Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What is composition good for, anyway?

My friend Doug and I have an ongoing conversation about the principles of composition – or “rules” or “commandments”, or “suggestions”, or whatever they are. You can probably intuit already which side of the discussion I am on.
Once upon a time, being the linear-thinking kind of guy I am, I decided that what I needed to improve my photographs was a good introduction to composition. This notion was promoted by what I saw every month at the print competition of the camera club to which I then belonged. Critiques ran heavily to pointing out the presence or absence of crash points, eye magnets, negative and positive space, full stops, leading lines, etc. Since I hadn’t a clue what most of these terms meant it made learning about them sound necessary, even vital.
A quick trip to the library and the used book shop equipped me with a book aimed at beginning drawing students and another one specifically about composing photographs. As I recall, I also rounded up a Photographic Society of America (PSA) booklet about competition guidelines with a good many pronouncements about good composition. After a certain amount of study and considerable flailing about I had two prints ready for the monthly print competition. One was a grab-it-when-you-can street photograph (what I usually do) that I was pretty proud of. The other was carefully composed with all the properties that it needed to be well composed – problem with it, however, was that it was completely and utterly boring. Do you want to guess which one scored well in the critique?
A light bulb came on! The camera club’s competition used composition as a yardstick to evaluate rather than as a vocabulary to describe. However, “good” composition is neither necessary nor sufficient to make a “good” photograph. It is way too easy to come up with counterexamples to believe than the principles of composition make an accurate yardstick.
Expressing that opinion did not get me thrown out of the club as a heretic but it was close. I was already on the suspect list for asking why a “good” photograph always has to have at least some sparkly white and some dead black.
Just for fun I briefly joined a second PSA-oriented camera club and found the same attitude.
Moreover, my newfound knowledge of the principles of composition was not helpful to me in doing the kind of work I wanted to do. In fact, as soon as I started thinking in terms of composition I got fewer negatives that I liked – scary.
OK – So are the principles of composition useful in taking photographs as well as for describing them after the fact? You sometimes hear (often with a bit of a sneer) that there is a difference between taking a photograph and making a photograph – are the principles of composition involved in this difference?
My friend Doug finds the principles of composition to be very useful in his work. He prefers to work with camera on tripod. He usually photographs plants, urban landscape details, and sea/lake shore scenes. His goal is to make the most exquisite image capture he can and then manipulate it very little. He consciously thinks about the principles of composition both before and after he takes a photograph. His work is beautiful with a quiet elegance that mine almost never achieves.
Just last night Doug reminded me that John Paul Caponigro goes so far as to sketch how he intends to compose a photograph before he even gets out his camera.
I find the principles of composition of no use whatever in my work. I never think about composition when I am photographing. Well, that’s not quite true – if time permits I often glance around the edges of the viewfinder to see if a half-step will get rid of a dangling tree branch or disembodied arm. I rarely work with camera on tripod. I usually photograph people – mostly informal portraits and everyday activities. My goal is to get the most interesting negative I can and then do whatever I can to turn it into a print that celebrates the moment. When I am printing I do not consciously think about composition in cropping or manipulating the image.
In our frequent and pleasurable sharing of work-in-progress Doug often uses the vocabulary of composition to describe what is going on in my prints – sometimes just to explain why he thinks a print “works”, sometimes giving me an idea that will improve the next version. When I look at Doug’s prints I often can say “I believe it would work better if ….” To which he may reply “You’re right – if I did that then the (noun from the composition vocabulary) would (verb from the composition vocabulary).
I am coming to believe that his use of composition and mine are somehow analogous to improvising in music. There are amazing improvisers whose skill is built on a thorough theoretical knowledge of music – Dave Brubeck, for instance, studied with composer Darius Milhous before turning to jazz. His improvising is a flood of rhythmically and harmonically complex music akin to J. S. Bach’s legendary keyboard improvisations. There are equally amazing improvisers whose skill is built on, well, listening to and playing a lot of jazz. Charlie Parker’s formal training was, to be charitable, modest. Yet he played long, lyrical, intricately complex lines, often lasting several minutes that have the integrity of well-crafted poetry.
There are photographers like that, too. Sticking to my heroes, the French humanist photographers, consider Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau.
Cartier-Bresson – whose catch phrase “The Decisive Moment.” is more accurately translated as “The moment at which everything comes together.” – had considerable formal training in drawing and painting before taking up photography. His style when photographing hardly allowed for careful consideration of formal composition but he vehemently stated that his intent was not to push the button until everything was in the right place. I didn’t find any counterexamples in a couple of passes through the catalog of his retrospective show. Does that mean that he was spectacularly successful at doing what he intended or does it mean that he edited carefully?
Doisneau, on the other hand, had essentially no formal training in art although he was trained as an engraver and had considerable technical skill at drawing. His style when photographing was considerably less athletic than Cartier-Bresson’s. He stated that Cartier-Bresson was a hunter and he was a fisherman. Many of his photographs also exhibit good formal composition. That said, several of Doisneau’s best (in my opinion) can serve as counterexamples.
Doug photographs based on conscious, careful, study and attention to principles. I photograph based on looking at and taking a lot of photographs. We each can work the way we do party because of what we choose as subject matter – or maybe we each choose our subject matter in response to how we prefer to work. There’s an entirely different can of worms to pry open someday.

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