COMP RULE #1 (There is no #2)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN BEGINNING FORMAL INSTRUCTION IN PHOTOGRAPHY, students are typically steeped in whole systems of procedure on the creation of a composition. In this pursuit, we’ve all trudged through swamps of techno-sludge, from “golden triangle” to “rule of thirds” to “leading lines”, along with dozens of other schemes for organizing visual information within the frame. Many of these credos are, in fact, valuable in training the eye to prioritize the data in their pictures and streamline their effectiveness, and I applaud their use. What irks the semanticist within me, however, is when these tips are referred to as rules. That’s when things wander into the weeds.
This is not mere finicky wordplay on my part; first, the idea of the word “rules” being applied to something as mutative as art makes no sense to me. It is in the defiance of accepted norms that art fully triumphs, and photography cannot breathe if it’s drowning in its own catechism. I understand that we humans love to list things, to map steps out in order of perceived importance. However, when it comes to arranging the photographic frame, I contend that all the approaches we learn about are merely that…approaches, and that, were I to grudgingly use the word rule in regard to composition, that there would only be one: engage the eye.
What else is there? Photographs begin as one person’s vision sent forth with the aspiration of becoming a shared experience. To that end, everything is about grabbing the viewer’s eye and effectively saying, here is where I want you to look; here is the order of importance among the things in this picture. All of the tricks taught about composition are merely a means to acheiving, by many roads, this one objective. Use whatever graphs, spirals, force perspectives or focus tricks you like, or mix them all together; if they don’t result in a conversation between you, the picture and the audience, then you have nothing except mere technical mastery. And just as there are paintings that are more expert in execution than in emotional effect, there are millions of wondrous exposures that communicate nothing.
In the inset above, the original of a street scene image is an attempt to express the size and energy of an urban neighborhood. There’s nothing technically wrong with the picture, but, after looking at it for several weeks, I decided that the energy of the shot lay not in the car traffic or even the height of the buildings, but in the conversation between the two men at left. In the cropped version of the shot, seen directly above, this relationship is pushed to the foreground, without losing the feel of the city’s busy energy or scope. Certainly, basic compositional rules might have pronounced the first shot “balanced”, but it’s the deliberate intervention taken to create the tighter version that is an act of composition. And, of course, this is not meant to hold my own work out as an example to be followed. It’s just an illustration of the point that rule-breaking is where pictures begin, not where they go to die. Even though a picture is mounted on a wall with the help of a hammer and nail, no one would argue that either the hammer or the nail is what makes the picture compelling. Engage the eye, and you will have faithfully executed the only compositional “rule” that matters.