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Friday, June 30, 2006

Unruly Photography

by Ken Tanaka
The "rules" so often cited regarding composition derive entirely from painting and drawing instruction, not from photography. They are also far from stone tablet engravings, having been amended, rescinded, and invented largely in response to changing tastes (and aping others' unruly successes) many times in the past several hundred years. That is, they are not "rules" at all, merely suggestions for the un-anchored artist, points of departure. During the course of my studies as a youngster I spend countless hours in art classes, mainly drawing and painting. I cannot remember ever having these guidelines presented as rules.

While knowledge of compositional formulae can be helpful there's nothing more powerful in photography than a talented keen eye unencumbered by obedience of rules. I submit, as an example, the work the late Harry Callahan. He had no formal photographic (or art) training yet he managed to record some of the 20th century's most significant photographic works and to become one of the worlds most celebrated photographers. Better still, he proceeded to teach photography at the venerable Institute of Design as well as at the Rhode Island School of Design for decades. He was a man of relatively few words but I've seen/heard a few interviews with him in which he repeatedly states, "I don't know what a good photograph is or what makes a good photograph." and, "I don't think you can teach people to be creative. It has to come from within." (Paraphrasing.)

Every time I hear or read that "learn the rules before you break them" mantra I want to scream. It's such an empty, reflexive remark. Learn to use your camera and its medium. Look critically at as much photography as possible to determine what clicks with you and your eye. Learn to visually reverse-engineer lighting and to dissect the elements of images you like. But don't, don't, do not start confining your creative ambitions with "RULES." They do not exist. Take the pictures that you like to take and let your own frustration be your guide to developing your own set of best practices. You may, indeed, find that, say, the "rule of thirds" works for your own eyes, or not!

Posted by: KEN TANAKA

Follow-Up by Ken: Tom Dills said:"I've had a number of images reviewed by well-known and knowledgeable photographers whose only comment was something like 'I really like the image but the horizon is too close to the center' or 'the subject needs to be on a third' or 'I prefer to run my subject diagonally from corner to corner.' "

Ya see, that's the nasty, insidious aspect of compositional rule acceptance; it leads to brain-lock. Rather like the station i.d. "bugs" that can eventually burn themselves into the corners of plasma televisions, rule-of-thirds templates eventually burn themselves into peoples' minds. Any image that doesn't align to these templates becomes unsettling to the "trained" viewer.

Nevertheless, it's unquestionable that attention to some compositional guidelines, even inadvertently, can sometimes produce more interesting images. To me, most of the compositional formulae really come down to motivation and reward. For example, the motivation for placing a bush on a vertical 1/3 line with a vast expanse of desert and sky in the background might be to convey an edge-of-nowhere feeling. Placing the same bush in the same frame location with a forest in the background might offer no such visual reward to the viewer. For me, the motivation for leaning on compositional formulas must be to (a) lead the viewer's eye in the first second or two and (b) to create a stronger lasting impression of the image.

One of the most powerful compositional guides I've ever learned came from (I believe) the late painter Josef Albers, although he may very well have been repeating what he learned from someone else. Put simply, he said, "Shape trumps color." That is, faced with any composition the viewer will first look for strong patterns of shape before they take much note to tonality or color. The (healthy) human brain cannot help itself from such a reflex. We look for shape patterns constantly. We find "man on the moon," religious iconography in rust stains, etc. Flash an image showing the silhouette of an open hand in front of a row of houses to viewers for 2 seconds and ask them what they saw. I guarantee that six out of ten will say, "a hand." We're hard-wired to identify patterns first.

So the most powerful and constructive "rule"—actually a psycho-recognizance principle—I've learned and keep in mind is that shape trumps color. To me, drawing, painting, and photography are all personal experiments rooted in this foundation. Where you put all this stuff in a frame is really a matter of motivation and rewarding the viewer for being manipulated.

I'm actually a pretty simple fellow.

As a postscript, If you think still photography's "rules" seem staid and overbearing you should take a look at some of the rules for filmmaking.

Mike Sheepishly Adds: I have to admit I have a prejudice against the "rule of thirds." Pictures which follow it too closely have an extra hurdle to cross to please me. Sigh.


Blogger JBrunner said...

Sign me up please-

12:12 PM  
Blogger Tom Dills said...

Amen to that.

I've had a number of images reviewed by well-known and knowledgeable photographers whose only comment was something like "I really like the image but the horizon is too close to the center" or "the subject needs to be on a third" or "I prefer to run my subject diagonally from corner to corner." Well, darnit, you just keep on doing that, but I'm not going to cut out part of a beautiful sky or great water reflection simply to satisfy some rule.

I console myself by imagining that if that is all they had to say about an image that I otherwise love, it must not be too bad of an image.

Some images do benefit by application of one or more of the "rules." but sometimes an image succeeds in spite of them.

12:48 PM  
Blogger dazedgonebye said...

"Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it." --Henry David Thoreau

1:02 PM  
Blogger Hiding Pup said...

Wow! This post is everything I ever wanted to say to the mantra people but couldn't quite put into words...Now I can just send them the link :-)

1:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Sisk said...

Just this morning I read the following in the introductory text to the photo essay "Drive-bys" by Dewitt Jones in the July/Agust 2006 issue of Orion:

"My friend Jack held his camera out the car window, snapping pictures with his left hand while steering with his right. "Stop!" I hollered. "There are rules! At least you have to look through the viewfinder!"

"I was never much for rules," he answered, and kept on shooting.

1:23 PM  
Blogger eric kellerman said...

My goodness, what a starchy lot. So exercised by the word 'rule'. I think part of your distrust of 'rules' may stem from a rather restricted view of 'rule', namely in the sense of 'commandment'. But 'rule' can also mean 'regularity' or 'generalisation' (as in 'as a rule, I come here every Tuesday'), and it can also mean guideline, as in 'rule of thumb'. In the sense of 'regularity' or 'generalisation', such principles of design may well have been formalised by pedants, but they are not and never have been absolutes. Not should they be treated as such. And I don't know of anyone who seriously does.

1:25 PM  
Blogger JohnL said...

any comment from yourself Mike?

the sentiment is absolutely true and one of the reasons some years ago that I stopped posting on a fairly well known site. All I wanted to do was share not get inane crits

2:16 PM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

I like Ken's allusion to the concept of a "trained" viewer.

Years ago, I read Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word. In it he examined some of the movements in the Art world. His general theme was that to enjoy modern/minimalist/conceptual art, you were required to study the theories and the texts (hence Words) first. That is, you had to be trained in that school of thought, before you could appreciate the visual art.

I have a problem with this. It's a visual art. It has to "mean" something to me when I "look" at it. Otherwise, to me, it feels like I am being indoctrinated.

2:56 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

I think that something like the Rule of Thirds is designed to improve the work of the totally clueless snapshooter.

3:47 PM  
Blogger John Bates said...

"It is often, but not always, helpful to the process of learning the development of an artistic sensibility to be aware of the current aesthetic." Does this statement soothe the churning stomachs of the unruly lot?

Eric's right: y'all seem to be barfing over the use of the word "rule", but I don't think everybody is using the word the same way. I certainly always interpret the word "rule" in as "heuristic", and use "law" for strict constraints. (Or "constraint" for strict laws.)

To top it off, you're also speaking from the vantage point of an experienced photographer and artist, with the skill to "reverse-engineer lighting and to dissect the elements of images you like". But an important part of learning is just identifying the distinct elements that are present in an image: the "rules" can help novices to do that.

Any yes, Harry Callahan and many others demonstrate that learning (both as an individual and as a community) can happen in both supervised and unsupervised environments.

And all of this carping about the terrible state of internet photography critique? Umm, Mike, as I think that your recent experiment demonstrated quite nicely, there is clearly an unmet need here. A longing for somebody to take the next step, and provide a viable forum for *interesting*, useful, critical commentary. Dare I say, a commercial opportunity?

9:06 PM  
Blogger jim witkowski said...

I find the most refreshing thing about all of the supposed controversy is that we don't have to follow Mike's rules either.

10:55 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"I find the most refreshing thing about all of the supposed controversy is that we don't have to follow Mike's rules either."

That might have been meant as a bit of a zinger, but it's absolutely true.

And the curious thing about THAT is that it might end up being helpful to you ANYWAY. Several of my most educational experiences were in coming up against viewpoints that I just absolutely didn't agree with. It really does help if you have your own opinions, and finding people in positions of authority (in my case that word would have be in quotation marks, but you know what I mean) who you 1) bother to understand and come to grips with, and yet 2) still positively reject, can be invaluable.

It's one of the reasons why try to be clear about my own positions. it enables people to agree, but it also enables people to disagree.


11:30 PM  
Blogger shaggy dog pix said...

The "rule of thirds" is also almost totally a rule of the European tradition of visual art, as a quick flip through scroll paintings from China or Japan will quickly show. Maybe pano software will finally do away with it.

12:35 AM  
Blogger Ted Kostek said...

I took a class on "art music" during my undergrad, and the prof took pains to say again and again that studying music structure is like studying geology. Geologists don't make rules about rocks. They go out and study rocks and make observations. Artists make music, then later on people come along and put the music into a structure.

I guess the "rules" of photography are sort of like that. People look at photographs that "work", and dissect them, and then generalize.

I guess the "rules" are mostly a distillation of the history of great photographs.

10:03 PM  

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