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Ant Smith
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Mirror-Tessellation Photography by example

Monday 13th October 2014 6:54pm

Mirrored photography (if you google it) refers to any image where a reflection is involved - either actual or imposed. In a small subset of these you will see examples where an image has been duplicated and the copy flipped on the horizontal or vertical to line-up with the original and so created a faux reflection.

The joy of mirrored photography lies in revealing surprising shapes, e.g. an oval created by a bridge arch reflected in a stream. "Look for reflections" is one of the many pieces of bite-sized advice offered to photographers in any work dealing with composition. It is a very old, and satisfying approach.

With the ease of digital processing the faux-reflection has enjoyed some popularity, and can therefore be quite a tired effect. Certainly it's instantly recognisable and so the end result has to be very strong to work.

So my approach here is to capitalise on the ability of reflected imagery to reveal new shapes - pushing this to an extreme so that at first sight the image is highly illustrative, rather than photographic, in feel. But I want to stay true to the photographic starting point, so the image is at first a geometric illustration which transforms on closer inspection to a more photographic feel.

The technique is deceptively simple but surprisingly flexible. A base image can be copied (and flipped) once to create a new image - if the starting point is already highly geometric this can be enough, as in these examples:

Two times reflected image of King's Cross Departures Hall ceiling

The new roof at King's Cross, duplicated once and flipped horizontally. The completion of the oval is very satisfying. Because the original shot contained an arc with both ends touching the same edge a single reflection was adequate to complete the image.

Two time reflected image of Peter Jone's Department Store

Peter Jones' department store. In itself a very striking geometric image, the reflection here emphasises the effect. The presence of people though retains the essential photographic nature of the image and there is a joy in discovering the Charlie Chaplin-esque person on the promontory near the centre bottom.

Two time reflected shot of Bounds Green tube station

The escalator at Bounds Green underground station. The strong diagonals and quarter-circle of the tube made this a strong contender for the treatment. It was important in-camera to ensure the lower diagonal ran to the corners and that the tube arc reached its zenith as it met the right hand edge of the frame. If the arc had been cropped more to the left or the right the reflection would not have made a smooth semi-circle, and that would have instantly signalled the trick of the image.

By arranging strong diagonals stretching across the frame it is straightforward to compose 4x reflections:

four times reflection of a tube station roof

A very straightforward initial shot of a section of ceiling gantry at a tube station.When arranging the tilling there is a choice between placing the far point or the near point at the centre. Here the far point is at the centre and the near point of the image is at the edges. This gives a 'tunnel' (or receding) effect.

Four time reflection of ceiling in V&A Museum - version 1
Four times reflection of ceiling in V&A Museum - version 2

These images are from the same shot of the ceiling of the cafe in the V&A Museum. This illustrates the effect of deciding to place the near point or the far point at the centre of the tilling, to provide a convex or else concave (tunnel) feeling.

Four time reflected shot of Paddington Station Ceiling

This shot of the roof at Paddington not only had a long receding diagonal, but also a branching diagonal that teed-off too one edge. On tilling the image this branching diagonal creates an extra strong graphic element - the near oval that has been highlighted in yellow. Similar effects are apparent in the earlier examples also and it is these minor, opposing, diagonals that help to create the graphic effects that are so appealing in the tilling technique.

But more complex shapes can give rise to more interesting reflected arrangements, as with these shots of curved rail tracks. Note in the second example an asymmetrical crop has been applied. I wanted to emphasise the face-like effect, so by cropping asymmetrically on the vertical I have avoided repeating the 'mouth' shape at the bottom of the image.

Four time reflected shot of DLR tracks - No. 1
Four time reflected shot of DLR tracks - No. 2

Almost any inorganic structure can be bent to the approach.

Array of lightbulbs on club ceiling

This is a shot of a roof ceiling covered in used light bulbs. It's a very striking ceiling but there is no inherent cohesion in the arrangement so it was difficult to get a truly pleasing representation. The repetition of the tilling approach overcomes this problem and imposes a kind of order where none actually existed. This is a particularly strong example of how the technique creates entirely new images from the source.

Shopping mall ceiling

I spotted this ceiling while out shopping and I was drawn to the large S shape and the diagonal string of lights. I knew the diagonal would give a cohesion to a tilled result, but without the tilling the composition is fussy, awkward and unbalanced.

Salt and pepper pots

This is a shot of a salt and pepper pot sat in front of a glass-encased large orange candle in an Indian restaurant. I liked the background colouration and the simplicity of the ceramics. I had to use a tight crop as the candle wasn't particularly large. In the single, original shot this gave what I felt to be an unbalanced result. The tiling surrounds the pots with the colour which is much more pleasing. The result is somewhat other-wordly, which is true for many of these images. 'Alien landscape', 'Like the TARDIS', 'Something from Alice in Wonderland' are a few of the descriptions various images have been given.

Marble Arch corridor

This is a very simple shot of one tunnel wall at Marble Arch tube station. I have used the 'far-field to centre' arrangement to create the tunnel effect. The saturation has been strongly boosted - a common approach for me in work like this as it suits the 'kaleidoscope' nature of the images.

But possibly surprisingly, highly organic starting points also work well. These examples show a wide-field view of tree tops (looking up) and a small-field close-up of grasses

Four times reflection shot of grasses - No. 1
Four times reflection shot of grasses - No. 2

Some final 4x reflection examples

Steps on a stoop
Baker street tube station ceiling
Stairwell at wembley
A tiled corridor in Lisbon

2x and 4x reflections can clearly generate a wide range of illustrations from just about any source subject. But sometimes the resulting illustration can take on an even more striking geometry by further tilling the result (it is not necessary to flip as the images already have a symmetry).

Tunnels in Hampstead tube station

Reflections have the disadvantage of creating centre-centric compositions when in traditional photography we're encouraged to avoid such due to the perceived lack of 'dynamism' in the compositional balance. This can be overcome to an extent by using asymmetrical cropping of the result, but with the right image an odd number of reflections can also be effective.

36 times reflected shot of lizard carved in tree trunk

Here the original 4x reflection has been tilled 9 times (a total of 36 repetitions) to create a strong Noughts and Crosses pattern. The original image is based on a strong diagonal shot head-on to avoid any sense of concave/convex-ness in the tile. This image prints at around 5' high at 300dpi.

Some summary observations:

  • Look to bring strong elements (arcs, diagonals) to the very edge of the frame

  • Take care in cropping arcs so that smooth circles or ellipses result when tilling

  • Avoid making the result too much like an illustration by including strong photographic elements (people, signs etc.)

  • Near-field to centre tilling creates convex effects

  • Far-field to centre tilling creates concave (tunnel) effects

  • Look out for, and use, minor opposing diagonals to help create new shapes

  • Consider an asymmetrical crop of the result to gently disturb the repetition

  • Tilling can impose order where none existed

  • When a subject won't offer a pleasing compositional balance, tilling can provide that

  • The illustrative nature of the images means that stronger than usual saturation can work well

  • A 4x reflection can be further tiled without the need to flip since the tile now has perfect symmetry.

  • The centre-centric composition of a reflection-tile can be overcome by creating an odd number of tile repetitions.

  • A larger number of repetitions can further enhance the pattern that a 4x tile creates