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Photography

Look at This! Boys Diving

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This post is part of a series called Look at This! Great Photographs Revisited.
How to Read a Photograph
Look at This! Travel By Train

John Boyd's photograph of young boys diving off a pier brings an instant smile to my face. The photograph just radiates fun. In my imagination, I can even hear the boys shrieking and hooting as they make their dive into the water. What makes this image so engaging and alive?

Several boys diving off a pier into water
“Boys Diving Off A Pier,” John Boyd, 1909. Source: Library and Archives Canada ref. MIKAN 3194117, 3624455

“Boys Diving Off A Pier” by John Boyd, 1909

There are at least seven boys in the photograph, all clearly having fun. The boys are leaning forward in excitement, using a wooden pier to dive into a lake or river of water. The boys’ bathing suits suggest the weather is warm and the photograph is historical. The pier is elevated from the water, so these boys are diving a little distance. Pooled water on the pier suggests the boys have been playing for a while, dripping water from their wet bathing suits as they exit the water and make their way back onto the pier, presumably to dive in again.

The energy in the boys’ faces is reinforced and multiplied by composition. The line of diving boys from right to left is like stop-motion animation. In the top right, a boy is at the very early stage of diving. He is standing back from the edge of the pier, but leaning forward. His raised heel and bent knees show energy building as he prepares to make his leap and join in the excitement. Looking from that boy to the left along the pier, each boy shows incremental progression on a diving arc. At the bottom left, we see evidence of a boy piercing the water and reaching the pitch of a dive. The boy’s feet are just barely visible together with the splash created as the boy enters the water. Each boy is stopped in the midst of movement, but viewed together in a line, the boys provide a continuous sequence of movement.

The photographer also used composition to ensure we would follow the motion. The pier on the right of the photograph is open to us. There is no barrier, distance, or shift in direction. To look at the photograph is to land on the pier and move directly forward where we encounter the boy preparing to make his dive. From there, we follow the line of boys into the water, get wet, and visually step out and circle back to the right where we step onto the pier again. Visually, we join in and become part of the boys’ play. As viewers, we may not get wet, but we can feel ourselves in motion, getting wet.

The photograph was taken by John Boyd, a British-Canadian photographer born in 1898 and known for his news photography documenting life in and around Toronto in the first half of the 1900s. Boyd was also known for being a meticulous photographer who demonstrated technical prowess with his equipment and photography processes. Boyd’s technical skills are evident in this photograph of diving boys: exposure, focus, contrast and density are all perfectly controlled, especially when you consider this photograph was taken in 1909. For me, the precision of Boyd’s techniques serves as a foil to the energy and unstructured play in the photograph. In that context, the boys’ excitement explodes off the page.

Your Turn: “Diving” by Zephyrance Lou, 2009

Following is another photograph that suggests a different kind of diving. In the comments below, share your reading of that photograph. For suggestions on how to describe what you see, read the previous tutorial in this series: How to Read a Photograph.

Woman lying on a bed with music albums
“Diving,” Zephyrance Lou, 2009, Source: Creative Commons 2.0
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