By MICHAEL PERKINS
BETTER PHOTO HISTORIANS THAN ME WOULD BE ABLE to pinpoint the precise moment in time when the landscape-sized image first eclipsed the square image for most photo shooters. I’d tackle the search myself, but it’s late, and I’m about a martini and a half too far into relax mode, so there it is. But, regardless of the exact instant it first began to wane, the square is back, and bigger than ever, its refreshed use as a distinct mode of composition greeted like a revelation, rather than a return. Cool beans.
The unilateral quadrangle (I get wordy when I drink) managed to barely survive on the periphery of photography, even as the square-centric Polaroid print nearly wobbled out of existence, then came back, as hipsters in the lo-fi movement revived the use of instant print cameras. Then cel phones began offering a pre-selectable square setting for their cameras, and that became a thing. But the biggest boost for the square’s comeback came with a thing called Instagram. You may have heard about this quaint little app. I understand the developers made a few bucks on it.
Still, we are pretty universally conditioned to envision pictures in either “landscape” or (flip this up on its side) “portrait” modes, so much so that director Wes Anderson garnered as much press for his use of the old anamorphic aspect ratio in The Grand Budapest Hotel as he did for the movie’s content. Strangely, the square-format photograph is, upon its return, a bit of a retro novelty.
Composing a shot in roughly 1/3 less space than a landscape frame is a challenge, simply because we have fallen out of the habit for a few decades, but it does have a certain elegance. Lately, I have tried to use the square to effectively tell stories that I traditionally saw in vast or wide scenarios. Construction projects are one such case, in that they seem to call for wide angles and far reaching vistas, what we might call scope. The above image is my attempt to express most of what goes into a building project in what some would call cramped quarters. The main story elements, that is, the action, the range of tone, the compositional depth, are all present, but confined within the quadrangle. Of course, with a DSLR, I can’t start with a square, but I can envision where in the shot the best square is, and crop to it in post-processing.
Composing for a given dimension is a discipline, and, as such, it is valuable as a practice tool, since photographers should always be visualizing every possible way to get their story told. The square may be a prison. But it also may be an answer. The end result is what matters most.