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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.