A direct contrast to the usual mise-en-scenes: Toby Zeng on vertical composition photography

From the interesting to the upsetting, the photographer takes an in-depth look at the space we take up in the natural world.

15 November 2021

In photography, a vertical composition helps to evoke the feeling of strength in the image. It’s widely understood that by making use of the portrait stance in photography, the height is emphasised and objects that can be lost in a landscape image truly come to life. With this in mind, photographer Toby Zeng explores the technique in his latest body of work, taking the viewer on a tour through the lens of the vertical composition.

The series features an eclectic mix of objects which appear more like sculptures, given Toby’s treatment. Flagpoles, floating basketballs and stuffed wolves don’t usually have much in common but in Toby’s work, these seemingly disparate objects are united by a singular creative vision. “I chose vertical composition as it is a direct contrast to the usual mise-en-scenes we are familiar with,” he tells us. “My focus is on representing a more in-depth look a the space we take up, and calling attention to the minute details of life that we don’t often notice, whether that be the good, the interesting, or the upsetting.”

Born and raised in Beijing, Toby first became interested in photography by taking pictures on his iPhone during high school. The hobby that he practiced every day soon became a passion, and he decided to study the medium at Bard College in New York, where he got the opportunity to further explore the craft. With time, he found his own niche visual language – a style distinctive in its crispness and clarity of thought. Currently residing in China, Toby is taking on commissions and expanding his personal projects. While the two aspects of his practice are rather different, what they both have in common is Toby’s interest in depicting urban space and people “through a focus on composition and colour, using it as a means of looking at the world differently.”


Toby Zeng: Vertical Composition (Copyright © Toby Zeng, 2021)

In Toby’s work, he looks at natural space with a contemporary perception. Landscapes are captured and injected with a dose of artistic flair, whether that be through light, art direction or editing. Ultimately, though, Toby tries to express the experiences of the everyday through the variety of subjects. From urban environments to portraiture, the photographer pays particular attention to natural beauty, the concentration of the view and “our relationship to what is familiar.”

For the photographer, there are two images in particular which exemplify this creative philosophy: the image of the stuffed snarling wolf juxtaposed against ornate curtains, the corner of a leather sofa and a marble floor, as well as the Koons-esque image of a pristine basketball floating on the surface of a refreshing pool. “These two images define the visual language of this project,” he adds, pointing to how composition and colour create the overarching connection between the two photographs as opposed to theory or concept. “The pieces I created through this project all centre around my belief in showing the often understated and overlooked beauty of every day,” he goes on to say.

At present, Toby is preparing to photograph a new series capturing landscapes through horizontal compositions.

GalleryToby Zeng: Vertical Composition (Copyright © Toby Zeng, 2021)

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Toby Zeng: Vertical Composition (Copyright © Toby Zeng, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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