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civilized ku # 2156 ~ art sauce poured on top of content

Robert's co-op apartment ~ NYC, NY • click to embiggenOf all of the "how to" questions I have been asked, the most frequently asked one always addresses the notion of "composition". Those questions are almost always directed at finding a manner of composing, relative to my way of seeing, which can be reduced to an easily understood "rule" of composition.

Unfortunately, I'm here to tell tell you that there ain't no such thing. IMO, virtually all such rules are nothing more than, as Stephen Shore stated, "art sauce poured on content", or, "aesthetic nicety applied to content".

Like Shore, I have always been uncomfortable with the word "composition" as it is applied to picture making, photo division wise. That discomfort comes from the definition of the word itself - the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole. "Combining parts" is a synthetic process and picture makers (photography division) do not "combine" or put together anything. Rather, they "select" what to picture from the already existent world around them.

In selecting what to picture and how to picture it - deciding upon a POV, where to place the edges of the frame, when to depress the shutter mechanism, and so on - the picture maker imposes a 2-dimensional visual structure (aka: form), as will be made manifest on a print, on the real world referents which fall within the gaze of his/her camera. And, most germane to this entry, most "serious" amateur camera wielding picture makers are at loss to impose a visual structure other than those which fall within the "rules of composition".

Hence, all the same-o same-o pictures made by "serious" amateurs.

Stephen Shore, in his essay, Form and Pressure, stated, re: his picture Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue:

... I was aware that I was imposing an organization that came from me and from what I had learned: it was not really an outgrowth of the scene in front of me ... I asked myself if I could organize the information I wanted to include without relying on an overriding structural principle ... Could I structure the picture in such a way that communicated my experience of standing there, taking in the scene in front of me? ...

IMO, in that short-but-sweet bit of picture making rumination, Shore has hit upon the reason why most "serious" amateur picture makers fail to break out of the some-o same-o picture making rut - their focus is more upon making pictures that look like what they have been told a good picture looks like, as opposed to simply and directly picturing what they see.

In other words, letting the scene dictate the visual structure / form rather than playing it by the rules.

Why bother doing so? Again, from Stephen Shore:

Sometimes I have the sense that form contains an almost philosophical communication - that as form becomes more invisible, transparent, it begins to express an artist's understanding of the structure of existence.

To my eye and sensibilities, the most interesting pictures are those wherein the structure / form is invisible / transparent because, when form is not particularly noticeable, I perceive that I see what the picture maker sees - what he/she wants me to see - rather than a picture wherein the structure / form is everywhere apparent and, therefore, leads me to see the "art sauce poured on content" more so than the content itself.

IMO, content (both illustrated and implied), more so than art sauce, is what makes a picture interesting and is the reason for spending any time with it. Whereas most art sauce pictures - most commonly created under the narcistic-ly sophist banner of "personal expression" and "artistic license", wherein the aesthetic niceties are everywhere apparent, are little more than attention getting but vacuous exercises in technical virtuosity and ultra-craft. For me, they have no staying power whatsoever - they are pure expressions of a slam, bam, thank you ma'am picture making ethos.

FYI & BTW, it is often been stated that photo blogs are little more than picture galleries, personal picture diaries, or tool chests. That little is written about the medium and its apparatus as opposed to how-tos and gear fetishism.

I agree with that sentiment and that is why, from day one, I have written mostly about the medium and its apparatus (much like today's entry). However, my experience in doing so tells me that most are not as interested, if at all, in the possibilities of the medium and it's apparatus as they are in personal picture diaries and gear.

While The Landscapist has a decent and loyal following, it is rather discouraging to have so little feedback / comments when I write entries such as today's. At times, that fact makes me wonder why I am bothering to do so.

I'm not complaining, just saying.

Posted on Monday, April 9, 2012 at 10:30AM by Registered Commentergravitas et nugalis | Comments8 Comments

Reader Comments (8)

Composition in photography means, for me at least, deciding which elements of a scene to include in the picture, implying that some elements will be left out and also where to place the retained elements in the picture.

It's a way of editing out unwanted elements or elements that do not add anything to the overall scene. It does not mean that one has to follow repeatable rules to compose a scene.

We all know that adding an element in the foreground will at times give a sense of depth to the picture. Or that using a WA lens will give a sense of space between two objects. Does that mean that one if following a rule by doing so? Knowledge or rules?

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndre

Regarding not many comments:

I think it's kind of inevitable that when you step away from the easy path that you'll get less (visible) response. By definition what you're looking at is the hard stuff! What you write and examine sets the bar much higher and more demanding than "nice bokeh!" . Responding coherently is a demanding task.

It's a challenge for to keep reading and not flick over to something else halfway through.
A lot of the time I'll read a post, spend a good deal of effort thinking about what you wrote and want to comment , but really struggle to articulate what I'm thinking (I'm also struggling to fully understand everything you write too!).

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSam Hames

May I suggest that you are just a cook cooking by your very own recipe?

Granted, when I see your pictures I see them on your blog and I do so because I went there, thus I know that they are your images. Still, I am sure I would recognize your style even if I did not know it. It's just that characteristic.

In my own pictures I invest a lot of effort in corner treatment. I like it to have lines run into corners, and if I don't get it in-camera, I skew, rotate and crop until they do anyway. It feels right and balanced for me, call it an obsession.

Like so many other picture makers you have no obvious obsession about corners, and still they get a characteristic treatment, because corners are the most prominent part of a frame and in all your images the grid defined by frame AND leading lines is in perfect and characteristically recognizable balance.

Another characteristic of your images is your way of cutting curves. I mostly like them to touch the frame, you cut them in a very dynamic and entirely characteristic way. Take any decay image and look at the plates.

In other words, you have a very characteristic and distinct visual language, we can call it a style if you like, more strict than most photographers that I know, and what you select to be in your frame (and how) seems very, very strongly determined by it, so much so, that I'd readily call it a set of overriding principles. At least you rarely publish anything that goes outside those principles. In the rare cases you do so, it seems to be some curiosity like the Einstein figurine, something you just plainly want to show for its humorous aspect, not something that you recognize as your art, not something that you would print and hang on a wall.

Well, this is all deduction from seeing your images, it is in my own terms and I don't want to suggest that it describes your process of picturing in any way that you would even recognize as your own. Fact is, you're recognizable. Call it a style, call it a sauce, call it whatever you like, the result is just the same and the pictured reality has little say in how it ends up in your images.

April 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndreas Manessinger

Because of our parents, our schooling and our experiences we learn to behave in "correct ways". We weren't born with these pre-conceptions, rather we were taught them, but we find it SO difficult to break out from them. Our adoption of the rules of photography (which include composition) is a result of the same sort of process. I'm reminded of the the teacher that tells his young daughter that he is off to teach some adults how to paint and she says "why, have they forgotten?"

About four years ago I made it my goal to win a gold medal in the British master's national cycling championships. I'd already got all the gear, training knowledge, physical ability and competitive experience but in order to be the best, something was missing. I decided that I needed to train my mind and to free myself of emotional baggage that started very early on with my parents. It was a very difficult thing to do, but I strongly believe that I succeeded in re-wiring my thought patterns and in learning new behavioral patterns that now serve me well in other aspects of my life, especially my photography (I retired from competitive cycling after I won my gold medal). Using my experiences, I've realized that my own photographic goals cannot be won by spending money, devouring books about rules or worrying whether anyone else likes/understands my work. What is important, is to be able to free my mind from all of that stuff, to be able to easily enter a meditative state where I can engage in making images. Whilst I'm doing this, it's like I'm in my own personal control room where nothing else matters, exists or distracts, certainly nothing about being "a serious amateur". I no longer overtly think about what I'm doing, or concentrate on the technicalities, I just relax into the environment (I would include my post processing activities in this as well). I'd say that I find what I do today photographically speaking, is far more true TO ME than anything I ever did before, and I believe that my own personal "thing" has emerged that has not had to be "forced out" or constructed. I think that you probably understand this process very well and I think it's ALL about the "experience of standing there" as per the Shore quote. So much so, that it's become a very prominent thread running through my mind for the last year or two, but it is a skill and state of mind that has to be learnt and practiced too.

Regarding your comments about blogs, I'd be being untruthful if I said that mine wasn't a picture gallery because of course it is. Some time ago I took the decision to steer away from writing about gear and suchlike even though I knew I'd automatically exclude visitors as a result. My work is there because it's what I do, I'm glad that I'm able to do it and I'm on a journey that I want to share in a public arena. I don't have your background in photographic art, or your knowledge of other artists and suchlike. Neither do I have your confident opinions about certain subjects. In fact, I find some of the things you write quite challenging, but even though I might possibly disagree on some level you usually make me think and in turn you will have influenced me in some way or another. I feel you should know this because I suspect that there are probably others amongst your followers in the same boat. Not everyone can debate in perhaps the way you would like them to, not everyone is as far along their own photographic journey as you are on yours. Sometimes your thoughts can be written in a somewhat intimidating manner. Also, bloggers tend to like to have reciprocal feedback too, it's an intrinsic part of keeping the blogging wheel on the turn. But as I've written before, I really like your work and I've learnt to understand the way you express your thoughts too. I've even tried to cure myself of you couple of times but I couldn't stay away so now I've just given in! :)

(written because I'm thankful that over the last three years you have made a positive impact on my photographic efforts)

April 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColin Griffiths

OK. Here is my feed back, I think that you are a very interesting and provocative writer, which is why I keep coming back here. I cannot say the same for your pictures.

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

I certainly appreciate and have been informed by your writing + pictures on the "medium and its apparatus", as you refer to it.

I'm instinctively a member of the "Realist" school of photography, so it's been very helpful to have some-one explain - in pictures and words - exactly what school I've fallen into!

As for comments, are you looking for a robust debate on your views? To me, the appeal of your blog is that fact that it's not about passing fancy ... it's a gradual dissertation on the Meaning & Experience of Photography (Mark Hobson Division). You're way down the track on this topic, compared to me.

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSven W

This post reminded me of a passage from Robert Adams's "Beauty in Photography":

"To remind ourselves of the significance of grace in photography--of the importance of seeming to do the job easily--we need only to examine a copy of a mass circulation photography magazine. Most of the pictures suggest embarrassing strain: odd angles, extreme lenses and eccentric darkroom techniques reveal a struggle to substitute shock and technology for sight. How many photographers of importance, after all, have relied on long telephoto lenses? Instead their work is usually marked by an economy of means, an apparently everyday sort of relationship with their subject matter.

"Why do most great pictures look uncontrived? Why do photographers bother with the deception, especially since it so often requires the hardest work of all? The answer is, I think, that the deception is necessary if the goal of art is to be reached: only pictures that look as if they had been easily made can convincingly suggest that Beauty is commonplace."

And that was in 1981. Photoshop has introduced a whole new universe of strain. Long telephoto lenses hardly register on the strain-o-meter any more.

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJames.M

I generally agree with the comments above, that your writing is always of interest and valuable, that I have learned much from you, and that I do not always agree with everything you say but like being challenged by your thoughts.

I think the fact that your loyal readers take the time to visit and read your posts is the best measure of the value of The Landscapist. Although many of us do not have insightful thoughts to share, it does not mean we are not listening. Maybe that is unfair to you... I am sure the time and effort you put into this blog is significant. I sometimes wonder why you do it because the payoff is not obvious... but I am grateful.

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Linn

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