The next time you aim your camera at a cityscape and curse the power lines that you can’t shoot around, consider the power they can give your photograph. I’ve come to appreciate them as elements that make my images more powerful. Not convinced? Here’s why.
Power lines can make a statement that lends urbanity to a gaggle of skyscrapers, as their harshness layers an impersonal, inorganic feel to a scene. Do you see that about Towers of Power, above? Don’t the power lines stand out in stark relief to the raggedy chain link fence, and leave you feeling cold about living there? (Incidentally, lots of Austin old-timers feel the same way.)
Power lines exert another secret power: they lead the eye right into the image. You couldn’t do it any better if you drew arrows on your photographs, aimed towards your subjects, than the way these power lines guide the viewer into the scene, could you? And they offer up a layer of contrast, too, on a sunny day, when they cast their irregular shadows across a sign. Do you see how they seem to nearly disappear into the library sign, above, featured in Americana Power?
There are times when power lines do all of that and more, exerting their considerable power into photographs as a force to be reckoned with. In Home Cooking, above, the power lines provide a near-comic contemporary contradiction to the old-fashioned notion of home-cooked food. And the power lines frame the sign on two sides, implying plenty of electricity to power the ovens (and the neon sign). In Open 24 Hours, also above, aren’t the power lines symbolic of what’s needed to remain open all day and all night? Yes, you guessed it—power!
Power lines can add to the geometry and dimension of an image, too. Don’t the parallel power lines echo the strong horizontals in the sign shown in Dive Into the Shoe, above, and give the sign some dimension in an otherwise flat space? In all three photographs above, their electrifying presence establishes foreground, middle ground and distance, providing depth to each scene.
Even a West Texas landscape becomes more powerful, thanks to the power lines that inescapably line the road out of Palo Duro Canyon, in Palo Duro Skies, above. Sure, it’s a beautiful, perhaps even stunning, sunset. But we’ve all seen a million of those (and we should count ourselves all the luckier for it). What the power lines, and their pole, lend is implied distance and traveling and blasting down the highway, in a way no mere sunset scene ever could. They’ve graciously provided a focal point for the image, and they’ve mixed in a possible storyline, too, within the power lines. A storyline for the viewer to interpret. Aren’t you wondering now where those power lines lead and who’s using them in that vast uninhabited plain?
In fact, their power is such that your compositions simply won’t be the same without them. When you tap into the power they offer you as you choose a focal point and frame your image, you’ve just added to your creative bag of tricks.
One last note: It only gets more powerful. In the ‘Things Could Be Worse’ category, consider the time before most cables ran underground, when all electrical, telephone and telegraph wires were suspended from high poles, creating strange and crowded street scenes. See more vintage photographs like this amazing one (and it’s fascinating to witness the power): Photos from the Days When Thousands of Cables Crowded the Skies. —JA
And I’ll bet you’ll look differently at power lines, the next time you’re out shooting. See, you didn’t even realize what power you had. ♣
Is my reasoning powerful enough for you?
With the exception of Palo Duro Skies, all of the photographs here are among the 99+ Austin gems I’ve photographed since 2004.
- How the Vanishing Austin project began
- The 99+ photographs in the Vanishing Austin series
- More articles in Vanishing Austin blog series
- The Endangered Species of Austin
Click Here to get your free monthly digest of Popular Pairings.