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On the Station Platform

This post is part of a series called Look at This! Great Photographs Revisited.
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tony frissell victoria station
Victoria Station, London, 1951, by Tony Frissell. Collection of the Library of Congress. It appears Harper’s Bazaar, where the image was published, misidentified the location.

Examine the Photograph

What do we know about this photograph?

This image was made with black and white film, and the picture is almost a perfectly square crop. We know that the photographer, Toni Frissell, frequently used a twin-lens medium format camera, a type of camera that makes square negatives. Judging from the perspective, she used a lens with a moderate to wide focal length. She was also likely in a crouch, or bent over at about waist-level, looking up, when she made the picture.

There are two people in the image: Lisa Fonssagrives and an unidentified English policeman. Even without the title, the image is obviously taken on the platform of a train station.

It is a high contrast scene. Above, skylights fill the station with a soft glow. Below, there is the deep black of the figures and the wells beneath the trains. The skylights create a strong repeating pattern, and there is an organic texture to the platform and the fabrics. Small details—the leather purse, the policeman's badge or whistle—catch the light and reflect. It is a very three-dimensional image.

What Can We See?

In the Western world, we traditionally read text from left to right, top to bottom. It’s the same with images. This habit is particularly important when reading this image.

When you look at the image, the first thing your eyes are drawn to is the apparent subject of the image: Fonssagrives. Very quickly, though, our eyes are pushed past her to settle on the policeman in the mid-ground. I find it almost impossible to look anywhere else without my eyes wandering back to him. The connection between these figures is reinforced by two very strong kinds of leading lines: implied, and physical.

Humans are conditioned to look where other people are looking. Fonssagrives’s glance back at the policeman makes us look at him too. This is an implied, or psychic, line. Our eye traces the gaze from one person to another.

The perspective of the image is a giant tube drawing our eyes to the police officer: he’s positioned exactly over the vanishing point. The lines of the train, platform and, especially, the repeated bright and dark segments of the roof, all bring our eyes back to him. This is physical, or graphic, lines guiding our eye.

There is another kind of reinforcement happening, too: the contrast between the policeman and his surroundings is the highest anywhere in the image. Fonssagrives sinks back into the greys of the train while the dark policeman stands out in stark contrast to the halo of light tones that surround him. To me, he’s the real subject of the image.

Frissel captured a fleeting glance, an ephemeral moment on the platform, but more than that she managed it in a highly structured, photographic way. She positioned her camera perfectly to use both implied and graphic lines in the composition and focus our attention on the relationship between the two figures.

How Do We Respond?

How an image makes you feel is incredibly personal. It’s determined so much by your life, culture, opinions, mood and a million other little things. I think, because of where I grew up, my feelings about this image will be very different to many of our American readers.

In Ireland and the UK, most police officers you see on the street are unarmed. The UK, in particular, uses a doctrine of “policing by consent.” Police are not in opposition to the people, they’re there to help them. Policemen are not authority figures to fear, but people to reach out to. This, I think, is very different from how police officers are perceived (and act, sadly) in the US and many other places in the world.

For me, this is an incredibly solid image. The policeman stands sentinel, dominating the photo. He looks out of frame to the right, into the future. He’s a dark figure surrounded by a halo of light. I feel protected.

This image isn’t about one policeman. The officer in the image is anonymous. The shadow under the brim of his hat hides his identity. I feel this image is about all policemen standing guard in the background, often unnoticed, looking into the distance to protect everyone else.

Your Turn

Toni Frissell was one of the most celebrated female American photographers of the 20th Century. She worked for magazines like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and was one of the first photographers to take fashion photography out of the studio. Our example image, with fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives, likely comes from one of those shoots.

Frissell also did documentary work. In particular, she’s known for her images of African American airmen during the Second World War.

The image below is one of Frissell herself during the war. This images has some elements in common with our example above, but the composition and subject are a little bit different. What is the same, and what is not? What can you see in this image, and how do you react to it?

Toni Frissell sitting holding camera on her lap with several children standing around her somewhere in Europe
Toni Frissell, sitting, holding camera on her lap, with several children standing around her, somewhere in Europe. 1945. Collection of the Library of Congress.
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