Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Rules of Composition

Edward Weston, "Shell", 1927
    “To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection.” -Edward Weston

If you do a internet search for the “rules of composition” you’ll find that most of the listings are concerned with photography whereas if you do a search for “pictorial composition” the majority of links will be about painting. This is a revealing disparity which suggests that with photography at least, composition is perceived to have determinate rules, which if followed correctly will lead to images of greater power or articulacy. In the case of painting, despite the fact that numerous principles of composition have been studied, expounded and contested over the centuries, there remains a comparatively relaxed attitude towards the potential of composition. Presumably this difference in attitude stems from painting’s long established position as a Fine Art medium.

Certainly there are many artists over the years who have paid a great deal of attention to the orchestration of spatial relationships within their images and there is also no doubt that an inappropriate structuring of visual information within an image can do a great deal to undermine or ruin what might otherwise constitute a strong picture. However, the function, interpretation and meaning of different compositional structures has been repeatedly shown to be so culturally and historically contingent that there is very little faith amongst artists in the idea of a universal language of composition let alone a set of immutable rules. If there were such as a set of rules then we’d all have something like H.R Poore’s tiresome "Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures" as our bible and the pictorial arts would be so much the worse for it.

Strictly speaking photographic images, unlike drawings or paintings, are rarely “composed” in the sense that we have come to understand the word. Unless the subject has been deliberately staged or arranged, photographs would be better understood to have been “framed” in the sense that the boundaries of the photographic image have been definitively positioned with respect to the subject. The choices of tilt, pitch, and swivel of the camera, the focal length of the lens, the proximity to the subject, and point-of-view are all variable to an extraordinary degree.

“At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one's cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite.” John Szarkowski

Viewed through the camera, the four edges of the photographic frame rigidly maintain their relation with one another and changing a single aspect in the frame therefore alters all aspects of the resulting image. In contrast, drawn or painted compositions allow both the arrangement, addition and removal of elements within the image. Before the advent of digital photography, this mutability was often claimed as a unique strength of drawing and painting over photography. I’m not going to argue the pros and cons of photography over drawing and painting here. Opinion has been divided since the very invention of photography and will, no doubt, continue so long as practitioners, champions and other stakeholders feel threatened or provoked by the apparent strengths or weaknesses of rival media. But the differences do provide us with a way to further our understanding of the qualities and character of each, and these are thus, on occasion, worth examining in closer detail.

Drawing, by its very nature, takes time to carry out and therefore encourages consideration of composition as the work progresses. Photographs by contrast, often being instantaneous, provide relatively scant opportunity for consideration in the moment of production, or worse still, they tend to encourage conventional and unadventurous attitudes or approaches toward composition.

It is plainly evident that the massive rise in the popularity and ubiquity of photography, whilst it has in many ways democratised photography and photographic composition, has also encouraged many inherited and unquestioned habits amongst its users. Horizons are kept level, straight edges are aligned with the edges of the frame, heads tend to be kept in the centre or at least fully in the frame and cropped features are most frequently avoided. These are the conventions of contemporary vernacular photography and for the most part they are sufficient because they echo the most frequently repeated conventions of pictorial representation seen in painting, film and TV.

Everyone has occasionally either made or seen those accidental or naïve images with tilted, cropped or awkwardly positioned features or with a figure sitting beneath a potted plant which seems to grow from the top of their head. With digital photography these mistakes are easily deleted but is there not a danger that we may also loose those rare gems that on second or third glance reveal something extraordinary?

One of the strengths of any medium is it’s ability to conceal it’s artificiality and to create a convincing illusion. A medium’s role is to mediate after all, not to draw attention to itself. Artifice has it’s uses of course, and images which draw attention to their form or the conventions of representation are often instructive and very occasionally worthy of further critical attention. Such instances make ‘form’ (the “medium” if we follow Marshal McLuhan) the very content (“message”) of the work and whilst formalism has its place, most users of media prefer not to be reminded of the flaws, faults or artificiality of communication and expression. This is why most of us prefer to spell correctly and to speak fluently. We tend to prefer our media transparent because this allows us to focus our attention on the content. Most people choose conventional compositional structures for the same reason. But in our desire to avoid making an issue of composition, might we be perpetuating and consolidating an orthodoxy which limits our creative capacity and as a consequence forms an unspoken but increasingly rigid set of aesthetic rules which subtly govern our pictorial choices?

“…rules are not intended as a set of fetters to cripple those who use them, and it is not intended that the student should absolutely abide by them. The object is to train his mind so that he may select with ease, and, when he does select, know why one aspect of a subject is better than another."

Henry Peach Robinson, “Pictorial Effect in Photography”, 1881


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