Lessons in Composition for the Art Photographer

Epilogue One: Composition and Subject Matter

Most of our discussion to this point has concerned abstract design. Lines, masses, and colours create compositions regardless of subject matter. The same arrangement of shapes and colours that composes a successful abstract art painting would be equally effective applied to the contents a food product advertisement or a propaganda poster. The effectiveness of a given design is independent of its subject matter. We cannot, however, go on to conclude from this is that the effectiveness of a work of art is independent of its subject matter.

Vermeer's The Concert would function exactly the same compositionally if he had painted animal faces in place of human ones, or replaced the musical instruments with corpses and embalming paraphernalia. If Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile were instead a worried frown that would have no effect on the lines of attention within that painting. A photographer has a whole spectrum of options ranging from non-compositional documentary, such as forensic evidence, to content-irrelevant abstract compositions, such as the swirl of colours in an oil slick. Most photographs, however, involve both composition and content.

A very common beginner's mistake is to ignore the fundamentals of composition in the presence of powerful subjects. One might make a pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls in order to make wonderful images. Yet images of wonder are not necessarily wonderful images. The obvious easiest way to make a great photograph would be to go to the nearest museum then photograph a famous painting.

Strangely, I can't think of a single famous painting of the Grand Canyon or of the Great Pyramid or the Eiffel Tower. Imagine that Rembrandt, Renoir, and Raphael had been transported to the Grand Canyon along with their paints, brushes, and canvas. All three would surely have paused to ooh and ah at the magnificent scenery and to buy picture postcards as souvenirs. Then Rembrandt would have painted Raphael; Raphael would have painted the descending mule team as the Flight into Egypt; and Renoir would have tried to persuade the teamster's daughter to pose in dishabille. If you then asked each of them why they hadn't painted the magnificent scenery, they would each have had the same reply: "But I did! The wonderful pinks and salmons of those rocks and the pure blues of the sky made wonderful backdrops."

How many gaudy sunsets or sunrises do we find among the works of famous painters? It's not that a great painting or photograph couldn't be made of the Grand Canyon or of a colourful sunset or of a Hollywood starlet. Rather, it's that the principles of good design still need to be incorporated. Grandiosity of subject matter fails to compensate for poverty of design. Great artists tend to mistrust grandeur. They want neither themselves nor their viewers to stop seeing the work of art when they've only seen its surface.

The abstract artist takes that a step farther. She says: "I'll make sure you don't stop at the superficial contents of my creation - I'll eliminate them!" No argument. Just as Picasso had his blue period, just as Degas frequently did charcoal sketches, even as many contemporary photographers continue to work in black-and-white, great work can be the product of self-imposed handicaps. But normally a work of art is a duet in which subject matter and design mutually enhance each the other.

In Lesson Three we discussed the fundamental role of energy or dynamics in creating a good composition. Subject matter augments design by imbuing it with two new continents of energy: meaning and emotion. Young writers almost invariably have to have their knuckles wrapped over and again with a fundamental dictum: write what you know. The teenaged poet wants to write sweeping masterpieces on love and death; her teacher wants her to write sestets on sweeping floors at McDonalds. To write a symphony you only need to know the superficial parameters of each instrument. To write a violin concerto you need to be intimately familiar with its every technical idiosyncrasy. I'll leave the extrapolation to the visual arts of the underlying principle involved in both analogies as an exercise to the passionate student.