The purpose of this piece is to lay out of framework to address the question of, “Is photography serious art, and if so, is there a basic framework I can have to understand how to begin mastering it?”
For far too long, photography has only been understood as an expression of technology. Articles appear in international newspapers every few months talking about how photography is not art. And we are inundated with photographs in today’s world that show no more care and mastery in their formation than a fifth grader painting by numbers—which seems to empower the critics all the more.
They are wrong. Photography can be serious art, studied at the most rigorous levels, and can provide an entire career’s worth of engagement and improvement. The problem is that there are thousands of books and articles to study (not to mention the work of great artists), and most people grind to a halt. They don’t know where to begin. If we lived in the Renaissance, we’d seek out and join a school. But largely, in today’s world, it’s not nearly that simple. We have access to so much knowledge that it actually ends up driving more away, or into confusion, than into intentional study. We can spend decades spinning our wheels and not even know it.
So here I will offer a simple framework for understanding photography as serious art, and as a starting point to enter the stream yourself so you can begin skilled and formal study if you desire. Primarily I will speak to photographers, but this same framework is how I recommend the study to models, editors, and designers as well (especially models).
Many aspiring models think they want to enter the field because they are attractive or they love the attention. Model Mayhem is filled with people who join with ambitions and then get used by people with cameras (and no artistic talent). It’s depressing. Modeling is actually a fantastic way to engage the art, but the real job of a model is to collaborate with the artist on both content and composition, and a GREAT model can be a powerful participant when paired with a master of composition in photography. Models can contribute as much skill to the making of the art as the photographer themselves. They are NOT just pretty faces. But great models must study with the same rigor as the artist, learning dynamic composition, geometry, rhythm, and then be able to create these with their form.
Designers and Editors face the a similar pressure. They USE images and art and must be able to distinguish the good from the bad and figure out how to use images most effectively. They must be trained to read photographs, and then they must deploy them masterfully.
Below I will give you a basic summary of the framework—the Loop & Spiral and the Legos. That’s it. All other knowledge can be hung on that simple framework. Of course, it’s not that easy. And by simplifying into a framework my explanation will be incredibly flawed from the beginning.
But this is about a starting point, and I think it will be able to do this for you. While this entry may be long compared to the click-bait type articles on photography that are common in today’s world, it is also an irresponsibly shortened way to begin understanding serious art and how to get into that path of study.
I wish you great success in your work.
The Loop and the Spiral:
1. Level one: intuition.
2. Level two: competition of composition.
3. Level three: master composition and content.
1. Composition: East vs West
-Light, rhythm, symmetry, balance, geometry,
-rational vs irrational
2. Content: humor, pathos, expression, gesture, motion, moment, irony, narrative
3. Expression: short jokes, collections, exploration, essays, narratives, signatures
Most Simply: The Loop has three levels. Multiple Loops form the Spiral. The Legos are the individual building blocks and can be understood in three broad categories.
The Loop and Spiral—basic explanation.
The Loop and the Spiral is a way to understand the basic process that photographers follow to make great photographs. When we understand this process, we can begin to see a path to mastery. We can begin to see the properties that separate bad work from good work. And we can spend time focusing on the things that are more likely to bring us success.
Basically, the Loop is made up of three levels of thinking and choice-making. Each Loop contains all three levels, ideally (though most untrained photographers never make it through a single loop and just stay at “level one” shooting).
One Loop gives way to another, and another, forming a spiral as photographers try to see, interpret, design, and capture a moment of life. We may have 2 hours for a spiral, or we may have 2 seconds, but the fundamentals of the process are the same.
Level One: This is the most visceral level of any kind of art, and especially of photography. It holds an important place in how we become photographers in the first place, and explains why people who pick up a camera—untrained--can still engage the medium and fall in love with photography.
This is the level where we see something, as humans, and we desire to capture it. It is intuitive. It is a basic moment that matters to us (not to be confused with Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment, discussed later). It is carnal and psychological. It looks for the most powerful or basic compositional elements like strong emotion, strong geometry, or uncommon light and shadow. The elements captured may make a successful photograph, even without any further compositional elements, IF they are captured correctly (if the elements of the photograph, even at this basic level, are compelling enough and force us to stop and consider the work, it has succeeded). But often if these images are successful it is as much due to luck, or to trained intuition, than to anything else.
For examples of successful types of work that often operate at this level, study some of the great photographs from conflict zones and from war zones.
Level Two: Level one is the most basic level of photographic composition. It is a type of carnal or emotional capturing. Often we see things we want to capture, but with the vast majority of images, they don’t actually capture as well as we intended. Why? Because composition matters, and very few images are visceral enough to be driven by only a single element. Often there is so much chaos in the frame, compositionally, that what we WANT to be immediately seen and read by viewers is weakened by other compositional forces.
Ultimately, composition is about creating order from chaos, and very intentionally leading a viewer through the frame. But we are competing against human psychology, and psychology is a big deal. We may WISH that people wouldn’t jump into a photograph from left to right, follow the gazes of the subject, or look first to the areas of greatest contrast. But they do, and fighting against it is often the wrong choice.
So you’ve seen a scene, and something was worth capturing. Maybe it was a tender moment between two people, and intuitively you put the camera to your eye and took a level one photo (at least you have something in the camera, and if you’re lucky, something good). But after that moment, serious artists will go deeper. They will begin to design the scene, and begin making a great photograph instead of betting on luck. This is level two. Level two is called “the competition of composition”.
At this level, the photographer is studying the major compositional elements in the scene not for perfection, but for which are the strongest and which may compete with the subject of the photograph. If you have a dominant compositional element that detracts or competes with the subject, psychology will win and you will lose. A major diagonal leading people away from the subject? You will lose. The image will fail. Bad geometry? You will lose. Powerful area of contrast competes with attention for the subject? You will lose. Psychology wins.
At level two, the photographer begins to work through compositional elements at the most basic level of simply looking for major problems and trying to remedy them as quickly and cleverly as possible. And while it sounds simple, this step alone can dramatically increase the quality of the images you take. If you’ve really seen a powerful moment, or are working with strong geometry at the intuitive level, simply making sure it gets to compete for primacy in the viewer’s eye can raise you chance of a successful image.
Level Three: So now you’ve seen something worth shooting, and you’ve worked to ensure that no major compositional issues are fighting against the subject. Wonderful. Sounds easy, but in fact mastering the first two steps can take years to do well. But what next? What if we don’t just want to save an image from being psychologically pillaged, and instead we want to take control of how viewers perceive the image. What if we want to be designers, who take control of the medium and have great influence over creating images that matter to others?
This is level three. It’s called Master Composition. It is the approach behind all serious art, and for whatever reason, it has been studied less and less seriously in our current world where art is more about therapy and self expression than about artistic rigor and design. But I promise, this is only a phase, and the vast majority of the great art we have from the renaissance to great music today is the product of intentional composition and design. This step is where we get to shape the elements of the photograph to our advantage, and we take a dominant role in our relationship with the viewer.
Master composition requires the same rigor of study that was passed down through all the great art schools. There are some differening points of view and approaches, but for the most part there are common properties of great design that are learned and then cleverly and creatively employed. Many of these basic properties are still taught in serious art schools and in serious design programs (from graphic design to product design, etc). This includes ideas like compositional geometry, rhythm, amplification, echo, focus, gamut, harmony, and mastery of light and shadow/tonal values. This level aims for mastery of chaos and psychology.
When all of these elements are designed intentionally with excellent content, each piece strengthening and resonating with the others, we now have what Cartier-Bresson called “the DECISIVE moment”. The decisive moment was about the intentional design of masterful composition with masterful content.
This part of photography is absolutely serious art, and can be studied with all the rigor of serious art. It can drive a lifetime and career of study, practice, and improvement. And once it is understood, you will find that photography can actually be equally rigorous and skillful to other forms of art like drawing and painting (and deserving of equal respect). While a painter can lay out a compositional geometry and then go back and change brush strokes over weeks to support the geometry, photographers must make it all happen in concert with the living world around us.
Painters are like mechanics. They can turn the car off before they change the fan belt. Photographers are like heart surgeons—we cannot stop the machine, but instead, but work with it and work hard not to destroy it as we do our work.
The more you work with strobes, directed models, and studios—the more like a painter photographers can become. We can work more like the mechanic. The more photographers work with moments that occur outside their control (street photography, events/weddings, documentary, reportage, or conflict zones), the more like the heart surgeon we must work.
Master composition is the direction that serious photographers will take. Everything below this level is hobby work, therapy work, entertainment, etc. Nothing in the world wrong with that if it brings a person pleasure, but we need to be honest about the level of the work we are engaging.
The Spiral: The reason we call this the Loop and the Spiral is that they work as a cyclical pattern. We all begin in the same place with photography—that intuitive and visceral identification of something in a scene. A person. A bit of strong geometry. An emotion. Something. It grabs us. We “click”. Then, if we have time, we begin to work through the competition of composition. We burn down the weeds and clear the clutter. We “click” again. NOW we take our time and we begin to work as master composers. We don’t just remove brush and clutter, we begin to BUILD something. The longer we work a scene, the more we study the geometry, the rhythm, the contrast, and the light and shadows with skill. We design. We compose. We work to capture the decisive moment. We don’t always get it, but we have much greater influence over our work and how our work reads to others.
But it doesn’t stop there. One loop may be all we get, but ideally, we keep working it. Now we keep at it, and we see with the eye of a master composer, and we go back and dig in again for more visceral or powerful elements that fit or amplify within our composition (we take our insights from level three and dig back in for something that strikes us as a new level one—just more aware of our design). And we make sure the new elements don’t compete negatively with other things as the scene develops (level two), and we design around them again (level three)… and so on until the river of life around us pulls our subject away and the order we sought in the chaos can no longer be had.
The moment passes. “You may kiss the bride” breaks down into people shuffling out of the venue. As photographers, we must work with this world and our moments eventually cease. That river of life continues without our say so. The light changes. Expressions fade. The people move on.
And so for each moment we seek to capture, we work through the Loop and the Spiral. And the more masterful we become as artists, the more quickly and skillfully we can work through each Loop. It is the work of a lifetime in photography to master this.
The Spiral isn’t shown here as some neat, symmetrical pattern. I tried to show it ugly, because in reality, that’s how it usually works. Sometimes we can smooth it out in a studio, for a time, but the closer to moments and authenticity we work the more “ugly” it’s path can get for us. And that’s part of the challenge (and the thrill).
The Legos: Basic Explanation
Think of the properties of great composition as a bucket of legos. On their own, one is not necessarily more important than the others. It is their relationship to each other, in a specific context, that tells you which one matters more. The study of master composition is the study of these legos, and how to design their relationship to each other, in order to create great photographs and great art.
Sometimes what makes the image is the use of light an shadow. Sometimes an expression. Sometimes it’s the geometry. Five people could all shoot the same scene and create very different results. This is art—the creative choice among many alternatives in order to generate an end product. How we create our art is about the choices we make. (Master Composition is about being a masterful choicemaker).
There are 3 primary categories of legos I think it is good to understand. At least at the most basic level. Remember we can go much, much deeper but the purpose of this piece is only to provide a framework for launching study. I’ll give the basics to each category, and suggest some places to dig deeper, but now it becomes art and you can pick your own place to start and your own school of study and methodology for learning.
First Category: Composition
The third level of thinking and choice making in the Loop is Master Composition, and I recommend beginning here. Just learn it right from the start, and it will improve both your intuition and your sense of competition in the other two parts of the Loop.
In this way, we can learn just as Rembrandt, Picasso, and Cartier-Bresson learned. We seek out those who can teach us, and we study under them. We seek out the art of others and gain insight into how it was made. This is the study of dynamic composition, geometry, light/shadow, echoing, symmetry, curves, contrast, movement, direction, and etc. It is the study of how we create 3d illusions out of 2d images. It’s an old, old art. No one aspect is very hard to study, but to weave them all together, skillfully, is the work of a lifetime.
Also, keep in mind there are different worldviews around composition. Let’s call them “East vs. West”.
Western composition is based on a rational view of the world. It prizes symmetry, rationality, balance, root composition, hierarchy, and it’s aesthetic is built on these. It is suspicious of natural forms.
Eastern composition is very different. It is based on asymmetry, simplicity, “emptiness”, irrationality, naturalism, and what is “unsaid”. It is suspicious ornamentation and rationality.
Personally, I actively study in both schools. I think both have a lot to offer, and there are reasons I would design according to both. Both have long traditions behind them. I take most of my study in the Western schools and methods, but I find it a rich and powerful study to try and balance that way of creating with the Eastern schools.
And there are plenty of ways that these two mindsets for composition bridge between each other. They both prize compelling geometry. They both prefer curves and diagonals to rigid verticals. They both work deeply with light and shadow. There is plenty of common ground for someone to move smoothly between them if they desired.
Where To Go To Begin Studying Master Composition:
“Canon of Design”--http://www.ipoxstudios.com/canon-of-design/
Adam Mirelli’s Blog--http://www.adammarelliphoto.com/2011/06/your-shot-004/
Myron Barnstone Studios (plenty on youtube, as an introduction, as well)--http://barnstonestudios.com/
"Wabi-Sabi For Artists, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers”-http://www.amazon.com/Wabi-Sabi-Artists-Designers-Poets-Philosophers/dp/0981484603
“Wabi-Sabi” by Richard Martin, PDF--http://dt.pepperdine.edu/courses/greatbooks_v/gbv_101/Wabi-%20Sabi.PDF
“In Praise of Shadow”, PDF--http://dcrit.sva.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/In-Praise-of-Shadows-Junichiro-Tanizaki.pdf
“Wa: The Essence of Japanese Design”--http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00N4FAGIY/ref=ox_sc_sfl_title_6?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=A2PGLRID2VZHTS
Second Category: Content
This may seem basic, but it’s not. The ability to understand content and how it can drive an image is the same task of all great writers, poets, storytellers, and (many) artists. For photographers, it is as critical to us as it is to an author (and, in fact, photography is an act of authorship). For someone who only shoots abstract still life, this may not matter as much. But for everyone else—it holds an equal place to composition in terms of the importance of study and mastery.
This is how photographers find, evaluate, and work with subjects. It affects how much we can do with a photograph that has been made, and how much impact it may have.
The study of content is about the study of humor, pathos, expression, gesture, motion, moment, irony, narrative, and etc. It is how we tell a story, or tell a joke, or lead people through an argument. I won’t provide any links for this part, because the supply is endless. But I will give you some basic guidance on where to start:
The humanities, science, literature, history, etc: We are all drawn to different types of stories, or different fields of study. Each of these fields has different methodologies and practices to creating great work. You can dig into fields you want to explore, study in them, and use what you learn to guide your sense of content.
Psychology and Sociology: understanding how people think, feel, and behave can help you predict, study, and anticipate the patterns that unite us.
The arts: music, painting, drawing, ballet, story telling, film, sculpture, etc. From Chiaroscuro to Impressionism to Surrealism to Jazz to Pop. Each art has it’s own point of view about the world, our place in it, and what is worth engaging (beauty, honesty, despair, pleasure, etc).
Photography is dynamic enough to tell a quick joke, draw attention to the irony in our culture, to tell a powerful story, to become a defining symbol, or to make a skilled argument. But we must marry great composition with great content.
Third Category: Expression.
At a basic level, we must DO something with the art we create (assuming we don’t just want to lock it away in a private drawer).
How we intend to express our art is an important part of how we create it. We can use single images to create short jokes. We can create powerful “signature images” which take on the power of symbols in our culture (and the power of photography is very much the power of symbol—see: Sociology and Psychology). Or we can take groups of images and explore the world via collections, essays, arguments, gallery presentations, or narratives (see: Family of Man Exhibit, Photo Essay Work, or the collections of work on conflicts like Vietnam or WWII).
Or we can be mercenaries, and simply take commissions from others and express our work according to their preferences and desires (which can be quite fun and challenging over time). Commissions can come in the form of clients who pay you, or they can be via juried exhibitions, contests, or competitions.
Again, no real links to follow here. There’s far too much to give an honest starting point—we each must find our own. But I would advise exploring how each of these types of expression work—what separates the winners from the losers—and practicing within them to find the modes of expression that drive you and help you feel like your jumper cables are hooked to something with electricity that can drive you. Google around them. Study essays from the LIFE magazine archives, or study the signature images from the last few decades in Time’s “pictures that defined the year” collections. Or go visit gallery exhibitions in museums or studios and see what you like about them, what you don’t, and form a point of view of a better way to engage it. And so on.
Just be intentional about it.
The purpose of this piece was to distill thousands and thousands of pages about the ways into, and through, serious art so that a photographer, model, editor, or designer could more intentionally study (and begin mastery of) their craft.
In a very brief, and very flawed, way, I hope this has been done.
There is nothing wrong with someone who wants to use photography as simple pleasure or therapy, just as there is nothing wrong with someone who only wants to listen to Pop music on the radio as their entire musical diet. For those wishing to go deeper, and who wish to study photography as master composers, just realize there is an unbelievably rich and challenging world waiting for you.
It’s not all therapy art or technology. There is a different way.