There are strange worlds lurking along our sidewalks. If you step to one side or another, you might see them as shimmering or ethereal images. Like the optical illusions you may have looked at as a child, the elements within these worlds often shift position according to your angle of view. How do I know that these worlds actually exist? If you use the right lens and camera—a lens that’s sharp enough paired with a camera with a wide-enough dynamic range—you can record these hidden realms for others to see.
OK, that was a bit over the top. However, there is something magical that can occur with store windows when the glass reflections combine with the figures on the other side. It can create a merged reality where the mannequins appear to become part of our everyday world. Sometimes they’re surrounded by a shower of light. Or they may seem to be breaking free from their glass-lined prisons. Through the magic of photography, you can explore these intricately intertwined worlds. And along the way, you can use spatial associations, tonal contrasts, and compositional cues to create a richly rewarding viewer experience.
I may be biased, but I think I’ve found the ideal equipment for this unusual photographic niche. Black-and-white tends to work better than color, because it tends to flatten the spatial planes. With black-and-white, there are no telltale differences in color temperature, which can shatter the illusion by pegging the light sources as being interior or exterior. Wide-angle lenses also tend to work best, because they provide a larger frame of reference. A wider view can encompass the window frame, as well as some of the building or street. The overall effect can be disorienting in a good way, providing the viewer with ample clues to decipher the spatial puzzle.
One of the key benefits for using wide-angle lenses for these types of shots is having just about everything in sharp focus. That can make the photos seem surreal or even hyper-real. If you’re trying to make a case for something being genuine—even though it isn’t—a deep focus wide-angle view can help to make the image more convincing.
You can probably see where this is going. All of these photos were shot with a Leica M Monochrom camera using five wide-angle Leica M lenses (the 18mm Super-Elmar-M, 21mm Super-Elmar-M, 24mm Elmar-M, 24mm Summilux-M, and 28mm Summicron-M). There are no double exposures or superimpositions involved. I did use the tonal controls in Adobe Lightroom 6 and the Silver Efex Pro 2 plug-in to adjust the balance globally between the reflected and non-reflected elements. You don’t need to apply local dodge-and-burn techniques to bring out or push back the different spatial planes. By using the tonal controls, you can achieve much of the same effect, while retaining the natural interplay of light and shadow. Experiment with the built-in controls, and you may be surprised with what you can do to shift the balance of elements within the image.
Success in capturing this kind of shot is often dependent on the time of day, orientation of the street, and angle of the sun. At a particular time of day, one side of the street might be so enveloped in glare, there’s no way to capture a useable shot. Yet on the other side of the street, the conditions may be ideal with shadow-lined figures and well-defined reflections. Later that day, the situation might be reversed, with the good side of the street now bathed in excessive glare, and the bad side exhibiting the optimal conditions.
With the photo titled Manhattan Store Window #6, the merging of the two realities is enhanced by the simple composition. The mannequin appears to be entering from a hidden chamber that has its own buildings, trees, and sky. The elements line up in such a reasonable way, it may take a few moments for the viewer to realize just what is being reflected and why. This one was shot with the 18mm Super-Elmar-M, so it has the expansive feel that only an ultra-wide lens can provide. The perspective makes the vertical lines and light streams appear to be radiating from a central point outside the frame. That helps to intensify the other-worldly quality of the image, where the mannequin seems to be peeking out from another dimension to quickly grab a handbag or two.
You can also emphasize the visual similarities between the parallel worlds. The photo titled Manhattan Store Window #9 focuses on the lines and textures, at what appears to be a junction point between two synchronized realms. The gray rectangular windows from a reflected building are mixed in with the gray stripes from the mannequin’s dress, to the point where it’s difficult to separate them visually. It sets up—what in musical terms might be—a resonant tone that seems to vibrate at multiple frequencies. While you could do something similar with color, grays can make the effect more prominent, because there are fewer distractions. Just as the sound of a bell or gong might include harmonics and overtones, a black-and-white photo can have gray tones that echo and resonate throughout the image.
The photo titled Manhattan Store Window #13 ups the ante by introducing more complexity, in terms of spatial reality. The centered mannequin is straightforward enough, but why is the mannequin on the right more transparent? The figure on the left is likely a photograph that’s part of the window display, but why is the top part of her face covered with reflections, while the rest of her is more clearly visible? The answers—or the payoff for the viewer—involve figuring out exactly what is being reflected and how. That thought process brings the realization that the brightness of the light, position of the object, and shade of gray can determine whether a reflection will appear solid, opaque, or transparent. Or put another way, this photo has an embedded roadmap that allows you to mentally reconstruct its original three-dimensional layout.
If you want to be even more creative with these parallel worlds, look for stores located near street corners where the display window has prominent lines that run counter to the lines on the reflected street. In a strongly vertical environment, such as midtown Manhattan, you can have multilayered buildings, street traffic, and sidewalk activity—all acting as a counterbalance to whatever is going on in the window display. With the photo titled Manhattan Store Window #7, the semi-reflective display window sets up multiple spatial planes that play off of the buildings in the background. Adding to the intensity of the composition is a clash of angles, as the left-to-right display elements collide with the right-to-left street elements. The mannequin then becomes a stand-in for the viewer—witnessing, but not participating in, the interdimensional crosscurrents that make up the bulk of the image.
One of the things I especially like about this niche genre of photography is how it brings up so many core issues about composition, viewer involvement, and spatial complexity. Even though every photo is a world unto itself, this type of photo pushes the envelope by suggesting that reflections and inanimate objects might have a life of their own. Surreal photography may have gone out of fashion, but there’s still much left to explore there. And when the key elements of a genre strongly echo the core aspects of the medium itself, those images are likely to resonate and reflect back in a deeply satisfying way.
— David English
This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky, and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M Monochrom, X Vario, and Q. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.