Before Apple amputated the final seven characters from the word internet, leaving only the “i” to designate the latest iThis or iThat product, the hippest letter in the Western world was “e.” Itself a truncation of the word electronic, the letter “e” once ruled the techno-chic roost, giving us words like eCommerce, eMail and eBay — edgy in their time, but now the linguistic siblings of zoot suits and flagpole sitting (go ahead, look it up).
As a cavalcade of characters take turns basking in their 15 minutes of cultural fame, there remains a pair of classic Western letters that are seemingly always in style. These letters — “X” and “Z” — are every marketing team’s metaphorical little black dress. Need a cool product name? Toss in an “X:” The X Files and X Factor television shows; Leica and Fuji’s duelling X-branded camera lines; Microsoft’s X-Box; the X Games. And do you really think it’s purely accidental that the coolest movies from the late 1960’s and 1970’s were all rated “X?”
But what if your company decides a particular product is so revolutionary that the letter X doesn’t do it justice? Then you toss a Z in front of it, that’s what: The Kawasaki Ninja ZX motorcycles; the Datsun 280 ZX and Citroen ZX automobiles; the Sinclair ZX computer; Adidas ZX sneakers. If you want to mix things up a bit, just reverse the letters. That gets you such product designations as the Olympus Stylus XZ camera, the HP Pavilion XZ computers and, hippest of all, the Su Group’s XZ Series Gravity Discharge Batch Centrifuges.
Why are these characters popular? What is it that makes them so cool, and why do they endure? One theory revolves around the fact that they’re less utilized than other characters, thus making their impact more obvious. Another theory is that their location at the end of the alphabet renders them “exotic” to those who were forced to practice their ABC’s in strict sequential order. I have my own counter-theory, which actually focuses on the way the letters appear. Specifically, both the letter X and the letter Z feature strong diagonal strokes.
The diagonal strokes employed to form the letters X and Z go from corner-to-corner, unlike the diagonal strokes employed in the letters A, K, M, R, V, W or Y — all of which are abbreviated in length. Z features a single corner-to-corner diagonal stroke, while X features two corner-to-corner diagonal strokes (thus explaining why it’s more popular than Z). So what about the letter N? It also features a corner-to-corner diagonal stroke, so shouldn’t it be as popular as Z? The answer is “no,” and the reason for this can be found in its lowercase representation. A lowercase “n” has no diagonal at all, while a lowercase “x” and a lowercase “z” both maintain their corner-to-corner diagonals, and thus their full impact.
I think this provides irrefutable evidence as to why X and Z are the two hippest letters in the Western world. But even more importantly (and to the supposed point of the ULTRAsomething photography site), this same theory explains what’s happening with my own photographic endeavours.
For many years, I’ve taken a rather cavalier attitude toward the horizon line. Frankly, I just don’t see why it’s so all-fire important that is runs perfectly level across my frame, and it’s a dictate I first dismissed publicly back in my original collection of Bartlett’s Rejects photography quotes. It’s one of those so-called compositional “rules” that should be enshrined in The Museum of Antiquated Notions — right along with the rule-of-thirds and the slavish dictate that wide angle lenses are for landscapes.
A few weeks ago, in an article called Fractured, I revealed my intention to explore “fractured photography” — a term I coined for a style that I hadn’t quite defined. Since we’re all an amalgamation of our influences, I mentioned my own inspirations and how it was fairly obvious that my fractured photographs contained elements of both the Provoke era photographers and the Pictorialists. But I still hadn’t figured out how another driving force behind my fractured photography — the Czech avant-garde — was shaping this style. I felt its influence when I photographed, but I couldn’t see its influence in the photos.
Hoping to draw some parallels between their work and mine, I pulled a Jaromir Funke book from my shelf and began to study it carefully. Bang! The answer was so obvious: Funke appeared to hold the horizon with as much contempt as I do. But upon further examination, I noticed that it wasn’t so much that he was anti-horizon, it’s that he was pro-diagonal. Looking back over many of my photos, I noticed the same thing — diagonals. The answer was right there in the opening two shots of the Fractured article (reproduced below), and yet I failed to draw the connection.
More and more, I tend to place strong visual elements along the diagonal. It’s not something I’ve necessarily done deliberately and consciously, but rather as means to some other visual end. For example, in the top photo called Spider, I chose to angle the camera because I saw all the various lines extending outward from the central figure, and I realized these line would become more visually obvious (and more web-like) if they didn’t conform to the expected orientation. In the photo called Corner Tableau, I spotted a man watching a woman walk by. His demeanor was the key to this shot, so I knew I had to get his entire body into the frame. But if I exposed vertically, I’d lose the woman. And if I composed horizontally, I’d lose a part of his body — so I composed on a diagonal, thus getting all the desired elements into the photo. Alas, in the spit second it took me to decide this, the man’s attention had shifted from the woman and onto me. Still, in spite of losing the original context surrounding my decision to tilt the camera, the diagonal framing works to instill a sense of unease to an altered narrative, which now casts me as the voyeur, rather than the gentleman.
So there we have it — a direct link between Jaromir Funke, the hippest characters in the Western alphabet, and my own (albeit non-conformist) photographic proclivities. Maybe I should start calling it FraXured Photography — at least until I figure out how to shoehorn a “Z” into that branding…
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Spider,” “Corner Tableau,” “Father Figure” and “Vampyr” were all photographed with a Ricoh GR digital camera. “Funke Town” was snapped with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 and a Leica/Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 lens.
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