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Back Views

30. October 2019

Back Views

30. October 2019 Katharina
We are infinite, Brooke Shaden

Looking around on Instragem, we see numerous selfies. The people on them turn their face towards us. However, there is a change. More and more photos spread where people turn their back towards us. The ‘selfie’ has turned into a ‘backie’.

We encounter something similar in the photographs by Brooke Shaden. The woman in some them is shown from behind. To show people in such a position is a traditional artistic device.

When art depicts someone in back view we talk of a ‘repoussoir figure’. This repoussoir figure can fulfill two tasks: it emphasises the image space’s depth and/or guides our view into the picture.

Image space and depth effect

The space inside of an image can appear flat or rather deep to us. We might feel as if we look into a rather three-dimensional room. Like for example in the fresco ‘The Fire in the Borgo’ by Raffael and Guilio Romano. We see a space that runs deep into the picture.

This image depth is emphasised by a woman in the right foreground. She is just about to come down a few steps. On her head she carries a jug. She appears to walk into this scenery, into this image space.

But a repoussoir figure does not necessarily have to be human. In the landscape painting ‘The Jewish Cemetery’ by Jacob van Ruisdael there is a hugh birch in the foreground. Its long branches remind us of arms that point to the graves and church ruin. Here, the tree is part of creating the image depth.


When we see someone from behind, we tend to feel more connected with the picture. Like in Caspar David Freidrich’s painting ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’. It is not nature’s spectacle we see at first but the wanderer as such.

Because we see him from behind, we are not distracted by him as a person. It is not about him, he rather fulfills a function: he shows us what we have to look at. Together with him we observe the fog patches. And we might even feel that we are standing in front of this mysterious landscape, then instead of the man.

Guiding our view and leading us into the picture – this we find also in the photograph by Brooke Shaden. We follow the woman in her blue dress. However, we cannot see where she is going to, there is mainly darkness waiting for her. Nevertheless, we are fascinated and look into this darkness just as the woman does.

These repoussoir figures in art or on Instagram invite us into the pictures. An artistic element lives on, in art and the social media. A selfie says to us: ‘Look, I am here.’ Whereas a picture with a person in back view tells us: ‘Look, I am here but you can be here, too.’


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