know they haven’t met Don Rutledge.
There are so few photographers that know how to make the background work.
Today I think many photographers use the smooth BOKEH as an excuse for not knowing how to make sense of a location and use the background to help give context to a story.
Don spent a lot of time studying situations he was in and was not looking for ways to take things out of photos–he was trying to see how to include more.
Some people do talk about layering for composition, but often are talking about just creating a 3-D look to an image. Don saw layering as a way to tell you more about the story and the people.
The three ladies in the background help show the fashion of the old Poland in the now moment.
Some people would get low and help isolate this guy with the flag. Don would go just enough above the person to see the crowd in the back and give you an idea how large the crowd is and this guy being in the midst of this.
I remember sitting with Don in his office and me asking him to walk me through his editing process with contact sheets and slides. We spent hours doing this. Don would show a few of the frames before this one where the framing wasn’t as good. He would talk about including the women on either side in the background. Many would shoot this and concentrate on the three men and cut the women out.
What you learn from Don is how important background and things around people give context.
Back in 1956 Don Rutledge partnered with John Howard Griffin on the book Black Like Me. Don wanted to show the context of Griffin becoming black and how people treated him solely based on the skin color. To do this Don used background to show the White Man looking at him judgmentally.
One of the photos I love the most of Don’s was from the time he went and lived with Bailey King for a month to capture Poverty in America. Again you can see Don is making sense by not cleaning up the background but allowing it to add more information about Bailey King.
Don saw the kids in the doorway and in the window. Many photographers only would see those n the porch. This is my favorite photo of Don’s because it embodied this skill that he had developed better than anyone else I knew. He would become invisible and the audience would be transported to see everything and not just a selective focus that most would give you.
Don’t try and just clean up your backgrounds. Take the time to really pay attention to the background. Move until you can frame your main subject and help tell more about their story by using the background, foreground and everything around them.
Take the time to make the background work for you and not against you. When you do your photos will be more informative and for the photojournalists the is your ultimate goal–to inform the public.