I think photography is probably the most misunderstood and least apricated of all art forms. After all, how hard can it be to snap a picture and post it on a social media site and have one’s skill validated by some thumbs up from a bunch of people we barely know. Granted, most of what is posted on Facebook or Instagram is rarely worth any serious attention but when work shows up that deserves better, it is all too often rewarded with nothing more than a cursory glance and some meaningless emojis. As if a thumbs up can really explain how we feel about something – in Roman times it at least meant you got to live and fight another day.
I for one would like to try and change that and see if I can bring some sanity back by offering a large free print to two people that will take the time and engage in the process of looking at and writing a response to the work I post. Every week, for the next year, I commit to post a new image and one week later pick the best two responses and send them a 16 x 24-inch print free of charge.
The rules are simple:
1) I will post a new image every Sunday and give you a week to respond.
2) Likes, and responses along the lines of “I love this image” don’t count. I am looking for you to engage with the work. Give me a written response which can either be a critique, your feelings about it, or a story about what and why you will do with the work if I send you a print.
3) Every Sunday I will pick the two best responses and update the post with my choice.
As I briefly alluded to in my introduction to composition, the fundamental pieces of visual composition are about how an artist goes about organizing the elements of design into a unified whole. In other words, how an artist goes about creating unity from the fundamental building blocks to express his or her intent, called vision by some, is what the principles of design are all about. I’ve decided to deal with the principles of design before tackling the constituent parts like form, space, line texture, and so on simply because I will frequently need to refer to these principles as part of an explanation of the individual elements.
With that said, let’s jump in and start with the organizing principle of Repetition. Repetition is the idea that some underlying design element like a line or a form is repeated in some way throughout the image. Repeating elements give the viewer something to follow – it’s a way to recognize that one element is like another. Using repeating elements can be both liberating and constrictive at the same time as it imposes a form while also offering the photographer the freedom to introduce elements that break the repetition – thus making the repetition even more profound. Photographer Jay Maisel refers to this as the “Tear in the Fabric.”
This image of the railway tracks is all about repetition. The ties repeat and move us up through the image in increments – one tie at a time. The rails run perpendicular to the ties and likewise make us move up the image. The spikes are repeated and create a string of pearls moving us along as well. And, the perpendicular ties on the edges with the repeating lag bolts frame all the repetitions and produce a leading line up through the image. One of the more subtle repetitions are the three safety platforms further up the image. Not only do these repeat, but they are asymmetrically placed and, therefore, also help to break up the repetition in some minor way.
While repetitions do not have to be symmetrical to be enjoyed, using symmetrical repetitions typically requires less involvement of the viewer and will, therefore, be discovered more quickly by more people.
This image from the Bellacenter in Copenhagen is quite repetitive but much less symmetrical. If you look hard enough, you will begin to discover the symmetry embedded in the repetitions. Emphasizing the point about the “Tear in the Fabric,” The open window on the right side serves to break up the repetitive nature of the image by introducing a bit of humour. Rather than being a distraction, it makes us wonder how the break plays into the repetitive image.
The other thing that frequently happens in repetitive images is that the viewers will unconsciously start grouping the repetitions into separate parts. For example, the bricks in this image consist of three separate types of repetitions, which can easily be grouped for added meaning. Again, to distract the viewer and cause them to pause in the exploration of the image, and to make it more interesting, I framed it in such a way to put the butterfly in one corner as a way to counterbalance an otherwise pretty boring image. The bricks by themselves are not the interesting part. Rather, it is the play between the repetitious wall and a very recognizable shape – more about recognizable shapes in another blog.
In closing, Pure repetition, for the sake of repetitions, can be an effective way to get a message across in an image. However, I think you will find that introducing some subtle tear in the fabric will frequently make the composition much stronger as it creates a focal point, which both holds people’s attention while providing a break from the repetition – which can further strengthen it.
Talking about composition in photography without talking about the Elements and Principles of Design is like talking about breadmaking without discussing the ingredients that make up the dough – it limits the conversation to generalities and personal preferences.
So, what are the ingredients of composition I am talking about?
First, at the most basic level, we have the elements of design, which are your building blocks – you can think of them as the fundamental design blocks used to create a work of art. They are the simple and familiar terms from the everyday language used to describe elements such as (Shape, Space, Line, Texture, Light, and Colour.) When used to describe art, these elements often take on an expanded meaning beyond everyday usage.
Second, the principles of design. These are the how-tos on the organization of a piece of work. The aesthetic considerations for the general ways of organizing a work using (Repetition, Variety, Rhythm, Balance, Emphasis, Economy, and Proportion.)
Composition then is about how we use the Principles of Design to organize the Elements to best express the intent of our vision.
I am a strong believer in using a technical language correctly to describe better what we see. Not only does it allow us to discuss what we see in an image more accurately, it also helps us pinpoint specific techniques which in turn allows us to focus more deeply on the details that matter.
During the next few months, I am going to go take a closer look at the individual Principles and Elements of Design and discuss what they are and how we can make use of them to create stronger and more meaningful photographs.
Not to sound like an old out of touch fart, but more and more I think social media is having a devastating effect on the things that are important to living a meaningful life. Many people are becoming increasingly addicted to the trivia and deceptions served up in boatloads by these false gods.
The speed with which social media moves makes it impossible to dedicate any amount of time and effort to something serious. Our aspirations have become about how to best portray an idealized version of our life to others in the shortest amount of time. We are in a constant battle of deceit trying to convince both ourselves and others about how meaningful our lives are when the reality amounts to little more than creating meaningless selfies or posting outrageous statements on Facebook or Twitter.
Viktor Frankl is quoted as saying “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” In our relentless pursuit of faster and shallower bits of trivia, I fear we are missing out on the very core of humanity which ought to be about personal growth through a life of meaning. Pablo Picasso said “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” He was right in two ways. First, life is about meaning and not happiness. Meaning will sustain you through hard times whereas happiness will suffer on your first encounter with an unhappy moment. Second, giving away the fruits of your labor is one of the most rewarding things we can do not only because it validates what we do but also because for most people it is more satisfying to give than to receive. But, if your time is mostly spent looking at, and possibly becoming envious of, the unrealistic lifestyle portrayed by your social media “friends,” you will have little time and energy left for personal growth through the cultivation of a rich and meaningful life.
I for one am fed up with this ugly trend and although I am unlikely to affect changes on a scale necessary to create lasting meaningful changes to all of humanity I can at least do something for a close circle of friends – and hope the effort will not go unnoticed. As part of a year-long project, I am going to, every week print and mail, using the regular postal service, one of my photographs to seven people around the world. I do this, not only to reach out, and connect in a way which is both more personal and meaningful but also in the hope, they, in turn, will do something similar to their friends.
Winston Churchill once said “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” I could not agree more, and I undertake this project fully aware that for many people who receive one of my limited print photographs that will be the end of it. However, I also know that I will derive much joy from giving these works away without any strings attached. I do not want people to feel obligated to return the favor in any way whatsoever – I truly expect nothing in return.
If you would like to see the images I am sending each week you can follow the project in this gallery
Also, if you can think of someone who you would like me to send a photo to, even yourself if you have not received one yet. Go to my contact page and send me a message with the name and postal address of the person you would like me to send a photo to. You can find my contact page here Refer a Friend
Not quite sure how I think about photo competitions in general. After all, someone, whose work you might not know, or even respect, is going to assign a numerical score to what you consider aesthetically pleasing. Take for example one of the judges in the latest round of photo competitions at the Exhibition in Saskatoon who could not get over images mounted on neutral white foam core forming a border around the picture – the judge did not like it. It Seems like a pretty odd thing to get worked up about especially considering the rules which left very little leeway when it comes to presentation – but I digress. What I really wanted to talk about is how I think the Saskatchewan Art Showcase could be so much better for everyone if the groups more accurately represented the quality of the work submitted.
This year my wife, Ileana, entered into the first time amateur group and came away with a third prize. She also entered into other groups and had a few honorable mentions, so that was all well and good. What concerned me was her comment that had she known she would be competing against people who regularly produce work beyond what many professional photographers are capable of she would not have entered the competition. It seems skewed and feels almost as crazy as putting Usain Bolt in with a bunch of 5th graders for the 100m dash – hardly a fair match.
The driver for this inequity is, of course, the term amateur which we somehow equate with a level of knowledge and quality below what we think of when we imagine a professional photographer. Not surprising, according to Merriam-Webster the two definitions for amateur are: Amateur, one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession. She played soccer as an amateur before turning professional OR One lacking in experience and competence in art or science. The people running that company are a bunch of amateurs. In the first case, we associate level of skill and knowledge with the ability to make money from the endeavor. I.e the implication is that one is good enough to make money from it. And, in the second case clearly, there is an implied lack of skill. The problem is that photography is fundamentally different. I agree, there is skill involved and it takes years of constant attention and honing and many other factors to consistently produce high-quality work.
However, and I am going to get some flack for saying this, being a professional photographer is not a real strong indicator of the quality of the art produced. Yes, a professional photographer will, or at least should, have impeccable technical skills, and there will be little to fault in his/her work when it comes to the technical stuff. But, ultimately we are talking about creating art, and a solid memorable photograph is made up of much more than attention to the mechanical aspects. A good shot, like any good art, ideally should leave you speechless and hopefully question your very existence. In fact, if you check out the 100 most powerful shots of all times many of them are candid captures shot by amateurs and professionals alike. My point is that we need to think of a different way to categorize people submitting work for competitions in general and the Saskatchewan Art Showcase specifically.
By making the groups more equal regarding the quality of work we make the process less intimidating for people with lower skills as they will compete on a more equal footing. At the same time by putting high-quality work into a separate category, we would also make it better for stronger photographers as those people would face stiffer competition from their peers and should ideally, therefore, produce more powerful work. Personally, I would much rather place lower in a harder competition than score first in a category where I did not have to do my best – the Usain Bolt principle. So what might this look like? How would we go about grouping people into something more fair?