Picturing LEGO: Using LEGO bricks to tell a story through photography [Feature]

This week, we have guest writer Jonah Schultz who has been a fan of LEGO since he was 3 years old and became more active in the community again in 2015. He is a student of medieval and modern history and French literature and is very much into photography. He also enjoys learning about other people’s outlook on the hobby and marvels at the diversity, creativity, and warmth of the community.

Storytelling and LEGO are two terms that go very well together, don’t they? Indeed, both the LEGO Group and LEGO enthusiasts have made storytelling a key element to creating with LEGO bricks over the years.

Why do we strive for such a thing as storytelling? Why is it important? Because it brings our creations to life, by adding a realistic component of movement and temporality to what we create. Life is, after all, a story unfolding through time and movement.

The most common way of sharing a creation today is through photography. Hence, photography has also become a quintessential part of our hobby. It is the medium in which our work is finalized, and in which most people in the world will see it. The finished product is a photograph. And Flickr, Brickshelf, even MOCpages are all photo- sharing websites.

Consequently, knowing how to combine these two elements and tell a story through an image is very important. That’s what gives life to a scene otherwise frozen in time. Yet, even in Jordan Schwartz‘s most excellent The Art of LEGO Design, photography and presentation are only briefly alluded to. This topic deserves more reflection.

Looking at how LEGO-based stories are expressed most of the time, simply taking a picture of a creation is not enough. One of the ways of combining LEGO and storytelling on the Internet has been fan-fictions. In fan-fictions, pictures of creations serve as illustrations to a narrative. Well-known builders like Bart De Dobbelaer, in his Hex or Witch’s Quest, or Peter Reid and Tim Goddard, in their book, LEGO Space: Building the Future have successfully used pictures in such a way. But something that strikes me with this type of storytelling is that the creation itself becomes secondary since it’s the written section that does all of the work.

I’m interested in how we can tell stories through images and putting LEGO bricks back into the limelight. This implies looking at photography as an end in itself and goes beyond simply showcasing our creations.

What is the importance of photography in what you do?

Today, most builders consider the photographic part of the LEGO hobby as a means to an end, often done hastily “to get it over with,” as if it were painful work that had to be done—and, admittedly, it can sometimes feel like that.

This attitude towards photography minimizes the impact of our creations: many builders tend to simply photograph their creations to showcase them as-is. They think more about how good the creation looks in real life than how good it looks on the picture. And while that focus is understandable, one also has to consider the effect of the photograph on the viewer.

Think of the difference between your creation and its image as very similar to that between sculpture and painting. Both have high creative potential and value, but they are not made for the same kind of interaction with the viewer.

Let’s take two examples to illustrate this: Michelangelo’s David and Bouguereau’s Elegy. Both relate to the same type of subject, the nude. Yet each treats this common subject in a very different manner because the intent was very different. Michelangelo’s three- dimensional piece was made to be walked around and looked at from all sides. Bouguereau’s two- dimensional canvas can only be seen frontally.

Figure 1: Elegy, attributed to William Bouguereau, 1899, private collection (image: CC-PD-Mark)

Figure 2: Michelangelo’s David, 1501-1504, Florence, Galleria dell’Accademia (image: Jörg Bittner Unna, CC-BY-3.0)

Practically speaking, this means that one can only fully appreciate a sculpture when seeing it in person. Otherwise, you miss out on its three- dimensional presence. A picture cannot do it justice. On the other hand, a photograph of a painting keeps most of its visual impact, because it was thought out in two dimensions in the first place.

It’s exactly the same thing with LEGO. Have you ever thought “This creation looks great in real life, but not as a photo”? If you have, then it is because photography was not sufficiently taken into account. When conceiving a creation destined to be posted on the Internet, try to consider how you want your viewer to look at your creation. Focusing on the viewing angles is what makes a solid, photogenic creation. It can also be of great help in order to tell a story.

How can taking photography into account help with storytelling?

Having pictures drive our LEGO storytelling can enable us to tell stories differently, in a more subtle and personal way.

Drawing the viewer in:

One of the things photography enables that is difficult and tricky to convey otherwise in LEGO is an immersive experience for the viewer. To illustrate this statement, let’s take a look at these two pictures by builder Simon Pickard.

Figure 3-4: Battlestar Galactica scene by Simon Pickard, 2016 (used with permission)

Which of these two pictures do you believe tells the best and most immersive story?

I would go for figure 4. But why is that, since it’s the same creation? Well, I would argue it’s because of the framing of the picture. By choosing a closer-up view and a more cinematic framing, the photographer enhances our experience as viewers and improves the readability of the story significantly.

But, one could say that it’s not simply the way the photo is taken. The fact that it’s an all-LEGO environment, exclusive of the space surrounding the creation, really helps. Indeed photos of all-LEGO environments are sometimes regarded as having great potential in storytelling. Yet this is not always the case. One doesn’t necessarily need an all-LEGO picture to immerse oneself in a story. In fact, choosing to go all-LEGO sometimes makes it more difficult, if anything: the lack of realism in LEGO colors, or blocky forced perspectives can make the world depicted by such an image difficult to believe.

On the other hand, including non-LEGO elements in a carefully crafted photo can often make for an incredible story, with perhaps fewer technical obstacles. Take this creation by renowned builder Tyler Clites, Fortress Fit for a Flea.

Figure 5: Fortress fit for a Flea by Tyler Clites, 2014 (image used with permission)

Here, it’s the picture and the way it’s taken that propel the spectator into a story. There is no description, no explanation to guide us through a narrative. Unlike the previous build, it’s taken neither from a popular movie nor from a novel, which might have made storytelling and immersion easier. In addition, the scale isn’t really one someone would spontaneously choose to tell a story: the reduced number of elements and the diminutive size of the creation make it rather figurative. It is the composition of the image that brings the build to life, regardless of the size of the LEGO creation. The final product is almost provocative in its simplicity and efficiency in drawing the viewer in.

It’s the care taken in making this picture that truly makes it work, especially the attention paid to space. Tyler Clites, both an excellent builder and astute LEGO photographer, is a frequent user of negative space, meaning the empty space surrounding the main object in a picture – here, the castle. Negative space might not seem useful or important, but when used properly, it makes a world of a difference. Try hiding with your hand the empty zones of the picture. I think you will agree with me that the picture looks less well-balanced and is not as effective—too tight of a fit, perhaps, or maybe too saturated. Also, it doesn’t convey the same atmosphere, the same story.

Negative space

The use of negative space is a well-established practice in the visual arts. Photography and painting, for instance, capture or create space.

Figure 6: A Seascape. The Coast of the Island of Rügen in Evening Light by J.C. Dahl, 1818, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (image: CC-PD-Mark)

In Dahl’s Seascape (fig. 6), negative space is used to underline the sunset, the “evening light” of the title, and to give it visual weight in the picture. The surroundings – the sea and especially the sky – receive as much attention as the physical object, the ship, usually considered as being the most important part of a maritime picture. In fact, seeing how much space is allotted to the sky and considering the title of the piece, one may quite rightfully wonder, upon seeing this painting, whether the positive space of the painting truly is the subject matter. This gives a sense of gravity as the visual area allotted to the sky presses down on the bottom third of the picture and the ship.

Hence, the uses of negative space go beyond good presentation: negative space makes for a source of visual tension that can be very helpful in telling a story.

Uses of negative space: lines, progression and tension

Firstly, negative space can help define and enhance leading lines and vanishing points, to direct the viewer’s eye and to control the way it circulates inside the picture. This helps in establishing a progression, a tempo for the way your image will be processed. Such elements can be of dramatic impact in the composition of an image. Lines can be either literal – borders of shapes or elements present in the image – or imaginary. To illustrate this, I will take one of my own shots as an example, Contemplation.

Figure 7a: Contemplation by Jonah Schultz, 2019

In this image, I took into account several lines of direction and used specific compositional devices to control the viewer’s gaze. Here is a schematic step-by-step dissection of these devices. I have put aside considerations on color, since color is dependent on the creation itself, not the picture.

Figure 7b

The line that’s probably easiest to spot is the line dividing the picture into two halves: empty and full. The extended hand with the butterfly marks the limit between the two sections and constitutes the main focal point.

The butterfly/hand focal point is reinforced by the fact that it’s situated at the intersection of two other lines, the diagonals, making it the center of the image. This constitutes another reason for one’s attention being drawn to the butterfly, thus turning it into a prominent and significant element of the picture.

Figure 7c

Next comes the way the eye gradually scans the image. To people raised in countries using Latin, Cyrillic or Greek alphabets, to name but a few, the default approach to reading a text will always be to read from left to right.

Interestingly, this tendency does not exclusively apply to text. It also works with images. And, even though the LEGO fan community is vastly multicultural and does not limit itself to people raised with left-to-right scripts, it is always helpful to be aware of how a part of one’s viewers will interact, unconsciously and by default, with one’s picture. Whatever happens, a Russian, a Brazilian or an Australian – as well as many other viewers – will tend to first focus on the left side of an image, and then on the right side.

Figure 7d

That is why in this picture I decided to encode a visual progression from left to right with the saturation of the picture, thanks to negative space. As the viewer’s eye reads the picture, the image gradually goes from empty to full, hence giving an ever-so-slight impression of discovery when the viewer reaches the main object in the picture, the robot (fig. 7d). Also, if you go back to the red line marking the limit between empty and full (fig. 7b), you will notice that the butterfly is the first object the eye encounters, confirming its capital role in the image.

To drive my point home, let us look at fig. 7e, a mirror-image of the previous ones. You will notice that you pay much less attention to the negative space on the right, because your eye doesn’t need to cross it first to get to the object in the picture. As a result, the process of discovering the image as well as the final impression given by the composition are profoundly modified.

Figure 7e

Because of their effectiveness in leading the eye to important information, lines of direction have been and still are systematically used by graphic artists in advertising: these lines have often proven to be very powerful when forming a Z-shaped progression in the page layout.

Figure 8: French poster for the Fête des Fleurs in Bagnères-de-Luchon by Jules Chéret, 1890 (image: CC- PD-Mark | PD-Old)

This poster puts the two most important pieces of information in the most prominent positions: the first focal point, in which the eye makes contact with the poster, and the last, right before the eye exits the poster, following the Z-axis. Consequently, the viewer is made to remember the information through striking visual markers.

Uses of negative space: room for the storyteller

Secondly, negative space is like tangible space for the intangible: it visually helps in creating room for unexpected change, an event or a metamorphosis following the moment depicted in the picture. It is like breathing room for what’s next. In Dahl’s Seascape, the fact that the main object in the picture—the ship—is not centered adds both movement and a sense of anticipation. The ship races towards an island, but why? Who’s on this ship? What’s on that island seen from afar? The subject of the image is no longer what’s depicted in the foreground; it is what is happening and most importantly what will happen next. The image introduces us to a different world, alive with dynamism and potentialities. Compare it to the following piece of maritime art, a lithograph by T.G. Dutton, HMS Pomone.

Figure 9: HMS Pomone, color lithograph by T.G. Dutton after painting by G.F. St. John, Donald MacPherson collection, c. 1820 (image: CC-PD- Mark | PD-old-100)

Although this is a beautiful lithograph, the sense of movement seems constricted by the frame, because of the lack of negative space. The goal in this image is simply to showcase a ship of the English fleet, not to tell a story. As a result, contrary to Dahl’s painting, the background remains unimposing to the eye. The main ship is rather static: it doesn’t convey the feeling of movement or change well enough to let the image tell its own story or adventure. These are important lessons to keep in mind when photographing our LEGO creations. LEGO photography is not just about making the picture tell a story, it’s about letting the narrative emerge from the picture too.

Let the picture tell its own story

When they are confronted with a well thought-out picture, viewers may feel as if dropped in the midst of a story, or immersed in a whole new universe: the illusion is believable. Only, the viewer having no background information whatsoever, the action starts in medias res, without giving us any knowledge of the characters and plot.

The German writer, philosopher and art critic Gotthold Lessing (1729 – 1781) wrote about and theorized this phenomenon during the Enlightenment era in his essay Laocoön, published in 1766. According to Lessing, if time is the defining characteristic of poetry, or literature in general, the defining trait of painting is space. Whereas literature deploys its narratives, actions and movement through time, painting cannot, he argued.

Painting, like photography today, freezes time at a particular moment chosen by the artist. To describe this, Lessing invents the concept of the “pregnant moment”, filled with the tension of what has happened, is happening or going to happen.

This is where the great potential of photography in storytelling plays out: since the viewer doesn’t have any external directions – whether it be through text, cultural references or something else – on how to interpret this frozen scene, he or she will, almost automatically, try to make sense of the tensions or possibilities inherent in the image and create a story around it. That’s the magic behind the static picture: from a single, tense moment in time emerges a whole new story and timeline.

The story’s destiny is then no longer controlled by its creator, since viewers make it their very own, by building a bigger picture in their heads around a single piece of the puzzle. What the creator provides is a springboard for the viewer’s own creativity; an invitation to tell another story. Our creation has now become the source of a profoundly individual experience: no two viewers will come up with the same story when faced with the creation. And, in a way, this links back to the initial premise of creating with LEGO: you don’t need instructions to build something beautiful – or, in this context, to create a story. The circle is complete.

Final word

Why should we re-think our approach to LEGO photography?

Well, it’s not really about what one should and shouldn’t do. It’s about what you could do. If you haven’t tried thinking about what is at stake in LEGO photography before, you may find that experimenting with new, more creative ways of doing photography is an excellent strategy to get better at what you do, and engage with photography in a more interesting manner.

It’s not for me to prescribe a universal recipe. Consider this essay as an invitation to open a door to the vast world of storytelling. Now, it’s up to you to tell your own story.

6 comments on “Picturing LEGO: Using LEGO bricks to tell a story through photography [Feature]

  1. Carlos

    Wonderful read! As an enthusiast of LEGO photography I found it very interesting and inspirational. Will keep these tips in mind in for my own photography projects in the future. Thanks so much for sharing :)

  2. Purple Dave

    You left out one incidental side effect of the L/R mindset. In figure 7a, the butterfly is landing on the robot’s hand. In figure 7e, the butterfly is being released. Unless you grew up in Asia, in which case it’s the reverse.

  3. Jonah Schultz

    @Purple Dave: Sorry for the late reply, I hadn’t seen your comment. That is an interesting observation that I hadn’t considered. Thanks for sharing that analysis!

    But I don’t know if one can speak of “leaving out” an interpretation, since any creative work has virtually dozens, sometimes hundreds of possible interpretations. And that’s especially true when dealing with still images.

    Why? Simply because interpretation is by definition subjective. Interpretation is the fruit of the mind trying to make sense from what it sees. And for me, that is what makes a picture so interesting from a storytelling standpoint: there is no “right” interpretation.

    That’s what I mean when I speak of the picture telling its own story: there aren’t any rules on how to read a picture. I did provide a few basic interpretations in this article to illustrate my point, but they don’t exclude any other analysis someone else might make. Composition might be one of the best ways for the creator to guide interpretations of his work. But you, the viewer, are the only one with the power to make sense out of the picture and make the story appear and live.

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