By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT RECENTLY OCCURRED TO ME THAT THERE IS AT LEAST A “MINI-GENERATION” OF YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHERS who have never shot a single picture on a conventional camera. I’m talking 12-20-year-olds that may have created every shot of their relatively young shooting life on a mobile device. This is notable, because the concurrent tsunami of traffic routed to Instagram, Snapchat and other apps means that many of these new shooters have also made a ton of their images in the square format. That in turn means that, unlike many photographers using more traditional gear, they are comfortable framing up the world in this unique fashion, and that presents a creative challenge for everyone else making pictures.
For various reasons spanning most of a century, the square, which spent a long time as the default frame for all of photography, faded for a while from the 60’s through the early 2000’s. Social media and the lo-fi plastic toy camera craze have brought it back, and, with it, a very distinct way of seeing, especially if you’re out of practice with it.
For one example, many photographers are comfortable with locating their biggest point of interest dead center in a square, in a way that they never would be in a landscape frame. Certainly there is the temptation to bring all eyes right to the point of a picture, and symmetry is a great way to do it. I myself “discover” squares in pictures that were executed in wider dimensions, which is to say that I finally saw how little of the original information was really needed to make the point. In other words, a more formalized kind of cropping.
Today’s cel phones encourage people to experiment since the square format can be preselected as well as click-cropped to a perfect square after the fact. For me, it’s returning to a frame that I began with, shooting 620 medium-format square snaps in my youth.It was only after I began shooting movies and slides that I became drunk with power at “all that extra room”, whether I knew what to fill it with or not. Now, having returned to a bit of film work in those older cameras, I am now to the point where I look for a reason to compose in a square, just to see if I can get the narrative impact I want in the more restricted space. It’s like trying to creatively decorate a studio apartment.
If you haven’t worked in the unilateral dimensions of the square in a while, digital-era cameras make it easy to shoot a ton of stuff in a short space of time, speeding your comfort curve, and seeing how this alternate system can shape your sense of composition is great training, faster and cheaper than ever before.