Emptiness and Essence

During a recent visit to Tuscany to focus on landscape photography I found myself captivated by the land itself. The initial attraction for me in coming here were the trees and they didn’t disappoint in any way. I created some of my favourite photographs on this trip and most of them feature the cypress trees of Tuscany. In autumn though, after the crops have been harvested, the land has visibly almost fluid-like characteristics.

There are rolls and waves, curves and lines, all blending together in harmonious ways. This land could be an alien world. So in addition to photographing compositions of trees and land, I also photographed simply the land itself. I didn’t think about it too much at the time, and I expected that these photographs might be uninteresting and bland. Lifeless.

 Essence I

Essence I


After spending some time with the photographs though I started to realise some things.

Firstly, even though these photographs didn’t have a clear arrangement of things (no foreground, mid-ground and background - there was only background) I felt they had presence and they communicated something. In a sense, even though there was no obvious composition, they still had cohesion. This was a surprise to me.

Secondly, even though these photographs had no clear subject, I found that the eye (or perhaps the heart) isn’t content with the absence of a subject and so it will create one, seeking patterns, shapes and things that we can relate to. As such we can see meaning even when there is no obvious meaning.

I started to think about what this approach to photography is. Is this minimalism? In some ways it is clearly a minimal approach but we normally imagine minimal photography to have a subject in a minimal setting. There is no clear subject here. The words that seem to fit most to me are emptiness and essence. The scene is empty of subject but it communicates the essence.

 Essence II

Essence II

 Essence III

Essence III


Positive and Negative Time

In one of my previous blog posts I discussed positive and negative space as the relationship between them is a key part of many compositions (see Notes on Composition I). In this post I would like to discuss how our lives can mirror this balance between the positive and the negative. In photography positive and negative space must exist in balance - I suggest that in our lives positive and negative time must exist in balance.


Positive and Negative


I'm not a full-time photographer or even a semi-professional one (at least not yet anyway). 

Recently I was thinking about how I structure my time and I was thinking about some of the things that I do. I noticed that despite the many myriad things competing for my attention (work, family, housework, worrying about things, teaching myself to get better at things and so on) I noticed that for a long time now I have always felt the need for 'down time'. I found that it's important to have down time no matter what else was going on. I was not simply a human source of energy that could be put to work indefinitely but rather I needed time to utilise on my own terms.

Everyone understands the need for physical down time, this is obvious to most of us and if we were to ignore this need our body would eventually correct the imbalance all by itself. I suggest that we also need mental down time - I feel that this is necessary to maintain balance mentally.

This balance is partially a matter of control (wrestling it away from daily life with it's inexorable momentum - back to myself) and partially one of the need for calm. This calm must counter the normal energy of my life - my profession, relationships, getting better at things and so on. It's not that I have an issue with my life, it's the life I chose and it's what I want and value but all things must exist in balance.

So I propose that we all need negative time to balance the positive time of life. Curiously, for some reason there are few words in our everyday language that allows us to express this need for balance and calm.

What we do with this time is a personal matter. For me it usually is a matter of listening to music, often minimal guitar or piano compositions. My passion for photography (travel, shooting and processing) is essentially a negative time activity. Lately, I use this time to write these blog posts.

Notes on Composition II

This is part 2 of my notes on composition. You can find part 1 here.

This is the continuation of my analysis of a selection of my own photographs showing what I have learned in the process of making them, expressed in a way that helps me to approach new subjects with these ideas in mind. This is written primarily for my own education. I'm not consciously trying to relabel existing ideas but rather to personalise how I see my own work.

This is very much work-in-progress.


In part 1 I mentioned the writing of the architect Christopher Alexander. I read his books many years before I decided to take up photography. I came across them in the study of software design even though his field is architecture. My profession is software development. I wonder how these could all be connected.

So in what way are Alexander's ideas relevant to photography? For many years I wasn't aware that they were, but over time I started to see connections - the thoughts I started to have relating to compositional harmony started to resemble some of the fundamental properties of wholeness that Alexander has suggested. One of these properties is Echoes. Echoes are repetitions of a shape or form (possibly at multiple levels of scale) in architecture, creating uniformity and a sense of harmony.

For me echoes create strong visual interest in a scene, making it interesting to photograph. The eye can appreciate them even if the conscious mind isn't aware of them. In the photograph below the triangular shape of the railing has an echo in the triangle around the bridge - this creates strong visual interest and (in my experience) makes for a relatively unique way of viewing this scene. Incidentally, this was one of my first long exposure photographs and is a composition that I'm particularly happy with. I don't think it's possible to recreate this as a wall has been built in front of the railing.

I expect to explore more of Alexanders fundamental properties of wholeness in the future.


Echoes - Beckett


Truth is Beauty

The poet John Keats once famously wrote "'beauty is truth, truth beauty,' – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819). We may feel that a beautiful photograph is true (and it may be true) but I think of it the other way around - true things are beautiful.

I find it fascinating how simple and functional things can have beauty. I find that these fishing nets in Venice have beauty. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, maybe there is always a beauty in simple functional things - perhaps it's because they are true to themselves and that they are not preoccupied, striving to be something that they can't be? Perhaps this is what real beauty is and therefore this is what we should aim for in our lives and in our photography?

Similarly, could it be that the reason that we love portrait photography is because we can see truth in it too - that a talented portrait photographer can find this truth and capture it? A moment, an expression, a short glimpse of the true person under the facade.


Truth is Beauty - Nets


The Unseen

Composing a photograph requires decisions to be made regarding what to include in the frame and what to exclude. Deciding on the contents and arrangement of the frame is typically the thing that we are most preoccupied with when composing.

I suggest that the decision is not simply one of inclusion and exclusion though - focusing on the contents of the square or rectangle of the photograph. This is because the contents of the frame can have a relationship not just internal to the frame but also with the empty space around the frame.

This is an important aspect of a photograph as the space around the frame is filled by the imagination of the viewer. In this sense the viewer doesn't simply 'view' a photograph but they participate in it's interpretation, proving their own imagination in the process. A photograph which succeeds in this way can have great power as the connection with the viewer will increase the value of the photograph in the mind of the viewer - this is because they can see something of themselves in it.

In the example below, taken in Budapest, we can't see where the steps originates or where they leads to. This draws our eye out to consider what is outside of the frame - we're free to use our imagination here and so we give it our own interpretation - we find ourselves thinking about what is up there if we were to ascend these steps, or indeed from what would we leave behind if we descended - where we arrive is also unspecified. All of these things are given personal interpretation.

So composing an image like this is really a decision in framing the scene combined with the building of the relationship with the surroundings - balancing internally and externally.


The Unseen -  Budapest


Opposing Tension

One of the methods to find visual harmony is to establish relationships between things that don't necessarily exist in the real world, or at least they only exist when seen from a single unique point of view, and only when looking with an open mind. This is often a challenge and it requires patience. Once such relationships are found the composition may seem obvious and it may be often replicated thereafter but it never is obvious up to the point where it is discovered. If it were obvious composing would be easy but it never is easy - it's hard work. Photographers are like hunters in this regard, exploring, moving, composing.

Not only is it important to find these relationships but the resulting composition must also be fine-tuned with great precision. This precision can often be the difference between a good composition and a great one.

One of the relationships that can be established is that of Opposing Tension. This occurs when two things seem to be connected and seem to be communicating with each other. They may not be opposing in a negative way, they may in fact be collaborating, interacting or even expressing a human connection of some kind - the exact connection being in the eye of the viewer.

In the photograph below the near trees (bottom-right) seem to relate in some way with the distant trees (top-left). They seem to be in a diagonal communication somehow, callaborating to create a harmonious balance.

Opposing Tension - Val D'Orcia

Texture Layers

Layers are a traditional technique in composition. Traditional landscape photography teaches us to compose with foreground, mid-ground and background. This works well and can help to create depth. In addition to this I like to arrange layers by stacking them vertically, with a variety of textures. In the example below layering is present in the Tuscany landscape due to the rolling hills but light and shadow help to separate these layers out and emphasise them. The final layer is the sky. For me this creates a little puzzle, as if the scene was assembled with layered pieces, and that for me is visual interest.


Texture Layers - The Journey


Intense Contrast

As I mentioned in part I, juxtaposition of all kinds interested me. In rare cases, when there are multiple contrasts, the word juxtaposition doesn't quite state enough. In the example below, a famous location in Tuscany, there is contrast between horizontal land and the vertical trees - that alone is visually interesting to me however there is also contrast between the smooth waves of the land and sharp trees and then contrast between mid-tones of the land and dark-tones of the trees. When there are multiple co-incident contrasts I call it Intense Contrast, as the resulting image can be more compositionally intense than if there are fewer contrasts.


Intense Contrast - Strength


Notes on Composition I

All photographers and artists are aware of the need for good composition in creative work. Regardless of the art-form, whether it's photography or any of the other arts, once the initial technical skills are mastered this is often the next topic of study.

There are many ways to learn about composition and many books, tutorials etc. available. Having studied many of these myself I found myself continually seeking a deeper understanding. This article is the first step in the process of documenting a set of ideas and techniques for myself, driven by the realisation that composition is often personal.

So what is composition? It's often described as the spatial arrangement of elements to achieve cohesion, harmony, interest, balance, tension or meaning. Many compositional techniques focus on the spatial aspect but that's just one dimension. I think of composition as encompassing all of the things mentioned, however it is also personal and the development of it is important to the further advancement of our photography.

What follows is an analysis of a selection of my own photographs showing what I have learned in the process of making them, expressed in a way that helps me to approach new subjects with these ideas in mind. This is written primarily for my own education. I'm not consciously trying to relabel existing ideas but rather to personalise how I see my own work.

This is very much work-in-progress.

Satisfy the Soul

I think initially it should be pointed out that in any creative work it's important that we aim to satisfy our own souls, rather than that of others. In that sense then, if something I create resonates with me then no matter what technical or compositional weakness it has it really doesn't matter all that much. It can be out of focus, under or over-exposed (for example) but can still work at a creative level. If so, nothing else matters, it is good. There are no real rules, just the satisfaction of self. I may not choose to share photographs like this (or I may do), but either way I feel the job is done.

Reflections of Ourselves

This is probably the most fundamental reason why art exists. Art is an expression of something, a feeling, an experience, a state, an idea - something that can't be communicated easily by other means. This can be an abstract or a literal expression. This is the great power of art. Sometimes the subjects of a photograph resonate so strongly that they create the most powerful images - even if aesthetically they are not strong. This recognition of ourselves in a photograph is very potent indeed.


Reflecting Ourselves - Surrender


Juxtaposition of Scale

Juxtaposition of all kinds interested me. For example it could be juxtaposition of natural and man-made things, of people in architectural settings, of colour and the absence of colour, order and disorder and so on.

In this example, the scale of the tree in relation to the distant mountain is the central theme. This can express the sense of scale that we feel when we put ourselves next to things in our physical world. Whether it's a mountain or a skyscraper, scale always impacts me. Another possibility is that this could communicate how we may feel that we relate to something in our life, for example a problem, a challenge or an experience.


Juxtaposition of Scale - Rise


Visual Story

A visual story is a way to arrange things in a scene that allows the viewer to go on a small journey when viewing. A scene with a visual story is in some way intricate, and ideally has depth, the viewers eye can 'walk though' the scene and experience the photograph. This is more than simply 'looking' at the photograph.

Below is an example of what I feel is a visual story, taken on an early morning in Venice during fog, the scene is constructed with a strong element (edge stones) leading the eye in from the bottom edge, up to the buildings which are fading from right to left on account of the fog. On the upper left is an area of indistinct fog, representing The Void (mentioned in a section below).


Visual Story - Nascosto


Imperfection and Incompleteness

The mathematician Kurt Gödel once said that "every non-trivial (interesting) formal system is either incomplete or inconsistent, there will always be questions that cannot be answered". Gödel was writing about mathematics however ever since coming across this idea many years ago it has never left my mind. To me its a philosophical statement and therefore it relates to art too.

While we always wish to strive for the very best in our work we secretly know we have to accept limitations and incompleteness. For me this is strong enough an idea to be a subject of art itself however in artistic work it is relevant in that we know that we must accept our own imperfect work and, perhaps deep down, we know that imperfect work is a reflection of our own imperfect selves. In that sense we might prefer imperfect work to something that is 'too perfect', because we can identify with imperfections.

The photograph below resonates with me even though it was a high contract scene (sunrise) and the light was challenging. I could have attempted to account for this but I ultimately didn't feel it was necessary - the photograph worked for me even though detail is challenged. I accepted it.


Imperfection - Pianoforte


The Void

I take this term from the work of architect Christopher Alexander, from his book The Nature of Order. It's common in photography to refer to the idea of negative and positive space, but somehow I found this term to be a little weak, mostly because it refers just to 'space' and not to other ways in which a 'void' can exist, for example in depth. Here's a quote from Alexander (his concern is primarily that of architecture but I feel the observation is relevant to art also):

“In the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness, there is at the heart a void which is like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it …

This emptiness is needed, in some form, by every center, large or small. It is the quiet that draws the center’s energy to itself, gives it the basis of its strength. The fact that the void does not exist so often now … is the result of a general disturbance in our capacity to make wholeness …

The need for the void arises in all centers. A cup or a bowl rests, as living structure, on the quiet of the space in the bowl itself, its stillness …

The void corresponds to the fact that differentiation of minor systems almost always occurs in relation to the “quiet” of some larger and more stable system.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life


The Void - Solitude



Positioning subjects in the center of a photograph is often discouraged in compositional discussion but nonetheless I often do this. Certain subjects have a confidence and clear identity that for me works well when centred, there seems to be no reason to over-think composition for these subjects. I call these photographs Portraits, as for me a portrait doesn't have to be limited to photographs of people but they can be a study of an object or of a building, as if the subject is a living thing - these can be reflections of ourselves.


Portrait - Strength In Numbers