You’ve Been Framed. Let’s Talk About Structure.

As a young graphic designer learning the art of editorial design I was introduced to the concept of the subliminal grid. Grids are everywhere, they are all around us and they are the underlying principle that guide form and function in design, but they are also invisible patterns we interact with every day. Within photography subliminal grids are the structure upon which we construct images. For many of you reading this, that is not new, for others it maybe, so I will continue.

It was the image that leads this post that lead me to write this article. I spoke to the photographer Jim Mortram who created this image and mentioned that it had inspired me to write about structure in photography. I mentioned the subliminal grid and he said this “There’s an inbuilt narrative, obvious to the well-versed, pertaining James’ perspective and situation, it’s amazing how fast a brain can see them, the bones under the meat of a photograph, in a split second.” I agree but can you see what Jim and I can see?

The Golden Triangle rule is a method often taught, considered and implemented in visual composition for photographs or paintings, especially those which have elements that follow diagonal lines. The frame is divided into four triangles of two different sizes, forms created by drawing one diagonal from one corner of the frame to another, and then two lines from the other corners, touching the first at 90 degree angles. This is a method that can then be used by either filling one of the triangles with the subject or by placing the diagonal elements so that they run along two of the lines. Such strict guidelines were often followed by photographers such as Henri Cartier Bresson. You can find out more about The Golden Triangle and Bresson here but it was not rules of composition that I responded to in Jim’s image.

What drew me to Jim’s image was the subliminal grid that gives the image its compositional strength.

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It is that grid that draws our attention to the central figure of James, it is a grid that if the photographic image was removed would remain as an aesthetically pleasing construction of shapes and forms. But it would not have the emotional pull that the photograph has. The grid would be a lesser work without the photograph but the photograph would be a similarly lesser work without the grid. The grid is the difference between a successful and unsuccessful composition. And yet the grid is invisible to the untrained eye.

Jim described this as “the bones under the meat of the photograph”, I agree. The skeleton of the image is clearly evident to any photographer who is using the invisible grids that surround us to frame and constitute the framework for their photographs. A way of working so important in street photography and documentary photography, areas of practice where the photographer is attempting to bring order from chaos.

In many basic drawing classes, students learn that there are three basic elements of a composition: the frame, the positive and the negative space. The positive space is easiest to understand. Generally, it is the space occupied by your subject. Conversely, negative space is the space that is not your subject. The negative space is defined by the edges of the positive space and the frame or border (the third element). So, part of the negative space is contained by the frame and another part is contained by the positive space. Sometimes the negative space is completely contained by the positive space. What is  important to understand about this is that the negative space also defines the subject.

That’s the theory but the reality is instinctive to the photographic eye looking to arrange space in the split second of a shutter press. That is of course why those that are able to see what is not evident are so consistent in their mastery of composition. Jim’s image is to me a masterclass in such understanding and that is why it led me to write this article.


Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Professional Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019. He is currently work on his next documentary film project. He is currently work on his next documentary film project Woke Up This Morning: The Rock n’ Roll Thunder of Ray Lowry.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay has been screened across the UK and the US in 2018 and will be screened in the US and Canada in 2019.

© Grant Scott 2019


  1. “It is that grid that draws our attention to the central figure of James…”

    It could be that it’s the figure itself, or the tight proximity of the widest range of tones, that draws the eye. And IMHO you could move the frame around quite a lot without really effecting that part.

      1. Well… the important thing is that the article (and several others on UNofP) gets me thinking deeply about the subject, looking again at all my photography books and trying to figure out exactly what my own views actually are. You’re never too old to re-evaluate these matters and I guess that’s where the real value is.

      2. Big thanks for that comment because that is exactly what this is all about for me. I have no definite answers just questions and thoughts and if they spark discussion then maybe they are worth sharing!

  2. I’m a bit of a composition sceptic. I’m not too sure whether following those rules that you write about – indeed any rules, save for practicality – necessarily makes for better work than if you ignore them all.

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