This phrase from Edward Weston follows on an expression of disdain for the “rules of composition” which were apparently very big in the circles of the photo clubs and organizations which favored the pictorialist style of working. Composition, he says is really the strongest way of seeing. Rules are nothing more than the after effects of good seeing, developed by analysis of well seen compositions. One can find many examples of repudiation of “rules of composition” from 20th century photographers, who also share in a disdain for the pictorialist salons and their repetitive motifs and predictable genres. Even Alfred Stieglitz, who in an early article suggests these rules for successful work, later on discards them, having been transformed by Cubist and other Modernist Art approaches to design.
All of the players I am thinking of are long dead and some of them were, like photography itself, born in the 19th century so one could ask whether it really matters in our contemporary approach to photography. We have seen the once dramatic compositional revolts in the work of mid 20th century photographers like Gary Winograd or the even earlier A. Rodshenko in the post-revolution Soviet Union but neither of them fostered a school of followers who emphasized the abrupt angles and tilting camera techniques, so they do not represent a finished statement on composition and design, more rather statements of the liberation of the hand-held camera, especially the 35mm, liberation from the tripod.
The contemporary scene is noteworthy technologically in reference to 2 cameras; the digital SLR and the cell phone. Both are quick and simple and capable of a boatload of digital after-effects and manipulations. One should probably add the third piece of technology, the computer monitor as it has almost equal value to the photographer’s work. Children can successfully use either of these 2 camera devices in the auto mode and get pictures that are sharply focused and properly exposed, little children can do this. It is a return to the “You push the button, we do the rest” mode of photography which created such a cultural revolution at the end of the 19th century. All they have to do is aim the camera and press the shutter. It is exactly about aiming the camera to which the issue of composition lays its claim.
We should point out that different kinds of cameras are either easier or more difficult to use in the task of achieving a precise aiming. Weston’s 8X10 inch view camera with its big ground glass could be aimed very carefully and precisely, resting securely on its tripod. And once aimed it could be securely fixed in place. An iphone held up above ones head to catch a crowd scene can neither be viewed in detail nor held very securely and in an immobile manner. Composing the scene carefully would be very difficult for the cell phone photographer. The 35mm camera, because it is held to the face could be expected to yield a more carefully composed image though they can present difficulties to eyeglass wearers. Generally speaking, a bigger ground glass makes composing easier which helped make medium format cameras like the Hassellblad and Rollieflex popular with professionals and advanced amateurs. The bright viewfinder of the 35mm rangefinder has also been a popular tool. Henri Cartier Bresson’s pristine compositions attest to its possibilities.
With the ubiquity of the cell phone for the snapshot shooter, one might expect an aesthetic revolution of sorts, an anarchist approach to aiming, framing and composition. There have been anarchist revolts in the arts before. But if the carelessness of composition is really a technical result of the mechanics of the tool, how it is held and so on, then what part of art and its values would we find expressed when the work of the “artist” appeared much like the work of one’s 3 year old granddaughter? This isn’t the same kind of experimentation as in cross-processing of color films and using the Diana and Holga cameras with their built in “flaws”. There, integral elements in the photo process are used to develop new ways of imaging. A rejection of composition as a thoughtful part of the process of making images seems more antithetical to basic human instincts and I think one would have a hard time maintaining such a rejection as any kind of positive artistic step.
Serious image makers, whether professionally employed or not, in this age of the cell phone camera, must work doubly hard to affirm the value of what they do. When someone is a wedding photographer in a room where every Aunt, Uncle, Cousin and Friend is aiming a DSLR or cell phone at the bride and groom, there is an added pressure of making images that stand out, that make people say “Wow!” If exposure and focus are nearly guaranteed by modern technology, then it might be exactly the perfecting of composition that makes the Photographer’s images stand out.
If composition has always been a key element, then why did so many of the famous and significant photographers of the 20th century express so strongly against the “rules of composition?” I have a copy of a British photo journal from the 1930’s and in reading an article that was supposed to be a continuing technical and aesthetic help column I found a very clear reference to the so-called “rules of composition” which apparently were some of the criteria in the various salons that amateur photographers would enter, competing for ribbons and praise. There were more rules that photographers were expected to adhere to in the salon competition. Andreas Feininger, in one of his instructional books tells a story of a friend who was a judge in one of those competitions pulling out a submission print, which Feininger recognized, and his friend the judge said something like, “I think he’s a good photographer but this will never get accepted. No blacks.” It was a print by Edward Weston. Feininger doesn’t comment as the point is so obvious, how foolishly these “rules” worked to guarantee mediocrity. Feininger was, by the way, one of those professionals who rejected the “rules of composition”. So part of the attitude of so many of these excellent photographers against the rules was that kind of foolish legalism of the Salons and the pictorialists altogether. If that’s all it was then we would be making a mountain out of a molehill.
The strongest way of seeing.
Not to make something out of nothing let us turn to the positive implications of Weston’s assertion. What does it mean to see strongly? In a milder form, what does it mean to see well?
The pallet knife is to a painter what the trash bucket should be to a photographer. Especially if the painter is using oil paint. The application of color to the canvas is an essential part of the workflow. That’s how paintings become paintings. Painting is very often a process of experimentation, of adding and subtracting, of editing, rethinking, moments of revelation etc., and the pallet knife is a vital tool in all of that. Oil paints take a long time to dry, and during that time the artist can take that knife and scrape away areas of color, large and small. Why would the painter do such a thing? Because in looking at his or her work at a particular stage, something doesn’t look right. Something is not working. There is some anomaly in the time space continuum! The artist’s instinct kicks in and informs. It sits there, an unsettled whisper. There is some failure of harmony. There is no Shalom, no Salaam, no Peace. Discord, Imbalance, all apparent through the eye, through the “seeing”.
This is the first key to illuminating Weston’s claim. Seeing in this sense of the word is a refined process which has as its goal a personal and aesthetic resolution of the various discords and imbalances of the natural world. The world is full of them. The world is a messy place, even in the grand valley of Yosemite there are countless points of view that are not worth opening ones eyes for. We humans have a sense of that and an instinct for perfecting that messy world, or at least little parts of it. The instinct seeks what we might call harmony, the pleasing relating of various components into a single harmonious whole, a new thing. That is what the painting is supposed to be, and the photograph. When the various objects that make up an image interrelate properly, then the image “feels” complete and perfected. When this happens, the artist has created a new world. That’s quite an accomplishment but it is also one of those driving and perfectly natural forces of the human experience. Why else would people have started making images, drawings, before they could talk, before they developed language?
So the seeing that Weston refers to is instinctual and comes to us more or less naturally. More or less here recognizes that some of us have a better awareness and strength of that instinct which is largely visual but also spiritual. Talking is also an instinctual and natural part of the experience but it has to be learned, and some people seem to learn it more effectively than others. Seeing, like speech, can be refined, improved, perfected. We learn to improve our speech by listening to others, by listening to how they speak and communicate. We can improve, strengthen our seeing by looking to how others see.
The painter has the luxury of the length of the process to perfect and complete the harmony which is the underlying goal. The photographer is a bit more restricted and thus a very refined sense of seeing is required to make that tripping of the shutter the moment of harmony, at least, the moment of the initial harmony. ( The printing process might involve a further refinement of tones, for example, and Adams referred to this as the performance of the negative’s ‘score’). Weston and Ansel Adams both called this the “visualization.” No pallet knife available in photography, only the trash bin for failed negatives. You either got the shot or didn’t . Remember that these earlier photographers had to worry about focus and exposure as well as their visualization. Can we wonder that so many significant photographers rejected the idea of the rules of composition? Can you imagine having to think about exposure and light values and then look to see whether you were using the rule of thirds properly too?
The overwhelming value of instinct, (of any kind) is that one does not have to think about it, only listen to it. In fact it may be that the hardest part for a lot of people is not that they have a weak instinct, but rather that they have not learned to recognize it and follow it
March 19, 2018