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Business / Philosophy of Photography Taking pics is one thing, but understanding why we take them, what they mean, what they are best used for, how they effect our reality -- all of these and more are important issues of the Philosophy of Photography. One of the best authors on the subject is Susan Sontag in her book "On Photography."

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The Dark Art of Composition
Old 11-24-2009   #1
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The Dark Art of Composition

Composition, or I know what I like ...

I find most of the stuff that's about on the web and in books purporting to explain composition in photography a waste of time in practice. When I'm taking photos I've always got too much to think about anyway and adding another set of complexity certainly isn't a priority for me.

However some of the stuff I learned over the years has helped me predict more accurately what other people would like, after the event that is, explain why some images worked and some didn't, and give a little help sometimes when actually taking photos.

This is my own personal hypothesis with some basis in established theory but mainly my own observation and a keen interest in the sales figures at the end of each month (I'm a designer by trade), feel free to challenge anything you don't agree with they are only opinions.

part 1) What's the point

It turns out what I like is what the majority like, it seems odd but we all tend to see things the same way and because of that tendency it is possible to predict what will hold the viewers attention and manipulate it to some extent.

I'm sure everyone has seen this type of simple optical illusion, the lower shape looks longer even when you know full well the lines are the same length







Well it turns out the same thing happens with more complex shapes









The eye and brain persist in completing the missing parts of shapes, and even complete shapes that are outside the frame. This is know as the law of completion in gestalt theory, but itís best thought of as just a tendency for the eye to follow a line even if that line is broken or incomplete, and its that tendency that makes any composition possible, and it happens in the vast majority of people in exactly the same way




to be continued ...
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Old 11-24-2009   #2
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The effect persists even when everything is abstracted, subtle and highly textured, one can’t help but find the some sort of line and the eye can't help but follow it, it would seem





and it's predictable, I would expect this one to be viewed anti-clockwise



all a bit academic, but it shows how quite minor elements in a image can maintain the viewers attention in one area.

I think this is probably why odd frames on a contact sheet or a thumbnail image can stand out so strongly


to be continued
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Old 11-24-2009   #3
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Dear Stewart,

I've always found that one of the great uses of compositional 'theory' is that if you have no other ideas, you can try the 'rules' and when they don't work, as often they don't, you are pushed into seeing something better. Your investigations in this thread may have a similar effect, encouraging people to think about how we see and what we notice. There is (inevitably) a composition module on the site: http://www.rogerandfrances.com/subsc...ition%20i.html

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Old 11-24-2009   #4
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Part 2) The rule of thirds

Very useful as a starting point for creative artists and designers, and handy to know there is lots of articles all over the place. It’s useful simply because it allows one to have some idea which images will engage the viewer and which will not. In the field it can help inform framing and in a studio give a starting point for setting up a shot.

It simply says that if a image is split into thirds vertically and horizontally the centre “third” and it’s four nodes will be of more interest to the viewer; stating the obvious really.

I’ll try and keep this abstract to keep things simple





So in theory any arrangement of elements that approximates to those points, people will tend to be intrested in and keep their attention.



and anything contained within that area will get similar attention.



however anything outside will distract the attention and lead the eye off to the edge of the frame and out of the picture, so it could almost be called the Rule of “Don’t Put Stuff Close to the Edges” from a practical POV



(just out of interest; if one watches someone looking through artworks the amount of time they devote to each image varies enormously, and it tends to be the same ones that get the most attention whoever is viewing)
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Old 11-24-2009   #5
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So (again in theory) this should look clunky and take the eye out of the frame;



and this one should tend to keep it in



you may need to switch to a darker theme to see the edge of the frames clearly


to be con...
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Old 11-24-2009   #6
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the effect is also maintained with tones of light and dark and amorphous figures.




and when the ground is replaced by the figure, that's another of the gestalt laws; Figure/Ground Relationships

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Old 11-24-2009   #7
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Now all this seems pointlessly esoteric until one starts noticing how the rule fits over and over on so many of the classic images, and that shot of some bland desert shot through a broken window that caught and held ones attention longer than it warranted has an explanation of sorts.

To get an idea try photographing the view from your window, then step back into the room until the window frame sits on the third lines and take a second shot, then show them round and see which gets the most attention


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Old 11-24-2009   #8
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Very interesting, Stewart. Perhaps I'm getting ahead of the curricula for this class, but I've also noticed strong visual attractions to shapes and lines that intersect with the edge of the frame, to the extent that I'll often compose just for this effect in-camera, as a method of balancing the composition.

I also think the rule of thirds is more about avoiding the rule of halves (that is, the rule of thirds is not mathematical; it works just as well if the object is placed, say, 2/5ths from the edge, rather than exactly 1/3rd).

I think too that there's a bit of old Heisenberg at work here, culturally. As our culture becomes more and more visually literate, and images proliferate exponentially throughout media, we become culturally self-aware that certain exceptions to these generally assumed rules can also work. Hence I've seen more and more square-format images that seem to violate the rule of halves, having a strong visual dividing line straight down the middle (either horizontally or vertically) and yet the image still "works" because we are getting more and more used to seeing images that violate the rules. Hence our visual language, just like our oral language, is in constant flux and evolution.

Great thread, hope to see more.

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Old 11-24-2009   #9
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3) Significant Horizontals

I've been plagued by horizontals all the time I've been taking photos, as an artist or designer it isn't a problem, one simply doesn't include them. Unfortunately the real world is full of unreasonable horizons, walls, buildings roadways and the like, all waiting to drag ones eyes off to the edge of the frame. I've taken lots like this, I got the curved fence line and the dark line of the wall to pull the eye right to the middle of the frame ... only to have it run off to the left or right along the horizon line







any horizontal feature in the centre tends to bounce the eye from left to right, and stops it exploring round the rest of the frame



however, if one moves it down the scene the eye will explore the larger space and give more attention to the sky



moved up the opposite happens

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Old 11-24-2009   #10
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So knowing what you want to say can effect framing, or cropping if one gets it wrong, and produce quite different results with fairly minor changes in framing, allowing one to control what the viewer will find most interesting in the print











the same effect seems not to occur vertically to the same extent



A similar feature vertically while looking quirky doesn’t stop the eye exploring both sides of the image.


to be continued
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Old 11-24-2009   #11
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Very good, keep it coming!

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Old 11-24-2009   #12
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4) Patterns (the Gestalt principles of Proximity, Similarity, Continuation and Common Fate all rolled together)

Or the rule of "any group of three or more similar objects in the same place is worth blowing a few frames on"

Humans love to find symmetry and patterns, the brain will organise them be attracted by them gets satisfaction looking at them, from ancient Greeks organising stars into groups to William Morris wallpaper still selling well in B&Q after more than a century we love patterns it seems.

Now; pattern, and 2D surface design is my specialist field; but I'll spare you that, so;

Any objects in a regular repeat will form a strong visual bond, this pattern is so strong if one relaxes the eyes a little a set of phantom tiles are visible as the brain tries to see a check rather than a straight repeat, of little use but demonstrates how strong the effect can be.



Any deviation in either repeat



or form is also immediately seized on by the eye as being more significant

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Old 11-24-2009   #13
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Even with large sections removed, it retains its integrity as a single unit, in fact



If it is distorted the brain would rather add in another dimension, depth, than not see the regularity



even when that distortion isn't the normal perspectives projection




the effect starts with as few as three objects



and most of the effects still work



the practical upshot of all this bunk is that anywhere where there are patterns or repetition, from aqueducts on the outskirts of Rome to a picket fence round ones garden is worth a second look because there is always an audience ready to be tricked into thinking you’re good when it is in fact just their perception that’s bloody clever.
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Old 11-24-2009   #14
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Best thread on RFF since I joined...I'm glad to get a refresher course in composition (even though being a graphic designer too I should know these things) and now I know why I always have either huge amount of sky or ground in my 6x6 shots...

more to come?
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Old 11-24-2009   #15
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Coming soon; I canít believe itís not Bokeh;
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Old 11-24-2009   #16
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A couple of related topics

The eastern aesthetic

In the east the aesthetic ideal has a much more ancient tradition , going back in Japan over a thousand years as opposed to the few hundred here since the renaissance. While I know a lot of it having had a keen interest in both woodcuts and bonsai for many years a lot of the concepts are as much spiritual as visual so not as useful in this context, I don’t pretend to have any deep understanding but one thing seems to hold up to inspection.

The Japanese aesthetic ideal or Iki, has a concept of Fukinsei and is like beauty through irregularity or asymmetry, a bit like those paintings of blossom or bamboo one sees and one way this manifests itself in all their visual arts is by an aversion to even numbers, 2 is tolerated but one will more likely find 1 3 5 7 or 9 trunks in bonsai, or stones in suiseki, and stems in Ikebana. (lots of pretentious Japanese words there and not a bokeh in sight).

I find I share the odd number aesthetic but I’m unsure now if I’ve learned it or if it’s actually a human trait and is a widespread shared value. There certainly is a beauty through asymmetry that the western philosophy doesn’t explain properly for me
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Old 11-24-2009   #17
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The modern western tradition has it's roots in Greco-Roman classicism rediscovered in the renaissance where it was controlled by the church and codified by the Victorians who removed any remaining sensuality that the Greeks admired so much. So in contrast the western aesthetic only becoming decimated generally about 150 years ago by a few seminal works like Racinet`s "designs from historic ornament" or whatever that is in French, and only really became generally available to even to the middle-class at the start of the 20th century and the beginnings of industrial design.

The Greeks being big on maths and geometry passed their tastes to the giants of the Renaissance who imposed a bunch of rules on it, then the Vatican removed the sensuality and passed it to the Victorian Arts and Crafts chaps who took out any remaining knob jokes and cast it in iron.

Since then, in the west, there has been some artistic backlash in the 20th century but still the ascetics of the west remains a concern for the middle and upper class, the common man is still happy with William Morris pastiche and Laura Ashley, nothing like the Shinto aesthetic rooted in the common place taste of the common man, that applies as easily to a work of art as to the artist who made it and which was for centuries a movement of the masses.

which brings me to the Golden Ratio ...
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Old 11-24-2009   #18
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But, rules are the antithesis to creativity!
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Old 11-24-2009   #19
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As an aside;

I have a friend in Corfu who has a "comfortably appointed" home and contemporary Ionian taste is like super-bling popped in a cut-crystal case and sat on a lace doyley. One can trace that stylistic tendency back through Byzantium and Rome almost 2/3rds of the way to Hellenic times.

I think it's reasonable to assume the Classical Greek on the 49 omnibus shared that "bling" type of taste, not the acres of pristine white marble one sees in the national gallery but his culture would however have been more earthy, there are an awful lot of art containing ladies with there bits out and Greeks with large fallacies that the Victorians either didn't loot or hid when they came back from the grand tour.
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Old 11-24-2009   #20
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Quote:
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But, rules are the antithesis to creativity!
Really ... I must have missed that class; sorry
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Old 11-24-2009   #21
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Quote:
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As an aside;

I have a friend in Corfu who has a "comfortably appointed" home and contemporary Ionian taste is like super-bling popped in a cut-crystal case and sat on a lace doyley. One can trace that stylistic tendency back through Byzantium and Rome almost 2/3rds of the way to Hellenic times.

I think it's reasonable to assume the Classical Greek on the 49 omnibus shared that "bling" type of taste, not the acres of pristine white marble one sees in the national gallery but his culture would however have been more earthy, there are an awful lot of art containing ladies with there bits out and Greeke with large fallacies that the Victorians either didn't loot or hid when they came back from the grand tour.
Not only that, but an awful lot of that marble was originally gilded in all sorts of garish ways.
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Old 11-24-2009   #22
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I also think the rule of thirds is more about avoiding the rule of halves (that is, the rule of thirds is not mathematical; it works just as well if the object is placed, say, 2/5ths from the edge, rather than exactly 1/3rd).
2/5th, 1/5th, 2/5ths is closer to the golden ratio than the rule of thirds; which is why it works better, classically speaking

Good thread, Stewart.

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Old 11-24-2009   #23
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Quote:
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Not only that, but an awful lot of that marble was originally gilded in all sorts of garish ways.
Yes, although the Elgin marbles (the stones from the parthenon's tympanum) have apparently not been decorated.

it was the temple on Delos that made me realise we didn't get the whole story at school
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Old 11-24-2009   #24
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The Golden Ratio


Pythagoras and the first irrational constant

The Greeks liked order and whole numbers so they must have been v pissed-off when Pythagoras came up with the √2 as 1:1.414. However, they became stuck with it because it proved so useful when building temples, and anyway it was good practice for pi and phi that were coming along later to shake the foundations of their universe some more.

The interesting thing from an artists point of view isn't the triangle but the rectangle, the A4 rectangle's proportions at 210x297mm for instance is unique in that its aspect ratio remains constant when it is multiplied or divided by 2, we’re so familiar with A size paper we take it for granted, but I still think it has real elegance.


The Golden Ratio, Phi

Golden Mean or Section, is all over the net and is 1:1.618 and is a sure fire cure for insomnia, it fits many and is the bases for a lot of western aesthetics, worth a quick look on Google, where you will find it used to delineate the proportions of both art and nature.

This is the type of thing it will do, and the western taste has been fitted to this proportion so long now it’s difficult to tell weather ones response to it is real or simply a cultural convention.



and it helps demystify how a certain Frenchman knew where to point his Brownie on some occasions

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Old 11-24-2009   #25
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So, anyway, by the time photography was filtering down to us plebs in the 20’s and 30’s there wasn’t a unified human aesthetic concept. humanity was split between a well developed, if constrained by tradition, spiritual eastern view and a western rational view, that was further divided by class. That whole artistic sensibility then sat on top of some hard wired human visual perception of the Gestalt philosophy.

By the early 20th century a perfect storm was coming together, small portable cameras were in the hands of the middle classes and trickling downwards (my granddads camera, the first in our family, dates to 1932). There was a huge demand for mass-circulation publications, great and terrible events were afoot in Europe and Pathe Newsreels along with Albert Kahn’s Autochromes had given the common man a taste for photography. Up to that point, in common with all new media, the driving force in photography had been the “French postcard” type pornography.

Now this part may be a wee bit contentious; but we'll see. At the same time this was happening, bearing in mind this is the pre-TV era, the western artistic elite had it’s pants round it’s ankles and was staring resolutely into the navel of cubism, surrealism and any other ism that passed the time of day, and ignoring photography as anything like a form of legitimate art. The art of the day needed a degree to come anywhere near appreciating it and so left a huge vacuum in western culture just begging to be filled.


So it was on to an empty stage that Cartier-Bresson, Capa at al wandered on to in the 1930s.
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Old 11-24-2009   #26
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Wow! All these illusions are making me dizzy! But here's my two cents, pence, centimes or whatever...

I taught an advanced workshop in 35mm for several years at a well known art school, and my advice was that rules are to be bent, broken, tortured or ignored -- ONCE one has a well-grounded feel for what works or what doesn't.

How do you get there? Start by exposing your mind's eye to as many diifferent images by as many different photographers, painters and sculptors as is humanly possible. Look at books and go to museums and galleries.

Once one develops a visual vocabulary, THEN it becomes possible to compose and shoot intuitively, with the full knowledge that the image will be successfully interpreted and appreciated regardless of subject matter.

Just as our voca-bulary grows with time and external stimuli, so also grows our "visa-bulary." So never stop viewing or shooting.
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Old 11-24-2009   #27
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Please understand, these are rules of perception and aesthetics they have absolutely nothing to do with creativity.

One observation; I notice people who advise "breaking the rules" at the first opportunity seldom understand them, or take the trouble to learn them
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Old 11-24-2009   #28
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So it was on to an empty stage that Cartier-Bresson, Capa at al wandered on to in the 1930s.

Over the previous few decades pornography, being in the vanguard, had formed a vernacular visual idiom (sorry about the jargon, by that I mean by that a convention, a common way of looking at and understanding an image) porn from the start of the 20th century was based on Victorian classicism, so was almost free of the erotic to our trained eyes.



by the 20's the photographers had learned how to portray, and we, both male and female, had learned how to interpret an erotic photo, and a visual idiom was solidifying to that style which will forever say "dirty photo" to the vast majority of people.



It's difficult to believe those photos are probably only about 20 years apart, (somebody has to study this stuff you'll understand)

There was a similar idiom beginning to develop with travel/exotic photography, however National Geographic only abandoned plate cameras in the 30's iirc, so it was very much in its infancy.



Photographing the realities of conflict and warfare on the other hand had proved for the most part beyond the state of the art during the Great war so the canvas was, if not blank only sketched in a bit, in 1930(ish) Cartier-Bresson walked onto a empty stage and found a blank canvas; fortunately he was French and missed the mixed metaphor completely



to be continued ...
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Old 11-24-2009   #29
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Old 11-24-2009   #30
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This is great Stewart! Thanks and please do continue...
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Old 11-24-2009   #31
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Love this stuff, keep it coming!
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Old 11-24-2009   #32
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This is great Stewart! Thanks and please do continue...
thanks, yes I will ... just holding Mick's coat at the moment
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Old 11-24-2009   #33
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I agree this thread is very informative and welcome.

I don't buy the definition of "Eastern art" as exclusively Japanese or somehow qualitatively different than any other regional aesthetic. Indeed, one may argue that Japanese traditional art is what it is because of a willing isolation and ignorance of the greater world. Less the result of a refined technique than an ignorance of what anyone else was doing.

I am lucky to live in a city (Minneapolis) that has a wonderful art culture of it's own, and a superlative art institute with an incredibly broad and deep collection from all over the world. The superlative use of light in 16th century portraits is something I don't see in any other tradition, and not bested since. I fail to see how that is a product of stifling "Church control." As an aside, if one performed a survey of Catholic art over the millenia, one would find an amazing range or styles, aesthetics, and sensibilities. The idea that European artistic styles or traditions have been stifled by a conservative authority is ill-informed, IMHO

I could go on and on, but I won't

On the topic of rules, I feel that those who feel restricted by them are trapping themselves. There is an infinite variety within structure, and knowing what works and what doesn't is better than randomly stabbing in the dark hoping for something pleasant. At least IMHO.
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Old 11-24-2009   #34
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The Japanese tradition is the all i have, even slight, knowledge of, I did put a caveat on that bit ... I don't understand it I agree

Yes I agree about the churches role in the early part of the renaissance, I could elaborate at length but I was trying to keep everybody else awake to the end, it was the subversion of Greek art I was trying to illustrate
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Old 11-24-2009   #35
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I'm also enjoying the presentation, Stewart.
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Old 11-24-2009   #36
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So while Adolf was still deciding if his bum looked too big in jodhpurs, and planed a Greek holiday with Benieto, Capa and co were in Spain covered in dust and smelling of cordite. Cartier-Bresson was forsaking surrealism, wandering round Europe with his box brownie developing an interest in photos of young boys. They and the then small fledgling band of “miniature” photographers had no idea they were witness to events at the start of a decade stuffed so full of events they must have been dizzy by the end of the war.

As the world slid into chaos magazines and newspapers desperate for pictures and a public that had not had a popular graphic art-form for a generation sucked in these new photojournalists’ product, and eagerly learned it’s new idioms, history too gave them a break with event after event to go photograph and a fast developing technology to photograph it with. They were, in short, among the luckiest buggers on the face of the planet by a mile

Now, this I believe is the important bit, these chaps were not the masters of this art, there simply was no art to be master of in 1930, they took pictures and over the course of the next few years, and they in conjunction with the developing perceptions of the common people created this vernacular graphic idiom we take for granted. The building blocks of photography were formed by the skill set of that group and the circumstance they were in, almost every photographic genera that has followed is indebted to it in some way.

more later
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Old 11-24-2009   #37
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i'm also reading with interest and appreciating. thanks stewart. nothing new for me, but i like the way this is so clearly presented.
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Old 11-24-2009   #38
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as an aside

Interestingly, pornography alone has retained its' 1930's vernacular.. porn crystallised before the general perception did, so its' idioms are quite different



not that I would advocate viewing pornography
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Old 11-24-2009   #39
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Great subject, and made simple by your first statement "or I know what I like". I've found that people either have a native way of composing, or they don't. A lot of it can be taught, and the rules are the rules because they do work. Even Kandinsky had to make sure his composition was right. Abstract art lives by the same compositional rules as representational art. But someone that can intuitively nail the composition can break all the rules and have it all work out tightly. For sure the Asians have a different sense of composition, and it took me a while to get it down. More of a negative space thing.

You can learn a lot by painting and drawing, then carry that over to photography. Unfortunately, as most of may have noticed, it isn't always possible to move that hillside out of the way or get rid of that ugly old building that is ruining your shot. Photoshop has helped us a lot by giving us a way to straighten horizon lines that droop to one side or the other. The clone tool alone is worth the price of the software. Now that I print optically it's really slowed me down as I have to make sure I have the horizon straight and the camera isn't tilted up or down.

One thing painters such as myself have a problem w/ in photography is the way a photo has a completely different depth of field. Using a tele lens can really scrunch things up compositionally. Photos tend to flatten everything out. So when composing your shot you have to remember that what you see in the ground glass or the viewfinder isn't going to look quite like that once it's printed. This is a science/art that everyone, including me, needs to work on, and if you shoot color, things become even more complicated. But it's something that you just work at over and over until you don't have to think about it.

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Old 11-24-2009   #40
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If the image is dynamic, eye grabbing enough, nobody is going to pay any attention to the mathamatical niceties. I think that the rule is all too often used as a crutch "Oh, look at my great photograph. It's divided exactly into thirds!"

If you are going to obsess with composition over content, the precise placement of light and dark masses, the location of peoples' heads, etc., put your Leica aside, dig out the 8x10 camera, a big tripod, and do it right. There's no way you can shoot to compositional perfection unless you control the subjects and lighting 100%. That's not Leica territory.
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