Copying is not Enough
An appretice’s life in a studio
meant copying the work of
a master artist. But copying
alone does not guarantee
an understanding of design.
We need to bring “information
to bear” as we organize the
chaos of life into a successful image.
Art versus Xerox
In the 1500’s, when a young boy showed promise as a draftsmen, they were often given over to an appreticeship. They left home, usually through a family connection, and enter a “Master’s Workshop.” I say Master in quotes because some of the greatest artists worked from rather mediocre artists. Regardless of their superiors status, a young apprentice would pay the Master a small amount of money to cover his room, board, and forthcoming education. When a prospective student considers the extortion rates that private universities request they might want to have a look at the accounting books of studios like Peter Paul Rubens. It becomes very clear that NO university in the world can acutally rationalize an artistic education costing over $100,000.
Once inducted into the studio, they were given menial tasks like sweeping or fetching supplies. Eventually they would work up to making preparatory sketches or transfers sketches for larger works. When they were able to perform to a stardard of excellence (or at least tollerance) they would set to work copying the master’s drawings. This was a multi-purposed exercise. It provided income for the master, as the copies were often sold, it kept the young lad out of trouble, which was inevitable in Renaissance Europe, and it gave them a chance to study the designs of the master.
Only when pencil touches paper can an artist begin to understand all of the design problems the master faces when sitting in front of the blank paper.
By tracing the hand of successful cartoons, working solutions become evident. But copying was not enough! It was merely the start of a long life as a half breed between a craftsman and a respected artist. Anyone who mastered copying without every internalizing the tools of drawing became nothing more than a prehistoric Xerox machine.
We do not want to aspire to be photographic copy machines. We want to understand the tools of design and make images that reflects our sensibilities about the world. Now just to temper the young artist’s ego, we MIGHT…if we are very lucky and if we work very hard…add but a grain of sand to the beach of artistic accomplishments of the last 45,000 years. Even the biggest upheavals and revolts in art only add one more step to the museum staircase. No movement in art has ever dissasembled or destroyed the efforts which preceded it. Therefore, we are only looking to expand the visual log of art by the tiniest amount. But, if we are successful, that effort may be the most rewarding accomplishment of our entire lives.
What mistakes can we avoid?
If we had to describe the image the above image my Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ferndinando Scianna we could say?
“Its a picture of a woman carrying a basket on her head in a Balinese market.”
The content is simple. There are no tricks. She is not actually an Ex-Queen reduced to ruins, now stripped of her clothing, begging for food. The black and white image by Cartier-Bresson is a common a scene as any in Bali during the 1940‘s’s. Forty years later when Cartier-Bresson’s friend and collegue Ferdiando Scianna went to Bali, he took, as some might describ it, the SAME picture with only a few differences.
Photographer Cartier-Bresson VS Scianna
Type Black & White Film Slide Film
Year 1949 1989
Orientation Vertical Vertical
Angle Overhead Overhead
Gazing Direction Right Right
On paper, these images seem very similiar, even though forty years seperate their creation. But if we look at the design elements that Cartier-Bresson employeed and Scianna copied, we will see the difference between the Master and the Apprentice.
Just as a small aside, I just want to say that I have no axe to grind against Scianna. He has made some wonderful images throughout his career. He and Cartier-Bresson were good friends, and these articles are not intended to come across as picking on one photographer. There are oversights in Scianna’s image that can teach us invaluable lessons.
Compared to the accomplishments of Cartier-Bresson, we will all have a tough time. His work stands heads and shoulders above many of his colleauges. Additionally, it is useful to copy the work of earlier masters, namely HCB. There is no better way to learn a craft. We mimick, practice, refine and innovate. Its a tradition that is centuries old. Within the tradition of “Making Studies” I believe that artists have an ethical obligation to give credit to the senior artists who were responsible for informing their craft and not run off claiming they were struck by immaculate genius. NO ONE was born a great photographer, they all learned. Some learned faster than others, but they all put in their time.
Where’s the difference?
The primary difference, which I believe everyone can see is that Cartier-Bresson’s picture looks more active. We can FEEL the turn of her head, the swing of her hips and the activity of the market. The image is more alive. Depicting action in a still image is the photographers dilemma. Cartier-Bresson succeeds. His image breathes, bounces, and exists in a state of perpetual motion. So HOW DOES HE DO IT?
Let’s look at Scianna first to understand what does not work. Just because we shoot at funny angles, like up or down at a figure, the angle will not imbue them with a sense of movement. Scianna shot the image from almost the same angle as Cartier-Bresson, but he did not pay attention to the position of the woman. The first mistake Scianna makes is the head and the body look the same way. This is an instant killer of movement. If the head and body look the same direction, the image will feel very still. Leonardo Da Vinci explained how the head and the body should be oriented in “A Treatise on Painting.” With the head and body facing the same way, Scianna is off to a rough start.
Secondly, in Scianna’s picture, the swing of the hips is impossible to see because it is cropped out. He should have tipped the camera down further and taken a step back. Hips and shoulders have a special relationship with each other. When the right hip drops the right shoulder rises. Don’t beleive me?
EXERCISE: Try this…stand in the mirror perfectly straight, like a soldier. Shift all your weight on to your left leg. Immediately, the right side of your pelvis will drop and your right shoulder will rise up. When an artist learns to draw the figure, they study how the shoulders and hips can set the entire tone for a gesture. In Scianna’s picture, he eliminates this possibility when he crops out the hips.
Thirdly, Scianna lacks an overall design scheme. Cartier-Bresson’s image is designed using arcs. There is are three main arcs that are echoed in the woman’s body. It gives the image unity and a repeated gesture. Remember these elements are subtle, but this does not preclude them from being very effective.
Can you see like an Artist?
That question always raises an eye brow because it sounds like artists “See” in a special way. They see as well as a musician hears. Through practice they are more sensitive, more aware, and more visually informed than someone who does not rely on seeing for a living. We are taught how to be visually literate, it does not appear naturally. The entire debate about people being gifted is a complete waste of time. Michelangelo was gifted and guess what he did? He worked for seventy years until he dropped dead and never wasted any time staring at himself in the mirror pondering his greatness.
How does Cartier-Bresson learn how to see arcs in a figure? Simple…he had a good figure drawing teacher. In drawing classes artist are taught to make abreviated sketches. They may have 10-30 seconds to draw an entire pose. Initally it looks like they are scribbling, but over time the artist learns to capture just the basic gestures which define a motion. In a few strokes of a pencil, we can get the sense that the model is leaning, sitting, standing, or lifting an object. When you look at the figure over and over again (the 10,000 hour Rule comes into play here) you become capable of spotting a pose in a split second. This is why Cartier-Bresson refered to photography as a “…recognition of an order.” THIS was the type of order he was talking about. It was a pose or a movement that defines the human form.
The Icing on the Cake
When you first start studying design, you will learn that every image has a dominant direction. Whether it is a portrait or a landscape or even an abstraction, every image has a dominant direction. Artists are frugal beings. It probably comes from years of scratching out livings. But in all seriousness, when an artist can “say more with less” the image will have greater carrying power.
If there are thirty different directions in an image, chances are it will read as flat and dead or too chaotic to be engaging. A good artist will use a handful of directions to define an image. Here we can see how Cartier-Bresson uses a dominant vertical (running through her arm, a supporting diagonal (catching the tilt of her head) and the reciprocal of the sinister diagonal (defining the angle of the breasts). Maybe Cartier-Bresson was a boob guy? Who knows. More likely he remembered that the nipples are useful coordinates when drawing a human body. If you draw them in the wrong place the chest look cross eyed.
When we go out into the world we never know what might be around the next corner. At times, we may step into an image rich enviroment, like a Balinese market, that just FEELS ripe for the picking. The purpose of training your photography is so that you can develop a confident authority over a scene. Once this happens you can anticipate activity and NAIL a shot when it takes shape. In the learning process, I would recommend studying a single artist for a month or so. If you are very disciplined spend a year. As you search for their images in your world a deluge of lessons will present itself. It is funny how often you find something when you have a sense of what you are looking for.
Is this intended to be a license to copy someone’s work? No, not at all. That is a misunderstanding. The goal is to study their work, gain an appreciation for their accomplishments and encorporate your own mixture of influences into your life long pursuit. The well of artistic knowledge is deep enough that you could not hope to consume all the lessons in one hundred lifetimes. And the unique mixture of influences will result in a distinct look.
So how many combinations are out there? Well I heard this example given by a mathmatician John Holland in “Hidden Order” (written in 1996). He said:
“Lets decompose the face into ten components (one of which is “eyes”), and lets allow ten alternatives for each component (as in “blue eyes,” “brown eyes,” “hazel eyes,”…) We can think of ten “bags” holding ten building blocks each, for a total of 10×10 = 100 building blocks. Then we can construct a face by choosing one building block from each bag. Because there are ten alternatives in each bag, we can construct any of the 1010 = 10 billion distinct faces with these 100 building blocks!”
Then he said there are more people alive today (1996) than have existed in the history of humanity (the population was approaching 7 billion). Which means that mathematically we are in the early stages of repeating combination of facial elements.
What does this mean for us?
When we consider that a camera allows us to choose the 360 degrees of a circle, 9 values from white to black, and a color gamut based on 16 colors…I would say that we do not need to concern ourselves with the “Risk of Repetition.” There are more variations available then we will ever fully understand. In the mean time enjoy, study the history of design, and if you are free join me at a workshop where we can really dive into the options I would love to meet you.