TOO MUCH OF NOTHING, AND VICE VERSA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WOULD BE FAIR TO ASSUME THAT MOST DEFINITIONS OF PHOTOGRAPHIC COMPOSITION refer to the total arrangement of space between objects, as well as the selection of what goes into, or stays out of, the frame. This can include objects like furniture or people, even intangibles like weather, but, for the most part, what we mean when we say a shot is well composed means that the final assignment of things within the frame is either balanced or busy, correctly directing the eye to things that are compelling and steering it away from items that are extraneous. The word “composition”, then, tends to be, primarily, a thing-based term.
I would argue, however, that the consideration of value and tone is every bit as vital a consideration as where the scenery is placed. Certainly the photographer must make solid calls on where a tree or a mountain or a left-right parameter figures in a shot, but key decisions in the use of color, contrast or overall exposure are also a kind of composing. In sound terms, for example, the sheer inventory of items in a photographic frame is roughly akin to the notes on a piece of sheet music the composer decides what the total number of notes will be on the page, and whether that arrangement is sparse or dense. However, the art of “composing” requires a second dimension; the values assigned to said notes, from near-silence to fortissimo; the rests; the attacks; even what orchestrators call “color”. The same thing holds true in a photograph.
Once I have agreed what the dispersal of, let’s say, the props within a shot is to be, I still have to direct the eye in terms of how it will weigh the importance of those items in relation to each other. In the case of the above image, the choice of monochrome and a relatively high-key exposure attempts to do that. This in turn leads to other decision: for example, is the texture of every single brick important here? The grain of the stucco buildings in the background? Do I need to adjust shadows so that more information is revealed within them? In other words, the picture’s composition is affected by every choice made in its making, not merely what makes it into the frame from top to bottom or left to right. Even without cropping, I can “de-select” certain visual data, or give clues as to its relative importance. That all just goes to whatever singular formula it takes to make a picture “work.” Bob Dylan wrote of the maddening power of a life defined by “too much of nothing”, but, without either changing “something” in a picture to “nothing”, or vice versa, we are, in effect, saying that all things in the frame are equal, and, artistically speaking, we know that just isn’t true.
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