Why Your Background Matters, In Art and In Life

Sanya, Hainan oceanscape
An ocean background I shot during my recent trip to Hainan.

I recently returned from a trip to Taiwan and Hainan, where I was shooting work and visiting family. As I was searching for places to serve as the background in my photos, I also thought about how my search was symbolic of my trip as a whole.

Choosing a good background is a photographic skill, which is why professional photographers often bring their own. A good background can complement the subject being photographed, while a bad one can be distracting. A photobomb for example, makes for a distracting background. As the whole point of the activity is to take attention away from the main subject.

Jimmy Fallon, Jon Hamm Celebrity Photobomb
Jimmy Fallon and Jon Hamm in a Celebrity Photobomb skit. Funny, because it’s not aesthetically pleasing.


A proper background however, can provide clues as to the inner workings of a photo’s subject, as is demonstrated in Arnold Newman’s portrait of Alfred Krupp. Krupp was convicted of crimes against humanity, for his employment of slave laborers in his steel factories during WWII. In Newman’s portrait, the factory behind Krupp provides a visual cue of his chilling and mechanical character.


Alfred Krupp in Essen Germany by Arnold Newman, 1963
Alfred Krupp by Arnold Newman, 1963


When I’m looking for scenes to serve the background in my own photos, I’m usually trying to find a space that I’m inexplicably drawn to. Often these places are impressive only in how boring they appear in real life. But I pick them, because I know it is the sort of background that won’t compete with the subject of my photos (which, usually is myself) for attention. In other words, I hate competition! So I like to look for backgrounds that are only interesting to myself.


background of Fearful Courage
Background I shot for Fearful Courage


While I’m the only member of my family born in the U.S, whenever I travel back to the motherland I still feel a special connection to the place and the culture. Maybe it’s the food? Or maybe it’s the chance to finally “rook rike” everyone else? Either way, I always come back feeling like I found pieces of myself I never knew were missing. Likewise, a good background in a photograph does something similar. It complements the subject by revealing something about them, symbolizing a part of person’s history or personality.

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Christian Science Center, Boston MA
You kind of have to live in Boston to understand why this is so special. This place is never empty on a bright summer day in the afternoon.


I THINK this is an effective use of background.

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