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Thread: Thoughts on composition, learning from Ansel Adams

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    Thoughts on composition, learning from Ansel Adams

    A friend lent me [/I]Ansel Adams, The American Wilderness[/I], and I was just looking through it again. It brought forward some thoughts that I thought I'd share.

    I have almost no familiarity with the work of artist-photographers whose native language reads either right to left or top to bottom. It is often observed that Westerners' reading of images, and "natural" tendencies in composition, derives in part from our learning to read left to right. Viewing Adams's brilliant composition (that is, that which infuses the works he composed), one may wonder if it has the quite same affect for those not comfortable reading left to right. This is a subtlety, in a sense; Adams' images, like those of the great Classical painters, for example, not to mention the works of their counterparts in musical composition, speak in a universal language capable of transcending a host of cultural dividers. Great art tends to reach into the mind and heart everywhere.

    Among the thoughts in which this one passed, came my awareness of a recurrent principle in many of the compositions I was viewing. Before I say more, let me underline the word principle, as in principle of self-organization, principle of ordering. Semantic arguments are often quick to leap into, and sidetrack, such discussions, so I will avoid the use of a number of terms that may connote very different concepts to the range of readers here. I mean essentially to distinguish—and distance—my discussion from "rules of composition," "compositional tricks," and so forth.

    That said, I would point any who may not have been aware of it, to the principle of the diagonal in rectangular (including square) images, and Adams's employment of it. Good composition may draw on many means to achieve its end; great composition does so with a mastery that puts all such chosen means fully in the service of the intention. It can be instructive nonetheless to see how an artist such as Adams often employs the diagonal principle of organization to serve his subject.

    There are times when a major physical feature of the landscape leads us, from, for instance, bottom left toward upper right. More often, however, there is no physical object playing this role, yet we are similarly guided by the implication of such diagonal movement, through the "activity" of visual elements which the artist has organized his or her composition to feature. For this, the number of ways equals that of potential photographs; it is infinite. In virtually every case, however, in Adams, the implied vector, be it relatively continuous, whispered by quite separate elements, or even barely hinted at by, perhaps, a parallel of elements across the image from each other, results from the artist's keen perception of its potential attainment of visual form, through a combination of light and shadow play on the physical forms in the subject, with exacting placement of the lens, and scrupulous attention to the unity of the image in its entirety. Naturally, timing tends to play a vital role here, as the shadow of a cloud, or a passing highlight on an edge or surface, may separate a successful result from a good try.

    Again, this active—one might even say living—diagonal principle (which gets interesting when one studies physical geometry or Classical musical counterpoint, which latter Adams understood well, of course, as an accomplished pianist of unusual talent) has no monopoly on composition, nor should it be employed as an excuse for finding an appropriate unifying principle for a given subject. But there is much we can learn from being aware of it and how it operates in harmony, and in time, as we view great compositions by Adams and many others.
    Philip Ulanowsky

    Sine scientia ars nihil est. (Without science/knowledge, art is nothing.)
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/156933346@N07/

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    Jim Jones's Avatar
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    Re: Thoughts on composition, learning frm Ansel Adams

    Rules have their uses by teachers or writers of photographic manuals. They are crutches for photographers lacking confidence. Ultimately, it is the subject and whatever message the photographer imposes upon it that should dictate the composition.

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    Re: Thoughts on composition, learning frm Ansel Adams

    IMHO the best effect of learning composition "rules" is that it may allow a learner photographer (like me) to understand that composition is a powerful resource.

    Most of composition rules come from painters and sculptors, so this comes from a lot of centuries ago, and those rules contain an amazing amount of wisdom.

    Every composition rule is quite effective, we can use any rules or not for a situation, but in general it's not highly regarded that a work is based in enforcing canned composition rules while lacking content, message or emotion.

    Sometimes it's difficult to say if somethig has more or less quality, and making the compositions with rules or aganist rules won't tell it, fortunality art is way beyond mundane assessments.

    What it is true is that a share of the images that are universally aclaimed as great have amazing "optical flows". Psycology can enlight a bit... but this always has controversy...

    Let me go a bit forward... what is true is that an image may have a narration inside, this is most viewers may "inspect" (or discover) the different elements inside the image in a certain order, and that sequence may help a narration.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Then the viewer concentrate the attention in different spots.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Well, (at least to me) it's dificult to say how all that impacts in the aesthetics, but is it does.

    IMHO there are some individuals that have a gift and they are naturally able to make great images or art, their spirits fly and connect to the subject in amazing ways that usually cannot be predicted. That people may use or not composition for that.

    There is a composition example that fascinates me, it's this scutpture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piet%C3%A0

    The composition is linked to the "3 harmonies" that this art is said to have:

    First harmony: The axes of Jesus' body are opposed to the curved and angled folds of the Virgin Mary's dresses.
    Second harmony: Jesus' right arm falls limp. This is opposed to the left side of the Virgin, who is full of life and commiseration.
    Third harmony: The folds in the Virgin's dress with hollows form contrasts of chiaroscuro. These are opposed to the clear and smooth surfaces of the body of Jesus, expressed in "sfumato".

    Well, perhaps sometimes composition can connect with the scene and it can evoke a lot. Amazingly this art was made with a hammer. So complaining about the tools one has it leads to nothing.

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    Re: Thoughts on composition, learning frm Ansel Adams

    Harmony. Pere said it three times. Philip, you said unifying, unity, and harmony. I really think harmony is the goal and unity and unifying are the results or description.

    Back in the 90's I was into desktop publishing.. Page design is a pretty undervalued trade, but I put away in my mind some composition skills. For page design to work, you need good content and good harmonious layout and intuitively it looks good. I think the harmony of elements in a page of a magazine or poster design is no different than organizing elements of a photograph.

    Later on when studying photography, I really liked Arthur Wesley Dow's "Composition" book better than formulaic basic photography instruction as it was about harmony of shapes and tones. I am not certain, but suspect it was a popular teaching book for photographer's of AA's period.

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    Re: Thoughts on composition, learning from Ansel Adams

    Now that you have been exposed to Adams, do you visualize or "pre_- visualize your compositions?
    "My forumla for successful printing remains ordinary chemicals, an ordinary enlarger, music, a bottle of scotch - and stubbornness." W. Eugene Smith

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    Jac@stafford.net's Avatar
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    Re: Thoughts on composition, learning from Ansel Adams

    Frankly, I see no correspondence to diagonal elements and AA's's intentions, but in one case I can make one up as literature - ask. It is useful to look at AA's many different prints and exposures of the same subject at different dates. His print manipulations are profoundly different as are his originals of the same scene, thus the compositions are different as well. I can point to examples.

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    Re: Thoughts on composition, learning from Ansel Adams

    I think there is a tendency to over-analyze composition. Some of the geometric and mathematical overlays on images are too fanciful for words.

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    Re: Thoughts on composition, learning from Ansel Adams

    Valuable insights, gents. It is true that some of the ill-named rules of composition can help to make someone new to creating visual images aware of the role that composition plays. Strand conducted his early abstracts as experiments in the structure of images, a concept then new to him. Early on in my photography, I latched on to the so-called rule of thirds, which helped me, since I had no concept of composition whatsoever. As we have noted, however, a unified composition responds to the subject and the artist's idea for its organization, and this can include the employment of visual ironies. Dragging mental logarithmic spirals or grids as preconceptions into the act of composition lies intrinsically outside this domain. So many books and tutorials on composition feature of a parade of such rules, as often as not using illustrations that barely fit even them. Principle is the more challenging to comprehend but offers the greater reward.
    Philip Ulanowsky

    Sine scientia ars nihil est. (Without science/knowledge, art is nothing.)
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/156933346@N07/

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    Re: Thoughts on composition, learning from Ansel Adams

    My printing process reverses the image...so left-right...right-left, I don't know.

    "Reading" the streets right-to-left as you cross in London or Tokyo will get you hit
    "Landscapes exist in the material world yet soar in the realms of the spirit..." Tsung Ping, 5th Century China

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    Maris Rusis's Avatar
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    Re: Thoughts on composition, learning from Ansel Adams

    Since no one has mentioned it so far I will.

    There is a vast art discipline called Formal Analysis in which a picture is evaluated as a set of forms, tones, masses, lines, proportions, balances and imbalances. Identification of subject matter is irrelevant. Art educators can draw salary expounding the principles of formal analysis. Students could choose to pay money to be taught how to do it and what conclusions to draw. Critic, commentators, and curators can fall back on it if they have nothing else to say. Maybe there really is something to it. Perhaps a picture can appeal to the eye on the basis of how it is laid out rather than what's it of.

    I have a personal bias in this. Because I use a large view camera I physically can't just wave it about hoping that a fetching composition will eventually land on the ground glass. I have to search my surroundings, sometimes with a framing card which sometimes has strings across the opening measuring out the "Rule of Thirds". No, not to be bound by the rule of thirds, but to give it a fair look just in case it's perfect. If thirds don't work I'll try fifths, Golden Ratios, symmetries, repoussoirs, diagonals, leading lines, all the tricks, whatever works. Because I've memorised a lot of so called "rules" I can scan them mentally and discard the ones that don't work in a few seconds. Without a systematic way of approaching picture composition I fear I'm only rolling the optical dice in the service of hope and wishful thinking.

    Here is a picture of a nondescript stretch of woodland. But by striving to place components on thirds and fifths I think I got a coherent composition even though there's nothing in the middle. I could be mistaken.


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    Gelatin-silver photograph on Freestyle Private Reserve VC FB photographic paper, image size 19.6cm X 24.5cm, from a 8x10 Fomapan 200 negative
    exposed in a Tachihara 810HD triple extension field view camera fitted with a Fujinon-W 300mm f5.6 lens.
    Photography:first utterance. Sir John Herschel, 14 March 1839 at the Royal Society. "...Photography or the application of the Chemical rays of light to the purpose of pictorial representation,..".

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