Break the rules

I was planning to write a post this week about minimalism in photography, as it is an area I have become interested in exploring recently, but then I read this post, Ten Commandments Of Composition, and it slightly alarmed me. See, I’m used to hearing all about the rules of composition, but to read that we have now graduated to the Ten Commandments? Well, that’s quite prescriptive isn’t it? So, I wondered, what is as important to photographic composition as the sixth commandment, thou shall not kill, is to Christianity? Well, it’s to ‘eliminate junk’: well, the two concepts are linked by a focus on elimination I suppose!

As you might be able to tell, I am being slightly fatuous, as I am sure Jack Graham, an excellent nature and landscape photographer, was when he wrote the initial post, but it really made me think about where photography is in its development as an art form. And it made me think about the importance of breaking the rules.

Sometimes ignoring the usual insitnct to place points of interest on thirds can help to create an almost abstract composition with more power, as with this shot of New York’s skyline.

Anyone who has read anything about photography has probably heard about the holy trinity of composition (now I’m pulling in the religious imagery!): the rule of thirds, foreground interest and leading lines. Of course there are many others too – you can read Jack’s summation for as good a list of them as I’ve seen at the link above, or check out David Fleet’s blog post here on taking photos with impact.

My issue isn’t with the idea of good composition, of course that is utterly vital. My problem is with having rules in art. I see the surfeit of blogs discussing composition as evidence of the essential problem at the heart of photography – how can it be taken more seriously as an art form? I don’t think thousands of photographers following a guidebook full of rigid rules is the answer…

Consider this image: Moonrise, Hernandez Mexico. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s by Ansel Adams, and is widely considered a masterpiece, a view with which I wholeheartedly agree. Despite its brilliance, I don’t think the image actually follows any of the top three composition rules: ok, so the horizon is on a third, but if all you thought about was following rules, you might cut out the vast expanse of blank sky. The foreground is empty, and it lacks lines to lead the eye through the image. And yet, and yet. And yet, none of that matters. It is wonderful.

For two hundred years, painting as an art form was gripped by the mechanistic following of rules of composition during the period of Mannerism. Then the Pre-Raphaelites (named for their desire to revert to a style of painting that pre-dated Raphael’s influence) emerged and advanced their avant-garde ideas in opposition to the conventional, rigid approach insisted upon by the establishment in the form of the Royal Society in England. It was this development that allowed painting to develop as an art form, and the Pre-Raphaelites’ work greatly influenced later movements like Symbolism and even today’s Stuckist movement.

Not being a portrait photographer, I don’t really have any suitably Pre-Raphaelite shots, but this is another image that ignores some of the usual prescriptions to pack more punch.

The Pre-Raphaelites had such impact not because they utterly abandoned all the principals of composition in their work, but because they knew the rules well enough to know when it is a good idea to ignore them. I think photographers could benefit from the same knowledge. It’s vital to understand composition well, just as it is also vital to sometimes ignore all that you understand and use your instincts – it is the only way your craft will develop itself. After all, if all you do as a photographer is follow the rules, there’s a big risk that your images will become clichés and not challenge your audience’s perception, which is vital to successful art.

Posted in Blog by Nic Stevenson on July 10th, 2011 at 2:31 pm.

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