Thursday, 22 August 2013


I came across this video via a comment at The Online Photographer. It started well enough, although the deconstruction of Cartier-Bresson's pictures reinforced my change of appreciation of them. Maybe it's like analysing humour, but the more I look at HCB's famous pictures the more contrived they seem. The same goes for Steve McCurry's work. Compositionally 'stunning', but the technique overwhelms the subject matter. You tend to appreciate the artistry rather than the picture's content and the message is lost.

It's all to simple to make pictures which follow compositional rules, even if you don't do it consciously. The best bit of advice in the video is to squint at a subject. Painters do it all the time and I find myself doing it more and more as I peer through my camera's viewfinder. It makes you look at the picture as a whole.

Deconstructing the picture above it's simple to see the compositional strengths. There's a frame, a dark foreground, rods and horizon on thirds (more or less), rods dark against lighter water, and so forth. None of this was thought through in those terms when I framed the shot, I just moved the camera around until it looked right. While it's pleasing on the eye, I'm not sure quite what the picture is about. To an angler it will mean something different to how a non-angler views it. A caption would also alter it's meaning. I took it because I liked the effect of the light on the trees. It would accompany an article about eel fishing well enough, but as a stand-alone picture it's something and nothing.

Remembering the compositional guidelines outlined in the video will make for good pictures. But they'll be pictures which look safe and familiar. It's no surprise that enquiring photographers choose to try and make pictures in different ways than following formal modes of construction derived from classical, representational, painting. Photography can be about another way of picturing than creating an ideal view of reality. Reality is messy. Photography is a great medium for conveying that.

The Winogrand on the right was criticised in the video for it's lack of formal composition. It seems to me that it is the chaotic nature that makes it interesting. The fact that you have to search for the subject which comes as a surprise. Photographs can have more than one possible subject, all equally stressed.

Photographs which try to be no more than abstract fields of colour usually fail by becoming banal. Photographs need a subject. Or at the very least recognisable objects to be seen. They don't need to be 'perfectly' composed to be successful pictures.

This is my excuse for some of the photographs I've been taking recently. I realised that I had been concentrating too much on the formalities of making 'good photographs' and not enough on the content and meaning.

The ongoing Over The Hedge series is an attempt to break out of the rut. The pictures are about arrangements of shape and colour. The subject, as in what the picture is about, is the whole of the frame rather than just that which stands out visually. I hope the eye roams over the picture rather than concentrating on one element. For all that they might look to have been casually taken they are carefully, or perhaps that should be thoughtfully, composed.

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