Saturday, January 7, 2017

Formal Composition, What's it For, Anyway?

Contemporary studies on how people look at Art have largely debunked theories of "eye leading", which were never that mainstream anyways. Leading lines are bunk, so are various "it leads the eye out of the frame" kinds of ideas. Bunk, nonsense, rubbish. Untrue and not useful.

Arnheim's book Art and Visual Perception makes these two things clear. That formal composition does have an effect on how we feel about, how we react to, a picture. Secondly, that any specific detail of line, form, placement, light, and so on, must be considered in relation to everything else in the picture. It is not the placement of the subject, considered alone, which matters. It is the placement of the subject relative to the other elements of the picture and the relations of those elements to one another which, considered as a whole, produces the effects. The Rule of Thirds, Golden Whatevers, indeed anything that prescribes or recommends ways to handle specific elements of composition in isolation, are all bunk.

And yet, the gestalt, the whole of the picture taken as formal arrangements of graphical elements, does something.

(the book makes many things clear, these two items are among them)

Molly Bang's book, How Pictures Work, may be viewed as a taut little manual based on Arnheim's survey of research, and illustrates many of the ideas quite neatly. One of the things that becomes exquisitely clear is that the line between formal composition and things like story, even trame, is completely blurred. She creates complete stories using only formal shapes and colors. The red triangle becomes the protagonist, the vertical bars are a dark forest, and so on.

So here's a theory for you, really just an expansion of these earlier remarks.

The formal elements of a picture are going to produce some sort of effect on you, insofar as they can be separated from the subject matter itself. Any arrangement of tone, of line, of form, is a composition. When we have a photograph, as a general rule, there will be some clear subject matter in the frame, some real objects, people, and so forth. This real scene will also produce some sort of effect as you read it and attempt to discern what was actually going on in front of the lens at that moment.

In a nutshell, we have the formal properties of the photograph, and the reality represented by the photograph. Each produces an effect.

These two effects can conflict, or align.

I think you can make an argument that, generally, it's a good idea to have them align.

Your picture of Little Red Riding Hood, worriedly walking through the dark forest should, when you squint at it to blur it into an abstraction of a red triangle for the girl and dark verticals for trees, still read as a worried red triangle walking through a dark forest per Molly Bang.

I don't really know why this alignment is a good idea, but here are some hypotheses:
  • It makes the intent of the artist clear.
  • It makes the picture look like it was made on purpose.
  • Possibly there is something deeper going on in our visual cortex of whatever.

In any case this covers a lot of territory. It's why we isolate the subject, when there is one, with tone or color. It's why we manage white balance to create a cool mood, a warm mood, a sickly greenish mood -- whatever mood is in keeping with the idea of the picture. It's why we light the beautiful woman with soft beautiful light, why we light the chiseled athlete with hard, directional light. It's why we strive for visual balance, visual dynamism, visual imbalance, as needed to reflect the idea we're after.

Here too is a hint, perhaps, of how pure aesthetics might play in to the program. A beautiful subject, photographed with beautiful formal details, will generally produce a photograph which is itself a beautiful object. Similarly ugly, or horrific, but the market interest there is somewhat lower. I think there are many who would argue that it is enough to make a beautiful object, in which all the elements are pulling together toward beauty. Who am I, really, to disagree? The intent is clear. The picture looks like it was made on purpose. And perhaps there is some deeper cognitive satisfaction, or some deeper understanding of God, to be had from the picture alone if it be well enough made.

It all seems sort of obvious, stated this way, I think. But still, I feel good about being able to clear away a lot of clutter and underbrush, and to find that's what left is really what we knew all along, and that this seems to be on firm ground.

At any rate it is not clear to me how to knock the foundation out from under it.


  1. Yes, but isn't it funny how a lot of people rather rely on obscure (but codified) rules to determine whether a picture is good or not, than on their own aesthetic judgement? Extra bonus if these rules can yield numbers. Sometimes I wonder if the faith in one's own taste regardless of rules is one of the distinguishing features of an artist (or of a truly narrow-minded person ;^) ).

    Best, Thomas

    1. Hi Thomas - I tend to agree with you. Surely an absolute faith (or something approaching it) in ones own taste is the hallmark of an Artist.
      If you take the early impressionists you will know that they were generally unaccepted to the salons of their day. They did however, have faith in their own taste and we can enjoy the fruits if that faith now.
      Likewise with any talented photographer/artist who disregards the convoluted so-called rules espoused by the majority. Maintaining their faith in their own taste ensures an individuality of style and vision (if I may use that over used word).
      Of course this assumes that the faith keeps do have a modicum of talent in being able to involve the viewer in their work. Or as Andrew might say - the work has some element of trade attached to it.

    2. ....ETA - that last sentence should read "trame", not "trade"