Friday, 14 March 2014

To a new user asking about composition

There are no set rules for composition anymore, unless you make some assumptions. For instance Landscape is different in the Western and the Chinese tradition.
Therefore one can assume you will choose the first, and therefore you must know what Western painters did in the past.

But is your choice Landscape as a genre, or Portrait, or Still Life? Those are painterly genres, but Photography was not confined to that.

The Avant Garde in 1920-30 completely changed the painterly Rule of Thirds, which had been in charge before. It also started Street Shooting, where composition is rather in depth than on a flat    plane.
 According to D. Bate, American Street Shooting has evolved towards more Balance and Neutrality.

So this begs the question: are you opting for The New Objectivity of the American kind? It is only one option, but it is what most here assume, ignoring other choices, as we saw with Rodchenko

Photography, even of the amateur kind, is now globalised, and is branching in many new ways. Knowing about the past of Painting, and the reach of Photography, will open you many avenues of thought, and ways of shooting.

Composition is important but it shouldn't really limit your creativity, nor throw you towards the conventions of commercial genres, like Still Life for Advertising or Portrait for Marriage, the kind which go after money, and heavily use bokeh and Photoshop.

Instead please remember that the main gestalts, the psychological cores, were established at the Bauhaus, and that Andreas Feininger, (son of founder Lyonel Feininger)  used them to teach in his American books about Photography. They are the beginning of Modernity, so one might start from there.

Anyway shoot as much as you can, practice makes perfect.

As a postscript I found a picture of the celebrated Nature photographer Andreas Gurtsky, an example of the contradictions of even the simplest landscape:

Engadin, A. Gurtsky

Critic David Bate remarks that the composition is made in thirds, snow - mountain - sky, but then it is wrecked by the line of people in the foreground:
"It shows the awful consequence of mass tourism: humans as the blight on an other wise picturesque nature...the picture nevertheless depends on their opposing characteristics by combining them."

Has the objectivity of the Landscape being ruined by the subjectivity of the photographer, or is the environment showing us a different kind of objectivity that the photographer has chosen to report, with a social intent? 
Composition here signifies a lot, and the way you are willing to break it. Such a pure environment polluted by a colony of human ants!

Since Barthes wrote his essays on photography, no picture is innocent to me, it is always a sign of something else. 
For instance, the picture above for us signifies a negative, but are we sure it would do so to an Asian? From the beginning of Buddhist times mountains have been associated to public pilgrimages, like here:

So perhaps to an Asian eye the Engadin picture would automatically signify a positive. This is called a connotation, and is clearly culturally based. Globalisation has introduced another twist in the way we interpret the simplest images.

Additionally Westerners use perspective to convey distance, while Orientals use Atmospheric colour. The camera, which is a perspective device, therefore tends to impose the Western Order.
The Oriental tradition however is far from lost. You can see an example of composition by atmospheric haze in Chinese photogs. here and here. I find them among the most inspiring.


  1. These are great indeed. Thanks for a lesson on out-of-the-box thinking.

  2. My pleasure. It is great to get new ideas from the other side of the world, in such a simple but efficient way. There is much to learn.