Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Using Shape to Compose, Part 2

If you're struggling with how to compose your photographs, it may help to utilize shapes to give order to your images. In my prior post on learning to compose a photograph, I discussed three approaches to using shapes: primary structure, rhyme, and foil. Today I want to flesh out the ideas in that post with a few more examples. Often a basic geometric shape will provide an overall structural theme; in some images there will be re-iterations of the major shape which act to visually unify the image. The repetition of the major shape with minor variation is a rhyme. In some images, there may be a set of shapes or a single shape which runs counter to the overall theme. The introduction of variation in kind of shape on a lesser scale is a foil.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Let's start with a few images that have a clearly defined primary shape. The photograph above is by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Obviously, the major shape is a triangle. As a shape, the triangle impacts the way this image is read. With the base at the bottom of the image, a triangle implies stability. Combined with the upward tilt of the camera, the girl in the image takes on the quality of being unexpectedly monumental. Also consider the two triangular shapes formed in the background on her left and right, and note the differences between them. If those upper triangles mirrored each other, the image would likely appear much more static.

Bill Brandt

Izima Kaoru

In the Bill Brandt (upper), and the Izima Kaoru (lower), it is easy to identify the primary geometric shape, and then note the various ways that triangles get repeated in the image -- the triangles within the image are rhyming. Rhyming can be explicit, as with the hat and the window in the Manuel Alvarez Bravo (below).

Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Or it can be implicit, as in the Irving Penn portrait of Anais Nin. In the Penn portrait, the rhyming is between the shape created by the light space from the sitter's eyebrows up to her hairline and the dark silhouette created by the pulled-up collar of her turtleneck. 

Irving Penn

Sometimes the way a major shape gets re-iterated within the image is implicit as well. In the Cartier-Bresson, the primary shape is an ellipse. Can you see how it is rhymed within the image? Hint: this one isn't quite like the others.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Take a look at the orientation of the womens' faces. The woman on the far left is shown facing the camera. Moving counterclockwise, the next woman is in profile, the woman after that is turned three quarters away and the fourth woman is three quarters towards the camera. The aggregate effect is of a head rotated 360 degrees.

By now, the ideas of primary shape and rhyming of shape should be pretty clear. Let's take a look at a foil. In the portrait of Marlene Dietrich, the primary shape is the dark irregular triangle of the body, and its foil is the oval created by her head.

Irving Penn

This image illustrates the two important aspects of a foil: it is of a differing basic shape (round vs triangular) and it is significantly smaller than the primary shape. Let me anticipate an objection in the interest of gaining some clarity. Playing devil's advocate, why not argue that the negative space shape between Dietrich's hand, coat and the surface upon which she is sitting is also a foil? It is an interesting shape, and it fulfills the two requirements of what a foil should be -- different in nature and smaller in size. 

Intellectually, one could make that argument. But with images and perception, arguments are not settled through logic, but through observation. Just pay attention to what your eye is doing when looking at the image. For me, while I glance at that negative space shape, my eye is pulled towards her face, establishing its visual priority. 

Charles Harbutt

Here is another example underscoring the importance of letting your eye be the guide. I show the image above by Charles Harbutt in just about every introduction to composition lecture I give at school. The story behind the image is quite interesting: a blind boy responds to the streak of light on the wall through his sense of touch, feeling its warmth without being able to see it. I ask the class to identify the primary geometric shape and typically the first responses have to do with the repeating rectangles formed by the the ray of light and other elements in the room.

Of course, that structure is there, and it is reasonable to take note of it. But again, pay attention to where your eye feels pulled. Mine feels pulled upwards. Taking note of that, the way I would diagram the primary geometric shape is as a triangle.

That feels right to me. And it is supported by some key intersections on the right side of the triangle.

The left edge of the triangle comes from the dark edges of the items on the table, and the general shading on the wall. I also see the primary triangle rhymed within the figure of the boy.

And if you look carefully, you can see numerous ways of drawing triangles within his figure. So we've got the primary shape and its re-iteration. Is there a foil? Since it is September, and school is starting, let's consider that a bit of homework. And here is one more. Try diagramming the three images below with primary shape, rhyme and foil, as applicable. 

William Klein

Mario Testino

Irving Penn

It bears repeating that not every photograph is composed with shape in mind. This is just one way to think about structure among many. But I think you can see it is an effective form of organization, and it has the merit of being simple to apply. I also don't want to give the impression that one needs to be overly analytical when taking pictures. You can take that approach if it suits you, but you don't need to. Remember, this kind of analysis is simply a form of practice. When repeated often enough, it will facilitate your recognition of patterns and visual relationships, without needing to apply much conscious thought at the moment of looking through the viewfinder.

This is the fifth 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 here for the next installment, using color as an element of composition.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Fall Portfolio Reviews

One of the more difficult aspects of working as a photographer outside of the context of being a full time student is getting regular feedback on your work. Whether the issue is narrowing down a group of images to its strongest members, deciding which among competing projects to allocate one's time, or  discerning one's strengths as a photographer -- it often is helpful to have a fresh and independent set of eyes taking a look at your work.

I'm offering portfolio reviews on Saturday, September 22 and Saturday October 6, beginning at 1:00 in the afternoon in my studio in Brooklyn, easily accessible by public transportation. The reviews will be approximately 45 minutes to an hour per person and the cost is $100. For more information, or to reserve a place, please contact me at my gmail address.

Also, I'd like to gauge if there is sufficient interest among readers in forming a small group which might meet monthly or bi-monthly through the Fall to review and discuss members' work. I would facilitate and participate at a reasonable cost. Again, contact me for details.

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.