What would you say if someone told you they were into “pile photography?” First, you might rightly wonder, “what the hell is pile photography?” Second, you might quietly assume pile photography was something gross-adjacent and the person who was admitting this was opening up to you in a way that made you vaguely uncomfortable.
No one would blame you for having these thoughts. But here we are. I love to take photos of piles. There’s no need for you to tell me what kinds of questions that admission conjures up for you. I’ll just operate under the assumption they primarily deal with my mental fitness.
The question I think most worth answering is, “Why?” Why am I drawn to this subject? Why piles? Why can’t I be more interested in photographing subjects like tiny songbirds, landscapes that include perfectly placed lakes in the foreground, or small wildflowers that wouldn’t look out of place on a greeting card you send to your aunt who lives in Indiana?
I don’t have a clear answer to, “Why?” I suspect it has something to do with bringing order to chaos. I tend to be more of a right-brained person, which leads me to be somewhat disorganized in my non-work life. I have a tub-sized plastic container full of non-sorted Lego in the basement and mounds of loose camera accessories living in Tupperware that are testaments to that fact. Maybe the thought of wringing some sense and beauty out of disorder is a consolation prize for my brain that secretly desires to have all my shoes live in one place instead of scattered haphazardly throughout the house.
Now that we’ve superficially addressed the “why,” let’s move on to the “what.” In what I can guarantee is the first time this phrase has ever been uttered in the history of existence, you may be asking, “Brian what elements do you consider when creating a good pile photo?”
The strict definition of a pile is, “A heap of things laid or lying one on top of another.” So our first qualifier for what constitutes a successful pile photo is depth. There has to be a fair amount of stuff present. Your viewer needs to be thinking, “That’s too much of that thing in one place, right?” Verticality is important here. If things aren’t amassed on top of one another, you don’t have a pile. You have an arrangement.
Secondly, you have to consider the stuff in the pile itself. Ideally, an engaging pile photo has to have subjects of interest that have some sort of similarity either in form or function. Random piles of things can be interesting in the proper context (like photos from a junkyard or an abandoned house) but without a narrative framework, haphazard piles can lack focus and be confusing. Likewise, pile photos of almost identical items generally need something to break up the monotony. A divergence in color, form, or lighting can really set a photo off.
Sometimes the patterns and repetition in a pile photo can be enough to hold a composition together. If they aren’t, you need to find an anchor item to build your photo around. It can be the perfect representative specimen of the items in the pile, or the ugly duckling, or something that you can isolate through limited depth of field. Ultimately, your anchor has to be something that draws interest if the pile itself isn’t doing the job.
Finally, if there’s a containing element in the photo the focus has to be on the pile, not the container, for it to be a successful pile photo. A bucket of clams sitting on the dock is more about the bucket than the pile of clams depending on how your frame it. So be intentional in how you pick your subject and what exactly you want to convey to your viewer.
I can’t say that I notice a ton of other photographers who are drawn to this subject. And based on what I see online, as well as the response to what I’ve posted over the years, the subject matter doesn’t generally resonate with the masses. So this post isn’t necessarily an advocacy piece for this photography genre as much as it is a justification for its continued practice.
I like piles, and I don’t care who knows it. Sorry for making you feel uncomfortable.