Great Compositions: Craig Semetko
The School of Henri Cartier-Bresson
When we begin photography,
it is a natural tendency to look for
inspiration. If we are lucky we might
have a chance to work with the
photographers we admire, but for
many of us, we can only know them
through their images.
Getting To Know Henri
This week’s edition of Great Compositions is for a lovely Italian named Chaira Manfredi (which is why the title is in Italian). She is a big fan of Craig’s and had a chance to meet him at his opening last winter at the Leica Gallery New York City.
When Craig Semetko decided to pick up a camera, he had not heard of Leica. The legions of photographers who had used this expensive “toy camera” since the 1930′s were new to him. Shortly after buying a Leica M6 over a decade ago, Craig stumbled upon Henri Cartier-Bresson. The images contained everything Craig wanted to imbue in his work, humor, travel, and graphic harmony. Over the years, he has studied the works of Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, and Steve McCurry, just to name a few of his influences.
If you have ever met Craig at his openings, workshops, or Leica events you will understand that Craig is a “people person.” I have never met a more personable photographer. His education in photography has been a mixture of lessons he’s learned through conversations with other photographers and personal experiments. His dedication to understanding how and why someone like Bresson created his images has led to a successful body of work. As we will see in the analysis, Craig started from a basic understanding of a diagonal composition. As he progressed the work develops compositional relationships that will approach Bresson. As I have watched Craig’s work, the complexity of composition and the dynamic symmetry within the frame get stronger every year.
The acronym that decorates the playing fields across America is, “K.I.S.S., Keep it simple stupid.” Coaches love to impress this statement on their players because if they make things too complicated, problems will arise. There is a huge difference between complex and complicated. Complicated things have too many steps, too many parts, and do not lead to a simple end product. Just think of any government form. From tax documents to insurance filings, all the paperwork with tiny boxes are complicated disasters. But complex things are the Sistine Chapel or E=MC2. At once enormous ideas, they posses clear and elegant solutions.
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling
When Michelangelo was ordered to fill an entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a tyrannical Pope Julius II was threatening to invade his home of Florence, if he did not return to complete the project. Talk about pressure, especially when you consider that Michelangelo did not think of himself as a painter. He originally went to Rome to design a tomb for Pope Julius II and got sandbagged with the Sistine Chapel instead. His rival Bramante wanted the tomb project and did everything in his power to keep Michelangelo painting. In the end it backfired on Bramante. The Sistine Chapel was a roaring success and later Michelangelo was awarded the tomb anyway. There is a great book on the subject by Ross King called “Michelanglo and the Pope’s Ceiling.” I loved it.
Michelangelo’s solution to the Sistine Chapel ceiling actually became more simplistic after he removed the first wave of scaffolding and look at the work from the floor. From this perspective, he realized he was paying too much attention to details and was missing the overall thrust of the images. The work that proceeded is far and away the strongest images in the composition. The start of any complex design solution, usually lies in the diagonal lines.
Lets take a look at how Bresson uses two sets of diagonals to establish a hierarchy within his subjects, ground, and background to create a dynamic composition. Images like this one, were critical for the development of Craig’s work. We will be able to see how Craig used a step by step approach to integrate a powerful sense of design in his work. The transition was not all at once. He did not go from taking centrally composed snap shots to gallery quality work over night. The progression was gradual with little steps forward and a few steps backward. Eventually the lessons he observed through studying Bresson’s work started to make their way into his images.
While traveling in China during the 1960′s, he capture the deceptively simple picture above. Is this really just a picture of a street vendor and a man eating his lunch? Not at all. We are looking at a master piece of design. All of Bresson’s great pictures create a hierarchy. Without a hierarchy an image will be confusing.
In his image, designed on overlapped Root 4′s, Bresson uses the major sinister diagonal to connect a line between the two figures’ heads. Then he uses the baseline of the upper Root 4 to locate the table in the foreground. This allows us to feel like we are looking “into” the picture. If the subject stands on the bottom edge of a negative, it destroys the illusion of depth. Bresson captured a scene and wanted to emphasize that the man eating was sitting away from him. If he located the man’s feet at the bottom of the negative it would have felt like the man was standing in our space. Putting a figure’s feet at the bottom edge of an image is a mistake we would like to avoid because it will violate the idea that the figures exist in a space. If you think of it like a stage, when a perform comes to the front edge of the stage they destroy the illusion of the stage set. They are entering our space as the view. In a photograph we want the figure to stand back and become a part of the scene we are photographing. Once we master this rule, can we start to play with figures extending outside of the frame, but more on that later.
An artist has 360° in a circle to choose from, but will rarely use more than 3-7 directions. Otherwise, as Myron likes to say, “If you use every angle, your picture will resemble the bottom of a birdcage.” Here Bresson gives us a major diagonal, then he uses both base lines of the upper and lower Root 4′s to give us the line of the table in the foreground and to locate the position of the second man’s head. He is only using a few angles to create a powerful image.
Photography magazines often advise, “Do not put objects in the center of an image.” This statement is only half true. A Root 4 (which is being used here) can be broken down into two squares. This means the center of the image is important and should be used. It can act like a fulcrum or see-saw to background elements. You will often see Bresson locating an element of the background right in the middle of a picture. This is typically considered a photography No-No, but he understood, that the middle of the image is an integral part of the composition. It establishes a balance between the left and right side of a picture. Here the 45′s are serving two functions. They locate the position of the large wooden column in the center of the image, which creates a balance between the left and right side of the frame. The 45′s also line up perfectly with the shadows in the background. I won’t go into it here, but in a later entry I will discuss Bresson’s use of shadows. They are fantastic and often Surrealistic. He plays jokes with shadows all the time.
One things to keep in mind is that we are free to choose which intersections to use within the grid. Here Bresson bypasses the vertical divisions of the smaller Root 4s’ and uses the divisions of the side by side squares on the theme of 3. A Square can be divided in 2 or 3. When you divide a square the term used to describe the division is, ” On the theme of _______” Artists will go back and forth between the theme of 2 and theme of 3 division points to add variety. Bresson is very accurate in his placement and you can see how well both figures are perfectly placed in every direction. They relate diagonally, vertically, and horizontally. Living up to the likes of Bresson is a challenge, but Craig wanted to give it a try. Let’s see where he starts and how it goes.
Craig Semetko’s Images
Step 1: The Diagonal
Craig’s early work typically uses two tools to create an effective image. There is a dominant diagonal direction, sometimes two. Then he plays with light and dark. By placing a light figure on a dark ground or a dark figure on a light ground we can find the subject of the work. The humor, of which there is plenty, usually occurs in the details or placement of one piece of content next to the other. It is a “LOL” type of humor, which will start to make a shift to quiet chuckles in his later work.
Step 2: The Diagonal & Its Reciprocal
Once Craig moves away from centrally located figures and singular diagonals, we see the first steps towards Bresson. In the “Sweeping Monks” we can see Craig using a single Root 4. He was not able to launch right into overlapped Root 4s. The step would have been too big. The lower root 4 locates the tops of the monks heads and establishes the sinister diagonal (moving from right to left) and its reciprocal as the dominant features in the photograph. Since the figure closest to us is the most important figure, it should be the dominant design feature of the piece.
On the opposite side of the picture we see the baroque diagonal (moving from left to right) and its reciprocal. The intersection of the baroque and its reciprocal locates the position of the monk on the right. There is a balance, one that Craig would have seen when he was taking the shot which would have let him know when to press the shutter. From Bresson’s work he knows that the figures must be separated and spaced in some order, if they are to be effective. Over lapping figures can merge into one solid blob. By waiting for the moment when they are separated, he creates a magnificent illusion of depth. As each monk recedes in space, they get smaller and smaller.
The use of the verticals is similar to Bresson but not as exact. This does not mean it does not “work”, but in comparison to Bresson, we can still see a clear distinction between Master and Student. But we can see how advanced this piece is from Craig’s earlier work. When we look at all of the lines together, in their established hierarchy, it becomes crystal clear how our eye moves through the dominant diagonal, then the minor diagonal, and lastly the vertical alignments to that we get the sense of sweeping back and forth. The picture is successful primarily because its “sweeping” composition reflects the activity of the monks. Here we have the content (their work) and their positions joining forces to create a dynamic composition.
Step 3: Adding An Overlapped Root 4
In Studying Monks, the program of design is similar to Sweeping Monks. (I am naming these pieces, just to make them easier to discuss, they are not Craig’s titles) There are a collection of figures sprinkled throughout the space. This time they are not engaging in identical activities. Their different body positions will make this image one step more complex than the previous image.
To start, we have a dominant sinister diagonal that runs from the lower right to the upper left of the root 4. It passes right through the back of the sleeping monk and literally points us at the monk in the doorway. It is an extremely powerful gesture. By drawing the reciprocal of the sinister diagonal we find the exact location of the walking monk. Craig’s timing here is perfect. Caught in full stride, Buddha was shining on Craig when he took this picture. I say that because the open stance of the walking monk would have been ruined if that left foot were in any other position. It was such a tight opening that Craig captured and it represents the type of “image making moment” that cannot be recreated in post production. As Myron will often remind me “You have a shot or you don’t have one.” Here, we definitely have a shot.
The location of the roof in the background is the first time we start to see the other root 4 rectangle in Craig’s work, like we saw in Bresson. There are actually four major horizontal lines in this picture. Can you see them? Starting from the bottom, there is the line of the desks, a line connecting the tops of the standing monks heads (not drawn), then then there is the line of the roof in the background and the line of the tops of the windows. What is evident is Craig is starting to gain a more accurate awareness of the horizontal lines. They can be used just like Bresson, to create the illusion of depth.
Step 4: Using Two Sets of Diagonals
In Craig’s final image, we will call “Cell Phone Monks” the composition is the most evolved. He is approaching a real understanding of Bresson’s work. It is the first time we are seeing both root 4 rectangles playing a major role in the composition. The result is a simple, but very active composition which is easy to understand. Now that you guys are getting the flow of the compositional analysis, we can look at this picture in bullet points.
- The major sinister diagonals of both rectangles are the main compositional elements. Because they are parallel, they strengthen the direction.
- The reciprocal of the lower root 4 gives us the angle of the main subjects head. Can you see how much activity is introduced then the reciprocal reinforces its major diagonal. Its stunning!
- Both of the horizontals of the root 4s create divisions of the hands at the bottom of the picture and the heads at the top of the picture.
- The vertical division of the main subject passes right through the highlight on his head and his nose. This placement is very effective.
- The vertical division on the right hand side, which is less important falls between the two monks heads. Craig might have been able to turn the camera slightly to the left, but it is really a matter of splitting hairs.
Quick Color Theory Lesson
The only thing in that I would change in this image would be the blue cloth in the right corner. This is an orange picture. Everything in the picture is a warm tone, with the exception of the slightly bluish highlights on the heads of the monks. Blue is orange’s complimentary color on the color wheel. The danger of an image in a single hue, is that if its compliment creeps in, it will jump out.
Try this as an experiment. Cover the blue cloth, in the bottom right hand side with your finger. See how much nicer the image is without that blue jumping out. Hold your finger there for a few more seconds. Really get used to the warm tones in the image. Now, take your finger off. WOW! See that blue jump out at you?! Using a low resolution image off of the internet, I pulled out some of that blue with Viveza and see what a difference it makes? That blue disappears. In truth, I might desaturate the green in the leaves too, because with that blue gone, I can see the green too. I don’t mind the bluish tone on the highlights in their heads, because Craig wants you to look at the highlights. The bluish cast is a function of the Leica M9. In broad daylight its blue channel can be a bit heavy, but its easy to back off in post production.
Overall, the direction of Craig’s work is getting stronger each time I see him. Aside from creating the images in “Unposed” I believe the best is yet to come from him. As his understanding of Bresson has improved over time, we see more ambitious images and a more subtle humor. I mean who isn’t laughing looking at a bunch of monks asleep while studying or playing on cell phones? This stuff is hilarious. I think Craig’s personality really shines through in the new work. The compositions are without a doubt approaching the great masters of street photography. Maybe the student will surpass the teacher. And all he really did was start to play with a few lines. Its important for everyone to understand that composition is not rocket science. It has some basic principles that anyone can understand and use to take photographs. Within the grids there are a number of successful design options to be employed that will allow your real voice to emerge.
Myron often tells his students, you have to get 90% of the problems solved first. If the picture is only 60% correct there will be too many issues clouding up the final work. Only when 90% of it is correct can we notice the minor tweaks that will get a picture to 95%-98% correct (like that blue cloth). When you get that far, no one else can see the tiny things that you look to change in your next work.
Thanks Craig for being a part of the analysis, I hope that all of Craig’s fans enjoyed it. To see more of Craig Semetko’s work or his book “Unposed” check out his website for pictures, workshops, and exhibition information. And for all of you wondering what Craig shoots, he uses a Leica M9, Leica MP, 35mm Summilux and a 50mm Summilux. The majority of the black and white film work was shot in Kodak Tri-X 400.
Thank You Myron
Understanding composition is not an artistic gift. It is a tradition that is taught. I do not know anyone better at this formidable task than my mentor Myron Barnstone. He runs a one man drawing school called the Barnstone Studios. Located in Coplay Pennsylvania Myron has taught the principles of design for over forty years. His efforts opened my eyes to aspects of design that I have never seen anywhere else.
I would like to thank him for his teachings, on going consulting, and resources which are the best lessons on composition I have every seen. Whether you can study with Myron in person, watch his DVD series, or learn through my articles, studying composition is essential for all photographers. And I aim to continue passing along this great tradition.
To order Myron’s “Introduction to Drawing Systems” click the link below. Your photography will never be the same.