By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PHOTOGRAPHER’S IMPACT IS ONLY PARTIALLY CREATED BY WHAT HE CHOOSES TO RECORD. That is, whatever his subject, be it banal or magnificent, his choice of what to shoot is only, at best, half of what makes or breaks his picture.
The other half of the miracle comes not from mastery of light, aperture, gear or conditions. It is in the frame, and what he includes or excludes from it. Landscape mode, portrait mode, big crop or little crop, the frame is the final determinant of how well the image argues for itself. The legendary director of photography for the New York Museum Of Modern Art, John Szarkowksi, expresses this idea for all time in his wonderful book The Photographer’s Eye:
To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft. The photograph’s edge defines content. The photographer edits the meanings and patterns of the world through an imaginary frame. This frame is the beginning of his picture’s geometry.
Consider, for a moment, the most vital, most inspiring images you’ve ever seen. Now imagine them cropped two inches wider, four inches to the left, five inches higher. The visual terms of engagement would be completely re-ordered. And what would be the result? Would you draw different conclusions, make different assumptions, experience a diminished ( or enhanced) sense of mystery?
The frame, and the choices the photographer makes in its design, is more decisive in the success of a picture than any other single factor. Technically imperfect photos become world-beaters every day simply because the frame is eloquent. And it also follows that a well-crafted bit of exposure can be dulled or blunted by a frame that is carelessly drawn.
The above image represents a choice, the drawing of a visual boundary. The top of the flowers and the objects surrounding the bucket aren’t missing because I shot too close, they’re deliberately excised because I made a deliberate decision that they didn’t add anything to the story I was trying to tell. You can disagree about whether I made the correct choice, but the making of that choice was as important (actually more important) than the subject itself.
Photographs have visual parameters, since we can’t make images big enough to include all of our experience. There are limits on the dimensions of what we show, and intelligent use of those boundaries can transform our work in marvelous ways.