VII. Emphasis

As an aesthetic tool, “emphasis” shows one element standing out or apart from others. It can differ from them in subject matter, color, size, shape or placement within the frame. Whatever the difference, the exceptional element stands out as the center of interest. It’s the most important element and key to the image’s meaning.

The Dynamic

Within a frame, when an element is emphasized by some difference, it commands attention. Once it has been identified, the viewer’s eye moves around the frame but keeps returning to the center of interest in a split-second attempt to understand the reason for its being prominent. Why did the artist want me to focus my attention there? What’s so special about that particular element? What does it mean? What does it say? 


Having one subject stand out from the other elements in a frame is a powerful way to command the viewer’s attention.

If the objective is to communicate information, a difference is enhanced by having many elements that are alike, except for one. In the above image, the element that’s emphasized informs the viewer about gas prices. Alternatively, it could be a comment on those prices. That all the other elements are less colorful makes the sign distinctive.

If the objective is to express a feeling, shock or other emotion, a difference is enhanced by the severity of the difference—the contrast—between the primary and secondary elements—like a plant growing up from the mud.

And there are degrees of emotion that an image will express. Here, the stark contrast of seeing an element emphasized over others that are completely out of place is jolting. It raises a lot of questions.

Emphasis can also be achieved technically, for instance by having many similar elements in the frame, but with only one in sharp focus. Here, the photographer is asking the viewer to make sense of the image. What’s going on here? It appears to be a story. What’s might it be?

Reflections On Personal & Social Emphasis

Artists emphasize an element in order to give it special importance. In our personal lives, we call that “prioritizing,” ranking things in order of importance, often to determine how we want to spend our time. It raises a challenging question: What is most important in my life? Is it what I think it is or would like it to be? Has it changed over the years? Am I spending my time on what I want it to be? Am I deceiving myself, saying I want it to be one thing but in practice, it’s something else? What would other people say is my highest priority? And are my priorities coming from my authentic self or outside myself? There are no right or wrong, good or bad answers to these questions. Their value is in nudging us to reconsider what we think is really important in our lives, especially what resides at the top of the list.

Meaning constellates around values. What we value has become a predictor of what we will buy, how much we will consume, how we will vote, who we will relate to and who not, and to almost every manifestation of private and social behavior and belief. 

Ervin Laszlo (Philosopher of science and systems theorist)

To complicate matters, we’re generally not aware that or how profoundly our priorities are socially prescribed. To begin with, being born in a certain place at a particular time we acculturate to an already specified set of values and expectations. For instance, most indigenous people, notably Native Americans, consider the great man to be the one who gives most of his possessions away, whereas most Americanized Europeans hold in highest esteem those who have amassed great wealth. And the perception of priorities shows up in stereotypes, general patterns of behavior that we ascribe to various groups and nations. “Nerds,” “Athletes,” “Businesspersons,” “Buddhists,” “Germans,” Haitians.” Erroneously or not, the names and labels themselves conjure images or judgments about their priorities, what they emphasize, what they value.  

The difference between whether an organization is mediocre or superb is determined by whether all its individual members are mediocre or superb. The difference between organizations that are mediocre and those that are great is the attitude within each of us — our values and our culture. An inspired organization is simply the sum of inspired souls. 

Lance Secretan (Leadership Theorist)

One of the most important lessons I learned in two years of anthropology classes (one that promoted tolerance and appreciation) was the fact that the basis of valuing across cultures, irrespective of how it manifested in ancient or modern times, was grounded in the need to survive. Consider any human trait, personal or social, the world around—it exists today because it had survival value in the past. It was emphasized and reinforced because it succeeded. For a culture, the memory of survival challenges is so ingrained, these traits or “institutions,” which often became ritualized and the subject of myths, are not easily transformed. Plants and animals, even the human animal, have evolved features that convey a survival advantage physically. In addition, we humans carry the memory of what it takes for our groups to survive and grow. It’s written in our history, and it’s in our DNA. 

If there are any doubts about how to value a 700-year-old tree, ask how much it would cost to make a new one. Or a new atmosphere, or a new culture. 

Amory Lovins (Physicist, Environmental Scientist)

Recent research has determined that the billions of organisms in our gut are constantly sending messages to the brain saying things like: “Eat more salt,” “Lay off the sugar!” and “I’m in the mood for a steak.” They’re emphasizing the elements the body needs in order to maintain a healthy balance. Just so, a photographer’s aesthetic urge emanates from the brain saying things like: “Notice the bark in that tree,” “Pack up the car and go looking for birds to photograph,” “Quick! Get a camera—the raindrops on the leaves are incredible!” We’re drawn to subject matter, and where we critically focus is what we want, perhaps need, to emphasize. Why? Because that’s the center of our attraction—and a clue to our method of prioritizing. For many of us, the exercise of our unique aesthetic is not a frivolous or luxurious activity. We’re compelled to create. For us, creative expression and beauty have survival value. I’m reminded of my artist friend, David Allen Koch, who said, “Somehow, every day, I find a way to experience beauty.” 


When Andrew Wyeth painted Helga he did not make the case that Helga was important; he made the case that Helga was important to him. The first is supposedly some objective statement of reality; the second is a totally subjective statement of personal value. By using his craft effectively, he hoped to make Helga important to us, and that is the purpose of his artwork. 

Brooks Jensen (Photographer, Publisher LensWork Magazine)

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