Thursday, November 12, 2009

How to Compose a Photo?

I've been thinking more about composition, after some interesting and varied feedback from a previous post. And there is a good chance that this will get a bit messy, so apologies up front. I like to believe that art is subjective, so from one person to another, there is no "correct" way to compose an image. I only know the way that I do it. but I want to understand it better, because I think there is an underlying system of rules that apply.

However, I am starting to wonder if art really is entirely subjective, or if part of it adheres to a set of ancient laws hardwired into our genes. How each person interprets a work of art is subjective, but what about its physical properties? The lines, colors, shapes, forms -- that stuff can be measured and described by ratios and equations. It's mathematical.

People have been attempting to understand exactly what makes things visually appealing for thousands of years, going back to the Golden Ratio. Some claim that the Parthenon was built using the magic 1 to 1.61803 number. LeCorbusier was a fan of the Ratio, and incorporated it into his work. He even went so far as to develop his own system of ratios, also based on the Fibonacci Numbers, and DaVinci's Vitruvian Man, called the Modulor, which he described as "range of harmonious measurements to suit the human scale, universally applicable to architecture and to mechanical things." Sounds nice.

Here is what all of these ratio studies look like on paper:
There is something beautiful and soothing about all of these. The proportions just feel
right. And they bring order to a world of visual chaos. I guess part of composing images is learning to either see or create these ratios then capture them in a way that maintains their balance.

When I look at a building by Corbu, it makes me happy:

The first photographer that comes to mind as being very, very good at this: Stephen Shore. He is the 14th Degree Black Belt Ninja Master of composition. Take this classic Shore image for instance:

I'm pretty sure this thing is chock full o' Golden Ratios, Pentagrams, Fibonacci numbers, and each car has a Vitruvian Man behind the wheel. Again, it just feels right. Then again, that Chevron sign that's just a bit off center is uncomfortably close to the top edge of the frame, but you are saved by the giant double arrow which pushes you back to the middle of the image. Back in the middle, you are slowly sucked into the background through layers of vintage Americana, which thanks to his 8x10 is in complete focus. If you haven't seen a SS print up close, it's worth the trip to your nearest museum or gallery.

It's a scrumptuous visual feast of composition. But it's not perfectly composed. Although it sort of bends and dances around within the rules. Not to mention the image doesn't really have any particular meaning, which is what Shore is about. He is simply a hunter, gatherer, and curator of ratios, triangles, and fibonacci numbers.

Here is another tasty Signature Shore dish, with several pounds of juicy golden triangles baked right in: This image resonates with me in a deep, neurological way. Why? I'm not exactly sure. It just does.

Here is another one from Mr. Kander. Why does this work?

Does it work? Yes. Why? No idea.

I love knowing that images are inherently multilingual. They can speak to us in very literal, visual terms, or they can speak in these more complex, cryptic, underlying whispers. So, circling back to my previous post about Places to Drink Beer, and composition, which shot do I like? Although I feel weird putting this image right after Stephen Shore and Nadav Kander, it's this one, hands down:

The balance of the amounts of brick to sidewalk and window feels right. The sun and the orange stripe on the window cut through the middle of the frame, and connect the beer to the trash can. The crack in the sidewalk with the line of brick creates an arrow (golden triangle?) that takes me to the trash can. The wall angles away, which provides some depth and keeps the photo from being too flat, which also makes just enough room to fit an imaginary person, drinking a beer.

Another thing I like about this shot is the tension between the trash can and the beer can. My eyes want to pick up the beer can and throw it away. This is simply the end of a story, where the beginning and middle are open to interpretation. The composition provides a few clues about how that story may look.

This composition stuff is fascinating. Is it really hardwired in our genes? Is this a universal language that deep down all humans (and animals) know? If so, what does that mean for the future of photography? As more and more images are shared around the world, will we become more fluent in this complex, intuitive language?


JP Dobrin said...

Well it might be hardwired into our genes.

I believe the golden ratio was taken after analyzing different ratios and patterns in nature. The nautilus shell is an example.

This post reminds me of a favorite quote..

"Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk. "


akripke said...

I chose #2. :)

Yvonne Boyd said...

I like this post. For me composition is THE most important thing in an image. Not who is in it or the look someone gave it in photoshop although I understand these things can be important. I actually went to school to study music and always said music is math. Photography is math, pretty much everything is math, think about it.