Portfolio: Lis McMahon

“Our bodies are our gardens, to which our wills are gardeners.” –William Shakespeare

Gardens is a Fine Art series that examines the intimate personal stories of women. This project is about the female experience, our struggles, societal expectations and our own ideals of womanhood. This series takes those ideas and beliefs and creates a garden that symbolizes each subject’s own personal story. The subjects are manipulated portraits of women turned into gardens utilizing artificial plants, flowers and makeup. The concept reflects on what this means to identity, our relationship to our own womanhood and the parallels that can be drawn between women and nature. These gardens are crafted using “florigraphy” and the Victorian era “Language of Flowers” so that each piece of the created garden has a specific meaning to each subject’s story. This creates dual layers of meaning through the symbolic use of the flora and fauna weaving the unique stories of each woman.

See the full body of work at: https://www.lismcmahonphotography.com/gardens

It may be that photography is for the birds.

by James A. Bowey

It may be that photography is for the birds.

At least that’s what I’ve concluded over the past year as I’ve presented When Home Won’t Let You Stay, a traveling photography exhibition and community conversation series about refugees in America that I began at AAU. As a documentary artist I’m interested in how images can be used to bridge divides on contentious social issues. But what can a photograph really do against the rising tide of cynicism and division that has engulfed contemporary political discourse?

Mohamed (2016)

Mohamed (2016)

Sattar (2016)

Sattar (2016)

This nagging question has compelled the development of my work and research, and I’ve designed a variety of venue-specific exhibitions and installations to explore how this project can engage audiences and prompt new understanding of the plight of refugees. These include a framed gallery exhibition, multimedia presentation, and intermedia projection installation. As I’ve studied audiences interact with the project, I’ve seen many viewers who question the acceptance of refugees suddenly turn to tears. One young viewer in Minnesota sent a message to her teacher: “Before attending the ‘When Home Won’t Let You Stay’ exhibition, I was dreading having to go. I had no idea that a 15-minute show would completely change my opinion of an entire group of people.” But why? What is the role of photography?

The intermedia projection installation is presented on 17 giant screens encircling a darkened auditorium-size room. A single spotlight illuminates an unadorned wooden box in the middle of the space. During the 15-minute looping presentation with an original music score, images, first-person stories and text appear on different screens around the venue. With each appearance of a new portrait and story, the audience moves unprompted and en masse across the space toward the images. I designed the installation so viewers would walk around in a simulation of migration, but this is something much more. Image after image, audiences move in silent unison as if they are coordinating their steps, in both a personal and shared experience. As I’ve watched this collective movement I’ve begun to understand the special power of images.

When a flock of starlings glides across the sky in beguiling murmurations it seems beyond comprehension. It is understandable that a bird would move in response to their neighbor’s movement, but how do hundreds of birds, separated by hundreds of feet, move as one? This question has vexed scientists for centuries, but they think they may have found the answer in cutting-edge physics. Through video analysis and computational modeling, researchers have discovered that starlings' movements can be explained as “critical transitions” in which systems transform instantly from one phase to another, such as from liquid to gas. Each starling in a flock, like sub-atomic particles, is connected to every other starling by a network of energy poised to change phase. When the flock shifts in unison, it’s a phase transition. Scientists believe that starlings may be a beautiful manifestation of an unexplained force that exists throughout nature.

As human beings we phase easily between connection and disconnection, love and hate; and it is reflected in the shape of our society at a given moment in time. Our photographs are holders of that mysterious force that determines the critical transitions of society. They are tiny quantum radiating empathetic energy that prompt the next interweaving phase of human connection and understanding. Our society ebbs and flows, accelerating and decelerating, toward different states of empathy and justice; and like a flock of starlings, we are all connected to one another, poised to take shape through the personal and shared experience of photographs. Inside the wooden box at the center of the projection installation is a stack of cards with a photograph and story for viewers to take, with a simple message: “We shape our world by the stories we tell of others.”

A flock of birds shows us how.

If you’d like to connect and talk more about photography and this project, you can reach me at jbowey@jamesbowey.com.

The Golden Section vs. the Rule of Thirds

by Natalie van Sambeck

All images are created by the author unless noted otherwise.

Sure we’ve all head of the rule of thirds.  It’s a basic composition principle intended to create more balance within your composition.  To do this we divide the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically.  This breaks up our image into nine equal parts creating four intersections points referred to as “sweet spots.”  These sweet spots are considered to be areas where the eye is natural draw to so the idea is to place the subject of focus either along one of the four intersecting points or along the grid lines.  As you can see in the image above, the legs and the rose are positioned along the lines with one of the sweet spots intersecting just above the knee.

While this is a common compositional principle in photography, have you ever wondered where it came from?  Technically speaking, painter, writer, and printer, John Thomas Smith, first coined the term in 1797.  Smith was commenting on some observations he made over Rembrandt’s painting The Cradle, which was two thirds in shadow and one third in light.  However, in my humble opinion the rule of thirds is really an over simplification of the Phi grid, which comes from the golden section.

Otherwise called the golden mean or the golden ratio, the golden section is an irrational mathematical constant that equals to approximately 1.6180339.  Plato was the first to discover this golden ratio, which he expressed in a line.  Looking at the image below we see line A is divided into B and C.  The golden section says that A is to B as B is to C.  In other words, Ais 1.618 times longer than B and B is 1.618 times longer than C.

The number 1.618, which I’m sure you all recognize as Phi, is responsible for the fibonacci spiral.  Otherwise called the golden spiral, the fibonacci spiral is naturally found throughout nature with a growth factor of Phi.  That means that every time the spiral turns a quarter of a circle, the spiral grows so that it is one golden ratio away from the center of the spiral.    

So what does this have to do with the Phi grid and the Rule of Thirds?  The fibonacci spiral can be constructed inside a golden rectangle and both the fibonacci spiral and the golden rectangle is constructed using the golden section.  Do you know that the closest aspect ratio we have to the golden section in photography is 3:2?  This should not be surprising since 35mm film and most digital cameras follow this aspect ratio.  That’s not to say that other aspect ratios don’t have purpose and meaning but that’s a topic for another day.

Now back to the golden section.  If you look at the illustration below, you will see the large golden rectangle and the fibonacci spiral.  Notice how the large golden rectangle makes a square with a new but smaller golden rectangle.  This new golden rectangle can then be divided into a new square and an even smaller golden rectangle.  This can go on and on just like the spiral does. The smallest golden rectangle in the illustration, located in the upper right hand corner, makes up one of the four corners that make up the Phi grid. 

The next three images below show the rule of thirds, the Phi grid, and both the Phi grid and the rule of thirds.  As you can see the two principles aren’t too far off from one another.  However, some would argue that the Phi grid creates a more natural and balanced feel to the rule of thirds.  I am personally inclined to lean towards the golden section over the rule of thirds.  In fact, I find that I naturally apply the Phi grid quite frequently in my compositions.  A case in point would be the self portrait illustrating the principles below.  As you can see from the second image, one of the Phi lines cuts right through my eyes.  I would like to say that I created this self portrait with Phi grid in mind, but the truth is that this was coincidental.   However, this awareness in my own work has led to my personal belief that the Phi grid is more natural that the rule of thirds.  This is of course my opinion.  You may disagree.

Did you know that Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was first a painter before a photographer, often applied these sacred geometry principles when framing his compositions?  What’s even more compelling is he refusal to crop any of his images.  Take a look at the following image below.  You can see where the 3:2 frame is slightly larger than the golden rectangle but you can also see how he used the the fibonacci spiral in his composition.

In closing I would like to leave you with one more idea to think about.  The Phi grid is just one of many compositional principles that stems from the golden section.   Principles such as the occult center, the golden section from the double square, rebattement, ricocheting, and symmetry with triangles are just some variations of the golden section that many of the painting masters as well as photographer’s have used to successfully compose a master piece…and they didn’t use the rule of thirds.


[1]  Harris, John R.  Who Wrote the Rule of Thirds. Web. Retrieved on November 28, 2016 from https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/who-wrote-rule-thirds%3F

[2]  Olsen, Scott.  The Golden Section: Nature’s Greatest Secret. Walker Publishing Company, New York, New York, 2006. Print.

NOTE:  Both illustration came from Scott Olsen’s book and the last image was taken from http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2011/11/28/objectivity-vs-subjectivity-what-makes-a-great-street-photograph