As I write this I am looking at a photograph that I really like -- taken by a little-known street photographer who is about my age. In it, a buxom young street performer -- acrobat or mime -- is seated on a low "horse", doubtless used in her act, with her right foot extended towards the viewer. She is in dappled shade but her face, turned to her right, is in sunlight. Her left hand holds a long-stemmed flower. She looks relaxed in the spring-loaded manner of a dancer or acrobat and her expression tells me that the sun on her face feels very good. I would guess it to date from the 70s.
The print shows deep, rich blacks in the shadows and the highlight on her upturned face sparkles. Depth of field is shallow -- her outstretched foot is soft and the background is deep into the bokeh.
Coincidentally, I recently read a longish article that examined a group of photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Since HCB was notoriously laconic about his process, the author attempts to verbalize how he used composition to achieve his wonderful photographs. In it, the author calls out five principles:
1. Establishing a strong figure to ground relationship,
2. Finding a likeness in disconnected objects,
3. Shadow play (using shadows as a compositional element),
4. The art of waiting, not hunting,
5. Understanding diagonals.
Some of his examples are a bit strained to my eye but he makes a pretty good case for all but #4 as being accurate descriptors of some strong photographs in that one or more of his principles are present in each one. "The art of waiting, not hunting." doesn't show in the photographs of course. Moreover, HCB was famous for always being in motion when he was photographing. Robert Doisneau was the famous "fisherman".
All of these principles are doubtless good attributes but they are descriptions of strong photographs, not prescriptions for what it takes to make a photograph strong. The same statement holds for the rules of composition -- golden spirals, rule of thirds (that the author of the article decries), and so on.
Just for fun I analyzed the street performer, looking for the attributes listed above and then by popping a jpeg of it into Lightroom and using the composition tool overlays.
Well it certainly has good subject to background relationship. Her dark figure is against a considerably lighter ground and her upturned face is against a conveniently much darker background figure. That's 1 for 4 (I don't count the "waiting" since that doesn't appear in the photograph.) In Lightroom, it is a complete strikeout against the composition tool overlays. Would it be stronger if, for example, her face (an obvious center of interest) were farther to the left to be underneath the golden spiral? I tried it and it didn't do a lot for me.
Analysis is fine. Analysis often gives you information about how something works -- but not much help on why. My formal training is in engineering -- mostly control systems. The same statement applies there. The mathematical methods used to describe the behavior of control systems are analytical tools -- not synthesis tools. Once you figure out how a system might work then you can use them to see if, under sufficient and usually unreasonable assumptions, it behaves satisfactorily. So the control system designer tries things and checks to see if they work. The so-called "direct" methods that do help with design only work for situations so simplified that they aren't difficult anyway. (Keep this in mind the next time you are on an airplane flying at 375 knots over the ocean at 45,000 feet.)
I know that there are photographers whose work I greatly admire that carefully compose their work, even by considering the formal elements of composition (and sometimes adhering to them). That's not what I do. However, I hold that both approaches are the time-honored control systems process of trying things to see if they satisfy the eye -- whether by formal analysis or just saying Arnold Newman-fashion "Well, that works."
And as for the street performer photograph, I still think it is a strong photograph and I like it a lot. In fact, I'm proud of it -- I took it two weeks ago at Seattle's Folklife Festival.