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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Ultimate Counter-Example?

Take a look at this picture:

I can't think of a single rule of composition that this thing doesn't violate. Rule of Thirds? Dynamic Symmetry? Golden Anything? Clean Edges? Don't lead the eye out of the frame? Subject isolation? Point of highest contrast "draws the eye"? Level the horizon? Everything. Try your own favorites out to see if this thing passes them. I'm not even sure he's got the focus on his subjects.

What is it? Robert Frank. "US 90, Texas, 1955". It's better than any photograph I've ever taken. How 'bout you?

Why does it work? Because of the things in it. The people we find after a moment and inspect are wonderfully interesting and sympathetic. We find them without any trouble, we don't need leading lines. The bright headlight which, in amateur critique parlance would no doubt "totally kill it" is in fact a total non-issue in terms of finding the subject, and is vital to the life of the frame. The junk around the edge of the frame doesn't matter, because we find the people instantly, and everything else is less important.

Frank framed it to include the antenna and the headlight, and to give his subjects breathing room in the frame (the antenna and the headlight don't need it), and maybe to eliminate other people in the car. That's why the horizon is cattywumpus, but I bet you didn't even notice that until I pointed it out to you.

It's a terrific photo, which nails a certain time and place, and a feeling. That sensation of being pulled over out in the middle of noplace, USA, is distinctive and instantly recognizable. Because Frank got the right things into the frame, "composition" be damned. (To be fair, and to toot my own horn a little, I think one could argue that Ruskin might find some things to approve of, but he wasn't really a "rules" guy and he also sort of actually knew a few things.)

Next time you see some maroon going on about some sort of rule or method of composition, pull this one out and see what you think.


  1. Really? I see an image completely built on the rule of 3rds. The windscreen, the light at the bottom, relate strictly to thirds. Also the placement of the child's eyes which is absolutely critical to the image are exactly one third from to top.

    1. Well I disagree with the lines on your your grid, but how about that little slice of white down in the bottom right? Chalk on black board yes. So distracting!

      Truth is I never saw it 'till you brought up the rule.