Mercury Colony Park - You got to let thirds rule.

A bright-eyed intern from the Magazine Search Pool dropped this 1964 ad on my desk this morning. That kid's going to go places. Why? Because she immediately spotted the near-perfect layout of this ad. Check it out.

Man, look at that. A nice composition is like classical music for your eyes. You can feel it making you smarter. But maybe you're not seeing the magic? Let's help you out a bit.

Faced with yet another product shot of their car, the art director could have phoned it in. They could have gone with some kind of perspective thing, where they drop the car in a field or something and shoot it from the corner, to show you how big the car is. But when you read the copy, you can tell that Mercury was kind of proud of the design of the car.

The beauty of a fake wood paneled station wagon is debatable, but in any case, they looked at the rectangular, slab-sided profile of their car and lined up the camera directly at the profile. Then, they put the car in front of a building that echoes the wooden linearity. The net effect of this decision flattens the car and the building into simple graphic shapes that - if handled well - can form a bold and clear composition that catches the eye.

If you look at the roof of the car in relation to the overall length, you can see the roof line is about two thirds of the car's length. You can divide the car's length into threes, and the roof takes up two of them. Then, notice that the belt line of the car falls about two thirds of the way from the ground to the roof. This all recalls the "rule of thirds": an old and ubiquitous tool that artists and photographers use to arrange pleasing compositions. Your camera probably has a rule of thirds overlay in the LCD screen. Your phone's camera app probably has one too, if you find it and enable the option.

Essentially, the rule of thirds is this: if you drop a three by three grid over your image and try to place points of interest along the lines, or the intersections of those lines, you're most of the way to having a really nice composition. The easiest way to make the leap from just taking pictures to creating a little piece of art is to start paying attention to the rule of thirds. Same for traditional art, too. In a nutshell, putting the focal point right in the center of the frame is really boring. It's what a six year old would do. Asymmetry is more interesting to your eye. Don't believe me? Go look at some stuff and come back in an hour.

So, the form of the car itself adhere to the rule of thirds. That's a nice start. Now, back to the whole photo. Let's put a three by three grid over the ad.

Well, look at that. The Colony Park is centered on a line one third of the height of the frame. This is not an accident.

The other details of the photo add interest too, like the lady and the stuff in the window.No, the window is not one third the width of the photo, but that's okay. The other elements in the image don't all need to slavishly adhere to the rule of thirds in their arrangement. To do that would be a little obsessive, and missing the point a bit. The ROT is just a near-perfect tool to place the major focal points of your image in a position that's far more interesting than just dead center.

The rest of the ad is similarly simple and beautiful. The pavement is just a big black rectangle, with the pavement's texture nearly eliminated. That way, the visual relationship between the wood in the building and the car is clearer. Here's another handy rule for pretty much art of any kind. "If it's not needed, remove it." The pavement texture wouldn't be helping, so out it can go.

With regard to color, the photo basically consists of four colors: red, brown, white, and black. Again, simple and controlled.

I like the two-box shape of wagons and hatchbacks, but lots of people don't. Overall, the deft application of artsy-fartsy skill on display in this ad does a pretty amazing job of making the much-maligned station wagon seem sophisticated and elegant, which can't be that easy. Very impressive, Art Director.

That's a pretty cool looking building. I wonder where it is. The ad is considerate enough to use the address as a design element, and it's easy to read. 17600 Northland Park Court. That's a pretty uncommon name for a street. How many of those can there be?

Okay, it looks like there's a 17600 Northland Park Court in Southfield, Michigan. Could this be the place? Michigan makes sense, as it was still the center of American car production back in '64, and the art director may want to stay close to the office for the shoot. Let's assemble a Street View away team and beam down to have a look around.

Well I'll be darned. There it is, wood and all. The parking lot has been grassed over, but there's the shot right there, untouched... at least, as recently as 2012. Holy crap.

This whole area looks pretty much un-demolished since it was built in The Sixties. Across the street and one or two doors down, there's another cool building with a crazy uppey-downey roof that no one would build today. See?

Looks like there's lots of cool stuff to see in Southfield. Who's up for a road trip? We'll need to load up the station wagon...

Click for big.


Jim D. said...

Good stuff. I have a soft spot for early '60's Ford products. Also good photography. Getting rid of the pavement texture is a huge deal - - the car seems to float. There's also the "red shirt" technique - - - perhaps the photographer was working on a portfolio to impress National Geographic.

Jim D. said...


Jim D. said...

The exposure towards the top of the image gives the impression the car is under a roof (that there's an extension of the roof over the car and perhaps over the camera too). This reinforces the "rule of thirds" composition of the photo, what with the top and bottom of the image being darkened bands. Do you suppose a filter was used during the shoot to give that effect? Anyway, it shows some AD was strong-willed enough, or a decider on the client side, to approve a photo with a huge ratio of "empty" space in order to further composition and impact. This is a really great photo. Thanks Phil! Also: 3 comments in 5 minutes on 1 blog post is a sure sign that I have had one cup of coffee too many!

cyclotronboy said...

Dangit - you beat me to it! Here's my google-fu results: https://goo.gl/4enBLp

PhilAreGo@gmail.com said...

Four comments already? This post is on FAIYAH!

Jim: It looks to me like they just shot at night and lit the wall from the ground, hiding the lights behind the car.

I'd never heard of red-shirt photography! Thanks for the lore, Jim!

CB, you must have felt that crazy little thrill to find the building still there after all this time. Cool, huh?


Marc said...

Wow, thanks. I will need to go check that area out. I see across the free way is the Northland Center, which is well documented as one of the first shopping malls in the US. Lots of trendy things around here in the early 1960s

MrsBug said...

Popping in to say I had found the Google street view too, but see that I've been DENIED a first. Ah well. Good post.

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