I love the way Chris Harrison used backdrops and drapery to dramatic effect in his exhibition Copper Horses. He used a sheet of canvas to hide parts of the machine he was photographing which he didn’t want us to see. That way he broke the machine down to fragments.
The result is a complex visual metaphor for his thoughts and feelings about his relationship with his father and the many people who work hard to make ends meet in British industry.
As devices, backdrops and drapery have been used for as long as photographers have been taking photographs, as a fine bit of drapery gives an artistic air to the image.
19th century studio portrait photographers used painted canvas backdrops to mimic parlour settings in two dimensions, while a plain, austere backdrop focused attention on the sitter.
When used properly we shouldn’t be conscious a backdrop is in use, but sometimes they pique my interest. What’s behind the backdrop? Something the photographer didn’t want me to see? Whatever it is, I want to see it.
There are hosts of photographs in our collection with backdrops and drapery, but one of the strangest uses was by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898).
Better known as the author Lewis Carroll, he took these photographs of the Wilson Todd children at Croft Rectory (North Yorkshire) in September 1865.
He posed Lizzie, William and Aileen individually against the bough of a tree, but why he decided to block out the garden beyond with a plain backdrop is a mystery. Why place the tree trunk so boldly in the composition only for it to be shrouded and divorced from its natural garden setting?
Maybe there’s no mystery. Maybe Carroll’s sole intention was to picture the children beside an interesting tree trunk. By juxtaposing the gnarled trunk with the plain backdrop he simplifies the composition and we give the children (and the trunk) more attention.
But a closer look doesn’t explain why Carroll photographed Aileen up a stepladder, at a greater height than her siblings.