Saturday, September 1, 2012

Using Shape to Compose, Part 1

If you are an adult, it is likely you have spent at least 12 years learning how to compose: you learned the parts of speech, how to diagram a sentence, how to structure a paragraph, and then form a series of paragraphs into an essay. You learned different methods of grabbing readers’ attention. You may even have learned how to seduce with a certain kind of cadence or rhythm. You learned all of this because it is useful to be able to organize and express your thoughts coherently and convincingly and even elegantly.

It is a societal blind spot that we spend significantly less time developing students’ ability to read and communicate through images. Perhaps it seems a little too specialized. But in a world that uses images for a great deal of its communication, I think the argument can be made for a greater emphasis on visual literacy in our schools.

Fortunately, many of the compositional ideas that you might be familiar with from poetry, music and literature have application in the visual arts. In today’s post, I’m going to be taking a look at shape, and showing some examples of how shapes can rhyme as well as contrast. In poetry or in song lyrics, rhyme and similarity of cadence -- a form of rhyme -- create coherence. Using sounds repeated and with minor variation underscores the unity of what is being read or sung. The words fit together and one idea flows into another, helped along by the aural patterns.

Shapes in a photograph can rhyme as well, unifying the various elements within the frame. If I am analyzing a photograph’s composition, one of the things I’ll do early on is to identify the primary geometric structure, if there is one. Primary geometric structures are the basic shapes -- rectangles, squares, circles, ovals, and triangles – which form the largest and most apparent shape within the image. In this photograph by William Klein, the primary organizing shape is an oval. That shape gets repeated a number of times: in the face itself, and through various combinations of face, hat and netting. Each oval maintains the same general shape, but is different in size, angle and proportion. This is how shapes rhyme.

There is a second manner in which the shapes are varied in this image: the edges of each oval have a different quality of line – sharp, heavy, rough, delicate, or irregular, depending what part of the image is creating that edge. Layered on top of that is an alternating pattern of light and dark. A lot of visual interest comes from what I call a process of compare and contrast: the observation of the way in which elements are alike and how are they different. And a lot of the pleasure in looking comes from the discovery of patterns of visual relationships. One last point about the ovals: notice how the key facial features – the corners of the eyes and the center of the mouth – are located right at the edge of one oval or another.

Often, there will be a secondary geometric structure in contrast to the main overall shape. The secondary geometric structure is less prominent in the picture; it will generally be smaller and of a different basic shape. The secondary geometric structure will function as a foil to the main shape, extending the process of compare and contrast beyond the primary shape. In this image, the secondary structures are created by sets of triangles and a triad of dots.

The main takeaways from this post are to consider the use of shape to create unity, coherence and variation. When applicable, look for a contrasting, minor, set of shapes. A frequent compositional mistake that I see with beginning photographers is a failure to distinguish between the major and minor groups of shapes in an image – it is usually better to let one set of shapes dominate. Another mistake is the ineffective management of visual complexity. Either the image is too simple to warrant interest, or the image is complex, but lacking organization. Today’s image is a great example of balance between simplicity and organized complexity.

This is the fourth installment in a series of posts on composition. The entire series is archived on the "For Students" page, accessible at the top menu. Check there for the prior posts in the series, as well as for the following installments. Click this link for the next post in the series, the second part of using shape to compose.

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