Composition: Alexander Rodchenko (1930)

Alexander Rodchenko (1930)

After doing exercise 1.2 on the point and the path traced by the eye, I decided to examine the composition of this 1930 Rodchenko image. I found that the heads of the mother and child are located exactly one-third down the image frame and one-third in from the right of the frame, while the woman’s body fills the right-hand third of the central grid section and her shadow anchors the image at the centre point of the bottom row. Meanwhile, the diagonal lines formed by the steps are perfectly balanced in every section of the grid, and the triangular shadows to the top left and right of the image mirror each other and meet directly above the heads of mother and child, closing the frame and directing the eye back into their figures.

Of course, it’s not just the placement of the elements in this photo that make it such a strong image. The lack of distinguishing detail in mother and child allow them stand for the universal mother and child, and we see the fragility of that protective relationship in the impression given by the angle of the woman’s body, which makes it look as if she might trip at any moment – an impression reinforced by her obvious haste, her feet in mid-step as she hurries up the stairs, while the light on the top of the child’s head emphasises its vulnerability.

Meanwhile, the woman’s coiffed hair, tailored clothing and high heels, as well as the basket she carries, tell us that she’s not only a mother but also a person who is engaged with the world in her own right. The sharp shadows of the steps reflect the harsh and unforgiving terrain she has to negotiate in managing these dual roles, and the single irregular-shaped and mid-toned object in the image – her shadow – could just as easily be a pool of blood, though we don’t consciously consider that possibility. The image conveys a combination of strength and vulnerability that makes the figures intensely human, and every element in the photo plays a vital role in the composition – nothing is surplus to requirements.