May 162011
 

Great Compositions Series

Understanding The Masters

Why do we love certain pictures?

Is there an embedded design that

appeals to our eyes that we have

never even noticed?  Most great

photographers have learned classical

modes of composition that are

rarely discussed.  Its time to look

at some images and see what’s

going on beneath the surface.


Adam Marelli Leica Akademie

I was testing out a 50mm Noctilux f 0.95 on loan from the Leica Akademie this past Saturday at the NY Photo Festival.  © Adam Marelli.

The Interest Exists

On Saturday, I posted a question on Facebook asking if people were interested in seeing images from their favorite photographers analyzed?  As I was walking around Brooklyn, shooting a 50mm Noctilux f 0.95, on loan from the Leica Akademie, my phone was buzzing every few minutes.  After a day worth of requests, its time to share the compiled list of photographers.

Constantine Manos Adam Marelli

Photographers choose a limited number of lines in order to achieve a powerful composition. Here Manos is using the sinister reciprocal of the Root 4, which drives right through the face of this man.  © Constantine Manos.

What Is Composition?

If you ask this question to one thousand people you will get two thousand different answers.  For the most part, composition is not taught, even at the university level.  Over the years I have looked for articles, books, and resources on understanding composition and only ever found one man who could talk about composition in a clear, consistent, and easy to understand manner.  He does not run a photography school, he actually runs a drawing school.  To put it lightly, Myron Barnstone, who is nearly eighty years old, has an incredible understanding of composition.  And in his mind there is nothing intuitive about composition.  It is a learned skill.

Over the next few weeks, we will look at the photographers you picked and analyze the compositions from some of their most famous images.  In the past I have analyzed a handful of images from some of the names you mentioned, but for the most part this will be a transparent learning experience for all of us.  Who knows what we will uncover.

The List [ in order of request ]

Alfred Eisenstadt for Martin Carone Dos Santos & Ken Salaz

Robert Mapplethorpe for Michele Mariotti

Craig Semetko for Chiara Manfredi

Robert Capa & David “Chim” Seymour for Darell Miller

Henri Carier-Bresson for Craig Semetko (even though he did not ask for it)

Rene Burri for William Palank

Andre Kertesz for Susan May Tell (with a possible follow up of Roy DeCarava & Walker Evans)

Ansel Adams for Renee Bizette Keating

Constantine Manos for Kokleong Tham

Constantine Manos Adam Marelli

HIghlighted in red is the dominant sinister diagonal in the image.   © Constantine Manos.

—The Prediction

The shape of film negatives is an influential part of photography.  It informs the subterranean design of an image.  We might discover the photographers listed above share common approaches to producing an images.  Their images may be more similar than we think.  With a few lines and a little patience, I hope everyone can tap into the understanding of composition that has remained hidden from everyday view.

First up, Alfred Eisenstadt this week…

Enjoy-Adam

  11 Responses to “Great Compositions Series”

  1. Thanks Adam – looking forward to viewing your alnalysis of the works of the masters. Loved the piece about compostion. I only began to vagually understand this term in an art history class. It seemed like a foreign concept to me in art school. And I must admit still is. Learning so much from your post. Thouroughly enjoying them.

    • Hey Renee,

      I too received a luke warm education in composition. This exercise of analysis should (fingers crossed) shed some light on the tactics employed by artists and photographers to keep our eyes moving around an image.

  2. Adam I can’t think of anything that could improve my photography more than studying this subject. Thank you for agreeing to take on this work and share it with us. Did you take classes with Myron Barnstone or the DVDs? I’m certain this is going to take real study to first learn, then identify, and then ingrain this into my photography muscles and would appreciate your guidance on the best route to studying it. Thanks again Adam.

  3. Hey Darell,

    Myron’s DVD’s are the single best resource for understanding composition I have ever found. With four years of art school and a handful of continuing education, I had a head start before I met Myron. After the DVDs I decided to start taking classes with him. Since I split my time between photo and sculpture it made sense.
    Have a look at the video clips he has on his site for a taste of his teachings. Someone I am privately tutoring right now, just bought the DVD’s because he lives too far to take classes with Myron. You will love them and probably drive anyone who lives with you mad from watching them so often. Your photography will never be the same.

    Any questions let me know.

    Best-Adam

  4. Hello Adam,

    It is really interesting to read such a technical analysis on what composition is, may or might be.
    Saying that it has a lot to do with geometry seems natural, since we are placing everything into place either in a rectangle or a square. I must add that in our everyday life we move in, into, through geometric shapes and have geometric motions also. We carry it, as well as the symetry which we are a potent, and living subject when all is in due place.
    That said, I honestly think that composition, and more, the language of composition can be an intuitive knowledge for some and has to be learned for others.
    Geometry deals with balance and a sense of balance can be intuitive just like standing up and walking process is for a baby. Sense, and even sensation of balance. It really helps any photographer feel and recognized if composition is right. It is useful to have a set of understood rules of composition, but they don’t often prepare for every opportunity. Carved in stone they prevent you from moving forward in what composing a picture can be. I don’t mean revolution but just access to something out of recognizable geometric dynamics. Then there’s the language of compostion, and it’s adding another degree of difficulty in making a photograph trully stands out. Not so many.
    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing. Cheers.

    • Hey Stephan,
      Thank you for the thoughtful response. Its always good to hear the feedback. The next entry on Robert Capa, will be less technical for two reasons. One, this stuff is way easier to explain in dialogue than in writing. Its hard for me to tell exactly how the ideas come across. For the people I tutor, it is easier because they can ask me questions as we go along. And in terms of Capa, his strengths were simplicity and proximity to action. Composition was not his strength. It used to drive Cartier-Bresson nuts.
      My own personal experience was that during art school composition was glossed over. We learned the “Rule of Thirds” & “foreground, middleground, background” but nothing too complex. We were told that its just intuitive. Use your emotions and go from there. Worst advice I could have been given.
      When you made the parallel to walking you hit the nail on the head. Sure, we walk intuitively, though not without some falling. But when it comes to running, any professional is trained and coached. A stronger example of “intuitive” action is boxing. Someone might have a natural inclination to boxing. They might be strong, quick, and have plenty of aggression. But all the intuition in the world will not beat a professional. If they fought a professional boxer it would be a disaster. Using emotion or gut instinct will only get someone so far. When someone is highly trained, they have a greater level of freedom and expression. The idea that training means they will be restricted is a mistake. Mondrian and Giotto are actually using the same systems, but the outcome is completely different.
      Artists have employed hundreds of compositional techniques over the centuries, which can be useful to photographers. Each technique is like a tool in the bag. The techniques are not really rules, as much as they are useful guidelines. Studying with Myron really opened up photography for me, amongst other things. And I promote him so heavily here because I feel like other people might like the choice to learn how artist work. I dont make a dime from his dvd’s. They are on the site to give people the option to see things for themselves. Buddha has a great quote about learning where he says not to take his word for anything. Go test it for yourself. Thanks so much for your interest and hopefully the articles open a broader dialogue about a fairly mysterious topic. : )

      Best-Adam

  5. Hello Adam,

    Overall we are on the same page, but we might just come from different photographic experience, also we don’t hold the same position here. I am reacting to propositions you are presenting with constructed and proven conviction to communicate something helpful.
    It is only 3 years ago that I came to really think about what composition could be about, with the redundant conclusion that it is a matter of organizing space, filled with lines and volumes. The more I looked into it and that are the only things that stood out really. Harmony and balance being not only destination but markers too. Rediscovering Paul Strand through perusing some of his books got me to take time to look at what and somehow how I had been photographing.Annyway…

    To be told after few basic tips on composition that using your intuition can be of no help, I can understand how frustrating (or even insulting that could be); reason why some need to be taught to see more clearly or to have pointers and markers to go about.

    Your boxing example brought an interesting thought about technique as an enhancer of intuition or natural disposition as well as being the foundation of access to photgraphic expression and its clarity through composition. It definitely can work like that.
    At the same time it just occured to me that some highly trained sometimes don’t know how to get past the technique, and they get mechanical. That was my idea when I said that ” It is useful to have a set of understood rules of composition, but they don’t often prepare for every opportunity. Carved in stone they prevent you from moving forward in what composing a picture can be”. Cause in the end it is you and not the technique anymore.
    And definitely people trying to emulate HCBresson will have the toughest time of their life.The chemistry involved goes way beyond technique, and when it comes down to a split second, the explanation gets thinner than air.
    Agreed that composition is a fairly mysterious process. I think it lies within the realm of sensation, senses, and a mix of some other crucial elements not so easy to even put a name on, and itmight even stay that way no matter what…
    That is why IMHO most don’t venture beyond rule of thirds and that fore-back-middle ground basics.
    So may the articles be of some clarifying help as you intend it to be.

    Cheers.

  6. Hello Adam,

    Overall we are on the same page, but we might just come from different photographic experience, also we don’t hold the same position here. I am reacting to propositions you are presenting with constructed and proven conviction to communicate something helpful.
    It is only 3 years ago that I came to really think about what composition could be about, with the redundant conclusion that it is a matter of organizing space, filled with lines and volumes. The more I looked into it and that are the only things that stood out really. Harmony and balance being not only destination but markers too. Rediscovering Paul Strand through perusing some of his books got me to take time to look at what and somehow how I had been photographing.Annyway…

    To be told after few basic tips on composition that using your intuition can be of no help, I can understand how frustrating (or even insulting that could be); reason why some need to be taught to see more clearly or to have pointers and markers to go about.

    Your boxing example brought an interesting thought about technique as an enhancer of intuition or natural disposition as well as being the foundation of access to photgraphic expression and its clarity through composition. It definitely can work like that.
    At the same time it just occured to me that some highly trained sometimes don’t know how to get past the technique, and they get mechanical. That was my idea when I said that It is useful to have a set of understood rules of composition, but they don’t often prepare for every opportunity. Carved in stone they prevent you from moving forward in what composing a picture can be. ‘Cause in the end it is you and not the technique anymore.
    And definitely people trying to emulate HCBresson will have the toughest time of their life.The chemistry involved goes way beyond technique, and when it comes down to a split second, the explanation gets thinner than air.
    Agreed that composition is a fairly mysterious process. I think it lies within the realm of sensation, senses, and a mix of some other crucial elements not so easy to even put a name on, and itmight even stay that way no matter what…
    That is why IMHO most don’t venture beyond rule of thirds and that fore-back-middle ground basics.
    So may the articles be of some clarifying help as you intend it to be.

    Cheers.

  7. Dunno why it’s doubled.oups.

  8. Hey Stephan,

    Not sure why the comment doubled. I am on a train right now. When I get back to a computer I can remove the double.
    Indeed it sounds like we are in agreement, each from our own angles. Would love to see some of your work.
    I like your observation about things becoming too mechanical. It seems that there are two trends that dominate art/photo history. Pre world war II it seems to me that it was common to become good from a technical perspective but make rather boring images. After the war there was a big shift. The content became very adventurous but the technique disappeared. We are probably somewhere in the transitional wave at the moment.
    Trying to be Cartier-Bresson is sure to cause some problems. It would be like trying to be Edward Hopper or Ingres. I hope no one is out there trying to do that. It would be a disaster of sorts and probably cause a bit of an identity crisis. Haha.
    So far, and this might change, technique is still opening doors. We will see how it all goes.

  9. Thanks again.

    Best Adam

Add Comment Register



 Leave a Reply

(required)

(required)

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>