Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Learning to Compose: Practice Makes . . . . .

I received a lot of good feedback on the first two posts about learning to compose a photograph (here and here), and some good questions as well.  I’m going to address some of the questions e-mailed to me in this post.

Richard Avedon

One common set of questions has to do with the photographer’s intentions. After making note of a particularly nice alignment of shapes, it is natural to wonder: did the photographer see that? Did the photographer intend to show this or that aspect of the subject, or is its presence in the image a matter of chance? Or, from a slightly different perspective, when we do a structural analysis of an image, are we perhaps adding something to the image – something which the photographer might not have seen when taking the picture?

Irving Penn

Ken Josephson

There’s an old term from art criticism called the intentional fallacy. The fallacies are that all communication is intentional and all that is intended is communicated. A stutter might communicate something real apart from what is being said, quite possibly despite all attempts to speak clearly. Similarly, we all have had conversations in which it became clear afterwards that the listener did not understand all we intended to convey. What is intended and what is communicated are often not the same.

In school, we talk a lot about students' intentions, because they are practicing communicating through images. Outside of school, we are less concerned with what the photographer intended, preferring to deal with what is present in the image. Of course, here I'm confining myself to discussing what is typically called straight photography.

Russell Lee

Photographers often say something to the effect: I photograph in order to see. A photograph is a unique form of communication in the sense that the photographer will engage with its production in two very distinct stages. First, at the moment of pressing the shutter and later, through the process of selecting which out of these 10 or so competing images will be the final image. It is said that the photographer is responsible for everything in the image. That responsibility doesn’t come from a kind of visual omniscience at the instant the picture was taken; responsibility comes from the considered act of choosing. The process of editing completes what was started when the picture was taken.

Joseph Sterling

I also got some questions about Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye, not to be confused with the book by John Szarkowski with the same title. Freeman’s book claims to be the first book to address composition and design for digital photographers. I’m not sure why the adjective “digital” is important, as the elements of composition have nothing to do with the type of camera one is using. Freeman’s book does give an overview of compositional motifs, and it is useful in that regard. The problem with the book is in how those ideas are explained and illustrated. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson

These are visual ideas we’re talking about and Freeman’s book is unnecessarily wordy. Compounding that are the visual examples themselves. Often, the images chosen are not successful or clear applications of the principle they are intended to explain. And, most importantly, the images by and large are not interesting as images. The photographs in Freeman’s book are competent, but generally they lack the spark of a subject approached in a new way. Nor do they convey any sense of the individuality of the photographer's vision. They often are generic and formulaic, and that just won't get you very far. What we want is to be inspired by looking.

Edward Weston

If you have ever engaged in any kind of performance activity, such as golf or baseball, you have most likely heard something to the effect that you play the way you practice. The same applies to taking photographs. Looking at images, deliberately and thoughtfully, is a form of practice. The analysis of visual structure while looking at photographs in books, magazines, or in galleries and museums, will affect the way you see and how you compose. If you look at mediocre photographs with the intent of learning to compose, that is bound to have an unwanted effect. My advice is to stick to looking at the work of the best photographers and ignore the rest. The photographs that accompany this post are all from the original Photographer’s Eye by John Szarkowski. His book is concerned with the grammar of photography: how photographs are made and how they communicate, of which composition is an integral part. I highly recommend it. And keep the comments and questions coming.

This is the third 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 installment, the first of two posts about using shape to compose.