I suspect that most of you have seen the new IPhone commercial entitled “The City.” It is designed to highlight the new portrait mode on the IPhone 7 and features a young man photographing his girlfriend in a crowded city. He only has eyes for her and by using the portrait mode, which employs a relatively low f-number, i.e. shallow depth-of-field, to maximize focus on the face while throwing the background out-of-focus. In the commercial, the crowd literally disappears.
This is a well-known trick of photographic portraiture. It typically serves not just to highlight the subject but also to create a visually pleasing bokeh around it. But it got me thinking of the problem of highlighting a person in a crowd more generally – case in point the image of Figure 1 showing Robert Kennedy, the Attorney General of the United States, addressing a crowd on June 14, 1963 outside the Justice Department. The focus trick is used here, but barely, because all the people are relatively distant from the photographer.
But there are other mechanisms at work. First, the golden rule of thirds places RFK at a visual nexus. He is elevated above the crowd, but interestingly is not the highest person in the photograph. Indeed, the young man on the pedestal above Kennedy holds a sign indicating exactly what Kennedy’s speech is about. Additionally, all eyes, all cameras, and all microphones are riveted on Kennedy.
This is really a well-crafted image. The subject is not isolated from the crowd around him. Rather the crowd demonstrates his dominance in both moment and place. The image is intensely dynamic.