Advice from Uncle Leo
[ Ten Tips from a Master ]
The advice of master artists can
easily be adapted to photography.
If we want a useful set of guidelines,
it might as well come from the greatest
artists in history. By deciphering the
tips they gave to young artists of
the day, we should be able to improve
our understanding of photography
—What the young Student in Painting ought in the first place to learn.
The young student should, in the first place, acquire a knowledge of perspective, to enable him to give to every object its proper dimension: after which, it is requisite that he be under the care of an able master, to accustom him, by degrees, to a good style of drawing the parts. Next, he must study Nature, in order to confirm and fix in his mind the reason of those precepts which he has learnt. He must also bestow some time in viewing the works of various old masters, to form his eye and judgement, in order that he may be able to put into practice all that he has been taught.
There are three clear ideas which stick out here. One, learn from a master. Even if that master is long dead, if you dedicate yourself to uncovering the techniques which made that artist successful, you stand a fighting chance of making a dent in the photography world. But it is preferred that you study with someone who can answer your questions in real time. It will save hours of head scratching and heart break. Two, if you want to shoot exotic cars as a subject matter, learn about the cars inside and out. If you want to study food, learn how to cook. When you study a subject matter like a professional it will allow you to see your subject with clear eyes and a sharp mind. It is no accident that Ansel Adams was well versed in geology and botany. And lastly, Old Master Works are not the wallpaper of museum. They were left to posterity as a tool for study. Go see artwork in person and buy some books from your favorite artists. Artwork needs to be studied with a careful eye and tracing paper. As you build a small library of your favorite artists, your favorite pictures will come to life.
—Rule for a young Student in Painting
The organ of sight is one of the quickest, and takes in at a single glance an infinite variety of forms; notwithstanding which, it cannot perfectly comprehend more than one object at a time. For example, the reader, at one look over this page, immediately perceives it full of different characters; but he cannot at the same moment distinguish each letter, much less can he comprehend their meaning. He must consider it work by word, and line by line, if he be desirous of forming a just notion of these characters. In like manner, if we wish to ascend to the top of an edifice, we must be content to advance step by step, otherwise we shall never be able to attain it.
A young man (or woman), who has a natural inclination to the study of this art, I would advise to act thus: In order to acquire a true notion of the form of things, he must begin by studying the parts which compose them and not pass to a second till he has well stored his memory, and sufficiently practiced the first; otherwise he loses his time, and will most certainly protract his studies. And let him remember to acquire accuracy before he attempts quickness.
For most of us the ability to see is a given. We were born with sight, we will die with sight, which is why it is taken for granted. As Da Vinci points out we can see in general, but understanding requires seeing the world piece by piece. Scientists do man a great disservice by saying we can see almost 180 degrees. In a sense this is true, but when we look at the world, we need to focus on details and then assemble everything into a meaningful interpretation. This happens very quickly, but in most cases it is a sloppy practice. By studying the “way we see” it opens up new relationships that were invisible. I am sure this has happened to you at some point: You look at a scene, take a picture, and then while reviewing the image notice some glaring error. By the scientific definition you should have seen it, but for some reason you did not. Its happened to me thousands of times. But as we refine our ability to see with an artists eye the world begins to look very different.
—How to discover a young Man’s (or woman’s) Disposition for Painting
Many are very desirous of learning to draw, and are very fond of it, who are, notwithstanding, void of a proper disposition for it. This may be known be their want of perseverance; like the boys, who draw everything in a hurry, never finishing, or shadowing.
Ever wanted to learn to draw or speak a foreign language. These two goals decorate “New Years Resolution Lists” around the world. But Da Vinci points out, lots of people want the same thing. The people who succeed work slow and steady to make art their reality, not just a hobby. For some this might be through a camera, others through pencil, but the same motivation drives both forces. The worst thing we can do is skip quickly through our foundations “…in a hurry, never finishing.”
—Of drawing from Nature
When you draw from Nature, you must be at the distance of three times the height of the object; and when you begin to draw, form in your own mind a certain principle line (suppose a perpendicular); observe well the bearing of the parts towards that line; whether they intersect it, are parallel to it, or oblique.
The principle line in a drawing is pure hallucination. It does not exist for all to see. You need to image the geometries of life in straight lines. Straight lines are easy to formalize and organize which is why it has been an artistic secret for thousands of years. As photographers we need to envision lines running right through the bodies of our subjects so we can relate them to each other and design them into a field.
—That a Painter should take Pleasure in the Opinions of everybody
A painter ought not certainly to refuse listening to the opinion of any one; for we know that, although a man be not a painter, he may have just notions of the forms of men—whether a man has a hump on his back, a thick leg or large hand; whether he be lame, or have any other defect. Now, if we know that men are able to judge of the works of Nature, should we not think them more able to detect our errors.
This can be a challenge, but even the most trained artist or photographer can loose perspective on their own work. Asking non-artists will bring up points you may have never considered. A word of warning, this does not always go smoothly, so try to listen as best as possible and back out of the room quietly if you disagree. A screaming match with anyone over an image will cloud the useful contribution hidden in the criticism. Though every now and again, there are no redeemable points in someone criticism. One trick I have learned over the years is to seek out professionals who understand the subject matter. Having a stone mason look at your architectural images or a florist look at your pictures of flowers will blow your mind.
—In which of the two Actions, Pulling or Pushing, a Man has the greatest Power
A man has the greatest strength in pulling, for in that action he has the united exertion of all the muscles of the arm, while some of them must be inactive when he is pushing; because when the arm is extended for that purpose, the muscles which move the elbow cannot act, any more than if he pushed with his shoulders against the column he means to thrown down; in which case the only muscles that extend the back, the legs under the thigh, and the calves of the legs would be active. From which we conclude, that in pulling there is added to the power of extension the strength of the arms, of the legs, of the back, and even of the chest, if the oblique motion of the body require it. But in pushing, though all the parts were employed; yet the strength of the muscles of the arms is wanting; for to push with an extended arm without motion, does not help more than if a piece of wood were placed from the shoulder to the column meant to be pushed down.
Cartier-Bresson mentions all the time, “…we must know what we are looking for.” This is a helpful, but vague statement. What are we looking for? Well if we are looking to create a strong image, it helps to have an understanding of anatomy, physiology, and the mechanics of the human body. If we know that “pulling” uses more muscles than “pushing” we know to look for a dock worker pulling a heavy rope rather than pushing a cart. These little observations about the human body will allow us to imbue action into our images.
— Postures of Figures
Figures that are set in a fixed attitude, are nevertheless to have some contrast of parts. If one are come before, the other remains or goes behind. If the figure rests upon one leg, the shoulder on that side will be lower than the other. This is observed by artists of judgement who always take care to balance the figure well upon its feet, for feet it should appear to fall. Because by resting upon one foot, the other leg be a little bent, does not support the body any more than if it were dead; therefore it is necessary that the parts above the leg should transfer the centre of their weight upon the leg which supports the body.
The human body is symmetrical in theory, not in practice. We do not want to take mug shots, they are flat and boring. In order to create variety, we must look for the moment when opposing gestures animate our subject. If you memorize the motions of figures in famous paintings, you will be able to identify the same motions in a living scene. Then the second you see the extended gesture of Socrates holding out his arm, you click the shutter. Again if we know what we are looking for, its easier to find it.
—Motions of Figures
Never put the head straight upon the shoulders, but a little turned sideways to the right or left, even though the figures should be looking up or down or straight, because it is necessary to give them some motion of life and spirit. Nor ever compose a figure in such a manner, either in a front or back view, as that every part falls straight upon another from the top to the bottom. But if you wish to introduce such a figure use it for old age. Never repeat the same motions of arms or of legs, not only not in the same figure, but in those which are standing by or near, if the necessity of the case or the expression of the subject you represent, no not oblige you to it.
The head and the shoulders should not point the same direction in a street portrait. It is one of the most common mistakes of street photographer to take pictures when the head and chest are facing the same direction. There is a simple way to avoid this mistake. If you are taking a portrait and the person is cooperating, take the first picture right in front of them. They expect you to shoot from this angle so it will be easy. Then continue stepping to one side. Their head will turn, but their body will not move. Until you walk almost 90 degrees around them, they will only twist their head, not their chest. This will give you a dynamic action in the second, third, or fourth picture.
— Of the Variety of Figures in History Paintings
History paintings must exhibit a variety in its fullest extend. in temper, size, complexion, actions, plumpness, leanness, thick, think, large, small, round, smooth, old age and youth, strong and muscular, weak, with little appearance of muscles, cheerfulness, and melancholy. Some should be with curled hair, and some with straight; some short, some long, some with quick motions, and some slow, with a variety of dresses and colours, according as the subject may require.
History paintings used to be considered the highest form of art. But a five hundred years later, they look more like antique street photography. There are lots of people, arranged in various groups, illustrating multiple themes. Sound familiar? When you compose a scene on the street, look for people that are either freakishly similar or wonderfully different. The range of personalities will help you images. A nun standing next to a dominatrix on 28th street is sure to grab the audience’s attention.
— The Representation of an Orator and his Audience
If you have to represent a man who is speaking to a large assembly of people, you are to consider the subject matter of his discourse, and to adapt his attitude to such subject. If he means to persuade, let it be known by his gesture. If he is giving an explanation, deduced from several reasons, let him put two fingers of the right hand within one of the left, having the other two bent close, his face turned towards the audience, with the mouth half open, seeming to speak. If he is sitting, let him appear as going to raise himself up a little, and his head be forward. But if he is represented standing, let him bend his chest and his head forward towards the people.
The auditory are to appear silent and attentive, with their eyes upon the speaker, in the act of admiration. There should be some old men, with their mouths close shut, in token of approbation, and their lips pressed together, so as to form wrinkles at the corners of the mouth and about the cheeks, and forming others about the forehead, by raising the eyebrows, as if struck with astonishment. Some others of those sitting by should be seated with their hands within each other, round one of their knees; some with one knee upon the other, and upon that, one hand receiving the elbow, the other supporting the chin, covered with a venerable beard.
The first botched job of Endre Freidmann, who would later be known as Robert Capa to photograph Leon Trotsky rally where he was delivering a powerful speech the Russian Revolution to a crowd of Danish students. The most successful images in the series work because they coordinate Trotsky’s hand gestures with his passionate message. When we are shooting people performing actions, look for gestures that typify their behavior. Politicians and public speakers are even trained to use hand gestures to emphasize points and add meaning to their words. Dictators are notorious for repeating the mannerism as they create public caricatures of themselves. Hand gestures can become their signature moves. Hitler stole his salute from the Roman Cesears, while professional athletes are constantly refining their signature celebration moves. It is our job to find the moment of greatest intensity to deliver a image.
All of the quotes above came from Leonardo Da Vinci’s: Treatise on Painting.