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Author Topic: John Paul Caponigro on Composition  (Read 50048 times)
EdRosch
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« on: June 12, 2009, 07:09:38 AM »
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Here’s the conundrum that John Paul Caponigro faced when writing this essay:  

There is nothing more defining of your personal style than your personal approach to composition.  Therefore, if he just set out The John Paul Caponigro Rules of Composition he would be teaching you his personal style and most likely impeding the development of your own.  His solution to this problem is to assume that those who are serious about improving their skills will be willing to engage with the material, think about it, and actively explore how to apply it to their own work.  In his writing he clearly is avoiding a prescriptive approach of telling us how to do it in favor of an open style that encourages an active dialog (and dialectic) with the text followed by a method that shows how to apply some ideas to your own work carefully avoiding telling you what you should be finding.

He is writing for serious photographers who wish to actively explore this topic.  In fact, for those who noticed there was an offer in the essay for him to participate in such dialogs.  Any takers?

Cudos to him.

BTW- here's what worked for me in terms of reading this.  I copied the text up to the Exercise part (which does have to be done online) into my Word processor and printed it.  I put it by my favorite reading chair and read it.  Then I read it again, then a third time.  I did get more of his points each time through.  In other words, his writing is like his photography, worthy of second and third looks and worth spending some time with.

Ed
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RSL
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« Reply #1 on: June 12, 2009, 11:12:50 AM »
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Which essay?
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DarkPenguin
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« Reply #2 on: June 12, 2009, 11:32:41 AM »
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Quote from: RSL
Which essay?

The one on LuLa's main page...

http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/...ion-intro.shtml

This would be the offer mentioned above ...

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This is an online column and that means many things can happen that might not happen in traditional print. The content can be of any length. It can be updated at any time. It can be delivered in many media – text, image, audio, video. And, it can be interactive. I’m going to encourage readers to post their own images which are relevant to the recommended exercises to the Luminous Landscape forums and vote for the images they feel are most successful. I’ll point out images from these community contributions that I think are particularly successful and comment on why I think they’re successful. Links will be provided. Conversation will be stimulated. I hope my material will become a catalyst for material you in turn generate together. I think we’ll all learn many valuable things. Collective distributed nonlocal asynchronous intelligence. It can be a powerful thing. Let the games begin!

So far the only thing the article has generated is a bunch of ass hattery about JPC's choice of image to use as an example.
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EdRosch
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« Reply #3 on: June 12, 2009, 11:58:18 AM »
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Quote from: DarkPenguin
The one on LuLa's main page...

http://www.luminous-landscape.com/columns/...ion-intro.shtml

This would be the offer mentioned above ...



So far the only thing the article has generated is a bunch of ass hattery about JPC's choice of image to use as an example.

Indeed! ......... and I think it deserves better hence this attempt to start some reasonable conversation in a forum that might be better suited for it.

Ed
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RSL
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« Reply #4 on: June 12, 2009, 01:06:14 PM »
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He lost me in his first paragraph. "Over the years my students have asked me for good resources on composition. They’re looking for something sophisticated but not overly complex and ultimately practical." The best "ultimately practical" resource on composition is the work of people like Atget, HCB, Walker Evans, Gene Smith, etc., etc. You can't teach composition with words.
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DarkPenguin
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« Reply #5 on: June 12, 2009, 01:12:06 PM »
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What about the 10 or 11 images after the first paragraph?
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RSL
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« Reply #6 on: June 12, 2009, 02:28:10 PM »
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What about the 10 or 11 images after the first paragraph?

Sorry, Dark. He loses me in generalities. I guess the images are fine if you plan to build photographs in Photoshop. I prefer to build them with a camera.
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dalethorn
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« Reply #7 on: June 12, 2009, 02:35:12 PM »
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I read it and had a good impression from top to bottom.  Since the words are easy to interpret in ways JP didn't intend, you would probably have to study it at some length, which requires an act of faith that your time invested won't be wasted, or, get an interpreter.
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EdRosch
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« Reply #8 on: June 12, 2009, 02:44:23 PM »
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Quote from: RSL
He lost me in his first paragraph. "Over the years my students have asked me for good resources on composition. They’re looking for something sophisticated but not overly complex and ultimately practical." The best "ultimately practical" resource on composition is the work of people like Atget, HCB, Walker Evans, Gene Smith, etc., etc. You can't teach composition with words.

I was really hoping for a positive conversation about what what we can take from the essay that could improve our work.  I would encourage anyone else to investigate the four pages of divergent opinions to be found in the About This Site' forum.  I fully realize that neither JPC nor his approachs are everyone's cup 'o tea and those opinions are given full voice at this link,  it would be a blatant Dept. of Redundancy Department violation to repeat them here.

Thanks
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« Reply #9 on: June 12, 2009, 03:18:13 PM »
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Quote from: EdRosch
I was really hoping for a positive conversation about what what we can take from the essay that could improve our work.  I would encourage anyone else to investigate the four pages of divergent opinions to be found in the About This Site' forum.  I fully realize that neither JPC nor his approachs are everyone's cup 'o tea and those opinions are given full voice at this link,  it would be a blatant Dept. of Redundancy Department violation to repeat them here.

Thanks

Ed,

Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I think JPC is a very, very good photographer, but that doesn't necessarily make him a good teacher. I'd suggest that looking at his photographs is a lot more helpful than looking at his words. I think the kind of thing he's teaching might be helpful if the subject were painting. But painting is a contemplative art. You can sit down with a sketch pad and construct a composition by following the kind of rules-based approach JPC is putting forth, but you can't do that with a photograph. HCB said it best: "We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory." Photographic composition has to be intuitive. You don't have time to construct it. You have to see the subject and the geometric relationships all at once or it's no go. That's why I keep harping on looking at photographs in order to learn about composition. Photographic composition is something you have to absorb rather than learn.
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dalethorn
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« Reply #10 on: June 12, 2009, 03:28:20 PM »
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This is the phrase that hooked me.  All of the rest seemed obvious enough.

"It’s interesting to consider whether other dimensions exist in and of themselves or are they instead produced by a relationship of already existing elements, such as position, space, and orientation. Some important dimensions may even arise through psychological attributions, such as weight."
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Rob C
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« Reply #11 on: June 12, 2009, 05:16:15 PM »
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[quote name='RSL' date='Jun 12 2009, 08:18 PM' post='290935']
Ed,


Photographic composition has to be intuitive. You don't have time to construct it. You have to see the subject and the geometric relationships all at once or it's no go. That's why I keep harping on looking at photographs in order to learn about composition.




Exactly, and why talk about teaching it to photographers is, in my view, deceitful, to put it mildly.

I tire of this never-ending yes, no, yes, no, yes, no.... surely to God, has it not occurred to everyone that most of our great snappers have been entirely self-produced, hatched and pushed out of the nest years ago, to fly or die, and those great ones flew. They didn´t need this "mentoring," "tutoring" nonsense: they just damn well got out there and did it! Be like Nike.

Rob C
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EdRosch
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« Reply #12 on: June 12, 2009, 05:56:50 PM »
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Ed,

Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I think JPC is a very, very good photographer, but that doesn't necessarily make him a good teacher. I'd suggest that looking at his photographs is a lot more helpful than looking at his words. I think the kind of thing he's teaching might be helpful if the subject were painting. But painting is a contemplative art. You can sit down with a sketch pad and construct a composition by following the kind of rules-based approach JPC is putting forth, but you can't do that with a photograph. HCB said it best: "We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory." Photographic composition has to be intuitive. You don't have time to construct it. You have to see the subject and the geometric relationships all at once or it's no go. That's why I keep harping on looking at photographs in order to learn about composition. Photographic composition is something you have to absorb rather than learn.


Hi Russ,

I have to respectfully take issue with two of the points you make.  First,  at this time I am primarily studying painting in order to improve my photography.  In my opinion there is enough commonality of visual principles that there is much to be gained.  If you peek over at my site,  many of my current images are quite consciously influenced by gestural abstract expressionism, which happens to be of particular interest at the moment.  While there are a few pretty obvious experiments with PhotoShop manipulation, the majority are 'natural' pictures, that is, pretty much as I shot them.  At this point in my artistic development, while I very much enjoy looking at photography of all types, I'm finding that it's teaching me less all the time while delving into other arts, especially painting is paying big dividends.

The second issue is the question as to why you feel that JPC is advocating a 'rules-based approach'?  His statement in the essay: ' .......Forget rules. Forget absolutes. Forget musts. Instead develop an awareness of visual principles.' would seem to indicate his advocacy of quite the opposite.  While the various popular 'Rules of Composition' are good training wheels, once one has progressed past 'novice' they need to come off or become a crutch.  His suggestion that one needs to understand and learn to apply the basic principles and not be bound by hard and fast Rules is one I heartily agree with.

My own opinion based on my experience is that for neophyte photographers the study of photography is essential, just as painters really need to study the classical methods before they just start slinging paint.  The failure to move beyond that and continue to make photography the primary, if not sole, focus of one's developmental effort leads one into that self-referential rut that I mentioned over in the other thread.

Finally, he also explicitly makes the point that the new digital realities open up dramatic new potentials to photographers including a more contemplative approach.  

Ed
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RSL
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« Reply #13 on: June 12, 2009, 09:17:20 PM »
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Hi Russ,

I have to respectfully take issue with two of the points you make.  First,  at this time I am primarily studying painting in order to improve my photography.  In my opinion there is enough commonality of visual principles that there is much to be gained.  If you peek over at my site,  many of my current images are quite consciously influenced by gestural abstract expressionism, which happens to be of particular interest at the moment.  While there are a few pretty obvious experiments with PhotoShop manipulation, the majority are 'natural' pictures, that is, pretty much as I shot them.  At this point in my artistic development, while I very much enjoy looking at photography of all types, I'm finding that it's teaching me less all the time while delving into other arts, especially painting is paying big dividends.

Ed, I'd certainly agree that learning painting can be a boost to your composition skills, but in my own experience most rote teaching in art has to do with materials and technique. I have to admit that most of my art training had to do with life drawing rather than painting, so painting may go into areas my drawing classes didn't go into. Composition seemed to be taught by example -- in other words, by looking at well-composed drawings with comments by the instructor. I'd also be quick to admit that many of the best photographers had extensive art training in drawing and/or painting. HCB probably is the prime example.

Quote
The second issue is the question as to why you feel that JPC is advocating a 'rules-based approach'?  His statement in the essay: ' .......Forget rules. Forget absolutes. Forget musts. Instead develop an awareness of visual principles.' would seem to indicate his advocacy of quite the opposite.  While the various popular 'Rules of Composition' are good training wheels, once one has progressed past 'novice' they need to come off or become a crutch.  His suggestion that one needs to understand and learn to apply the basic principles and not be bound by hard and fast Rules is one I heartily agree with.

Those statements are easy to toss out, just like his earlier command to "think outside the box." My problem is that I don't see what you can teach verbally or in writing other than rules. Yes, the standard rules of composition make good early training wheels, but after you've taught them, what else can you teach? Even the basic rules, if they're to have any effect on students, have to be accompanied with examples, and to someone who's visually oriented, which a good photographer must be, the examples are going to have a much greater effect than the talk.

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My own opinion based on my experience is that for neophyte photographers the study of photography is essential, just as painters really need to study the classical methods before they just start slinging paint.  The failure to move beyond that and continue to make photography the primary, if not sole, focus of one's developmental effort leads one into that self-referential rut that I mentioned over in the other thread.

I don't see anything in that opinion with which I can disagree. In the ten years my wife owned her gallery I saw a lot of very young people who were convinced they could just start slinging paint, or throwing pots, or blowing glass. Most of it was very bad. If I disagree with anything associated with that, it's Dale's idea that you have to stop looking at the work of the masters in order to break free to create your own oeuvre. You'd have to be pretty impressionable and incompetent for that to be true, and if you were you'd never become anything other than a recorder of information.

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Finally, he also explicitly makes the point that the new digital realities open up dramatic new potentials to photographers including a more contemplative approach.

I'm afraid he loses me with that one. I don't think photography can be contemplative, unless he's talking about studio still life. If you're doing street photography you're lucky if you have more than a second to line up your shot and shoot. If you're doing landscape the clouds move and the sun disappears, etc. You have to pick your moment and shoot. I don't see that digital makes any difference, unless he's talking about extensive manipulation in Photoshop. I guess you can call that photography -- we went through another very long thread on that subject -- but, as you know if you read that thread, I have a hard time calling it that.

By the way, I do think this is a subject worth a lot of discussion, though off the top of my head, in general I agree with Rob, and also with Elliott Erwitt that when it comes to photography there's nothing to teach in the classroom sense of teaching.
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dalethorn
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« Reply #14 on: June 12, 2009, 10:46:03 PM »
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Quote from: RSL
.....in general I agree with Rob, and also with Elliott Erwitt that when it comes to photography there's nothing to teach in the classroom sense of teaching.

I've been in a lot of classes (in the classroom sense) where we did things - didn't just sit and stare, or fill out test papers.  So I guess the "classroom sense" requires some explaining.  Hard to accept that there's nothing to teach.
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EdRosch
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« Reply #15 on: June 13, 2009, 08:55:19 AM »
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Ed, I'd certainly agree that learning painting can be a boost to your composition skills, but in my own experience most rote teaching in art has to do with materials and technique. I have to admit that most of my art training had to do with life drawing rather than painting, so painting may go into areas my drawing classes didn't go into. Composition seemed to be taught by example -- in other words, by looking at well-composed drawings with comments by the instructor. I'd also be quick to admit that many of the best photographers had extensive art training in drawing and/or painting. HCB probably is the prime example.

Hi Russ,

Ahh the ambiguity of the English Language....... I didn't mean that I was learning to paint but rather I was spending significant time looking at painting by those painters who are acknowledged as 'Masters' AND whose work I personally respond to.  These include Turner, Monet and the Impressionists, Cezanne,  Picasso, Kandinsky and many Modernists and PostModernists such as Rothko, Stella, etc.  I look critically with a view to trying to understand the visual principles they are using, why their work appeals to me, and... most important... how it could inform and help me improve my photography.  I also read quite a bit, and in the case of someone like Kandinsky who did write about his theories of art, I go to the source.

My belief is that while, as you and others have pointed out, there is a great difference between painting and photography in term of the act of creation,  especially in that a photographer must 'see faster', there is a great commonality in how the final product is viewed.  In both cases a more or less two dimensional image on a wall that must visually grab the viewer and encourage them to spend more than the average 5 seconds interacting with the work.  Given that painters have more time to think about what they're doing, I have to think that they have evolved some powerful visual methods and approaches to composition to accomplish this end and that by studying their work I can 'absorb' it in a way that will help guide me when I'm making those lightning judgments through my viewfinder.  I would also comment that it's considerably more than just viewer appeal,  there are powerful visual languages and grammers that have been developed that are aimed at appealing to the viewers on many different levels that have been and are currently be explored by many different visual artists that are well worth attention.  In fact, I consider my subscriptions to ArtNews and ArtForum as valuable to me as any of the Photography magazines that I get.

I suspect this is no different from what you hope to gain from studying the photographic masters you mention.  We're probably doing the same thing,  I just have chosen different material to study.

As far as the worthlessness of words when teaching composition.  Let's do a thought experiment:  

Imagine a gallery hung with the best work from which ever Master you admire the most.  I would assume that we would all agree that spending significant quality time in that gallery would be of great value in terms of improving our art.  Now imagine that I have a 'magic wand' such that I could summon that Master through time and have them be willing to spend that quality time in the gallery walking with you, answering any questions you have, and discussing their work in depth.  Are you really going to tell them to shut up as their words could not possibly add anything to the experience?

I submit for consideration that once you're open to the idea that words from anyone could enhance the value to be had from viewing a given work, then you should consider that there are probably other people out there who have ideas, knowledge, or insights who might be worth listening to.  Set them up in front of a group of people and voila ....... a class.

That said, I do agree that there are many blow-hards out there, and, in fact, I rarely attend classes or workshops.  I've found a significant BS factor, as apparently you have, and even in the case of people who really know their stuff, there is usually a 'attempting to drink from a firehose' factor that severely limits the value that I, at least, can take away.  I do purchase Dvd's, and books........ especially books where are by far the greatest bang for your educational buck if one is willing to spend the time with them.

Ed
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RSL
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« Reply #16 on: June 13, 2009, 12:16:40 PM »
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Quote from: EdRosch
Ahh the ambiguity of the English Language....... I didn't mean that I was learning to paint but rather I was spending significant time looking at painting by those painters who are acknowledged as 'Masters' AND whose work I personally respond to.  These include Turner, Monet and the Impressionists, Cezanne,  Picasso, Kandinsky and many Modernists and PostModernists such as Rothko, Stella, etc.  I look critically with a view to trying to understand the visual principles they are using, why their work appeals to me, and... most important... how it could inform and help me improve my photography.  I also read quite a bit, and in the case of someone like Kandinsky who did write about his theories of art, I go to the source.

Ed, Fascinating. I look at paintings too and it seems our tastes run in similar paths. I'd add Edward Hopper:

[attachment=14505:Hopper_Barn.jpg]

I call this deserted place my "Hopper Barn." I can see Hopper sitting at his easel in front of it as he gives it that otherworldly feeling photography can't quite pull off.

I also agree that it's worth while to read what artists and photographers have to say about their own work. I don't recall reading Kandinsky's theories, but, thanks to you, I probably will now. One of the reasons I like HCB is his eloquent writing, but he doesn't try to teach composition with words. He simply says that you have to compose with educated intuition.

Quote
My belief is that while, as you and others have pointed out, there is a great difference between painting and photography in term of the act of creation,  especially in that a photographer must 'see faster', there is a great commonality in how the final product is viewed.  In both cases a more or less two dimensional image on a wall that must visually grab the viewer and encourage them to spend more than the average 5 seconds interacting with the work.  Given that painters have more time to think about what they're doing, I have to think that they have evolved some powerful visual methods and approaches to composition to accomplish this end and that by studying their work I can 'absorb' it in a way that will help guide me when I'm making those lightning judgments through my viewfinder.  I would also comment that it's considerably more than just viewer appeal,  there are powerful visual languages and grammers that have been developed that are aimed at appealing to the viewers on many different levels that have been and are currently be explored by many different visual artists that are well worth attention.  In fact, I consider my subscriptions to ArtNews and ArtForum as valuable to me as any of the Photography magazines that I get.

I suspect this is no different from what you hope to gain from studying the photographic masters you mention.  We're probably doing the same thing,  I just have chosen different material to study.

And I certainly can't disagree with that. Yes, it's worthwhile to spend time with any really great visual art. It's as worthwhile to absorb the elements of composition by looking at paintings and drawings as it is to do so by looking at photographs. The principles are the same, though it's worth while for a photographer to learn about the things you see in paintings that you can't reproduce in photographs. But, I'd suggest that you learn good composition more through osmosis than through words.

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As far as the worthlessness of words when teaching composition.  Let's do a thought experiment:  

Imagine a gallery hung with the best work from which ever Master you admire the most.  I would assume that we would all agree that spending significant quality time in that gallery would be of great value in terms of improving our art.  Now imagine that I have a 'magic wand' such that I could summon that Master through time and have them be willing to spend that quality time in the gallery walking with you, answering any questions you have, and discussing their work in depth.  Are you really going to tell them to shut up as their words could not possibly add anything to the experience?

Again, I can't disagree, but I suspect Atget wouldn't tell me, "Now, I put that over there because it satisfies the rule of thirds, and I brought all three of these roofs into the picture because they produce repetition..." I suspect his answers to any questions would be on a higher plane than that. And I still think looking at the pictures would be the most important part of the experience.

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I submit for consideration that once you're open to the idea that words from anyone could enhance the value to be had from viewing a given work, then you should consider that there are probably other people out there who have ideas, knowledge, or insights who might be worth listening to.  Set them up in front of a group of people and voila ....... a class.

Here's where we may disagree. Depends on what that class is trying to teach, and whether or not the teacher is also a doer. You might be interested to read a review I wrote back in 2005 on the book, Stieglitz, A Beginning Light, by Katherine Hoffman. Ms. Hoffman is a "professor of fine arts." You can read it at http://www.amazon.com/Stieglitz-Beginning-...howViewpoints=1

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That said, I do agree that there are many blow-hards out there, and, in fact, I rarely attend classes or workshops.  I've found a significant BS factor, as apparently you have, and even in the case of people who really know their stuff, there is usually a 'attempting to drink from a firehose' factor that severely limits the value that I, at least, can take away.  I do purchase Dvd's, and books........ especially books where are by far the greatest bang for your educational buck if one is willing to spend the time with them.

Here we agree right down the line.

Regards,
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walter.sk
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« Reply #17 on: June 13, 2009, 12:36:58 PM »
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The best "ultimately practical" resource on composition is the work of people like Atget, HCB, Walker Evans, Gene Smith, etc., etc. You can't teach composition with words.
But you can use words and your index finger to point out an element of a composition, or a relationship between elements, that your student might not have seen, or if seen, meght not have registered, or if registered, might not have realized its importance to the effect of the picture.  And if that element, or combination of elements, is something that the works of the photographers you name treat in a similar manner, you begin to have a principle of composition that seems to hold true for the style, or styles, of those photographers.  Other photographers might or might not treat that aspect of composition in the same way, adding evidence for that element as being more universal or more associated with a given style.

Either way, the words and index finger can help to produce an "aha" moment for a student for whom the issue might never have been seen, or might have been perceived at a pre- or non-verbal level but not crystallized into conscious awareness.

I would also like to state that some of what we do and value in photography works because of fixed principles of perception derived from our neurological makeup, such as seeing certain configurations more quickly than others, etc.  These would underlie commonalities in the styles of various art and probably across cultures.  On the other hand, ways of using (or not using) these underlying neourological realities of human sight and perception also vary from culture to culture as the meanings of the perceptions become more, or less, valued.  Even within a culture, the meanings and values change over time...or not.

A musical example:  I was taught as a child that "music is a universal language."   I also was taught that music in a minor mode often represents sadness, while a major mode represents the opposite.  After learning to hear and interpret that way I discovered music from the middle east which, more often than not, was composed in minor modes yet sounded happy to people of those cultures.

I had another shock when a professor from India taught me a lesson when I invited her to hear my collection of recordings from India.  She asked if I thought I understood something about the music.  She did not mean the musical theory of the music, but the emotional content.  She gave me a "drop the needle" test (remember phonograph records?).  When she asked "happy or sad?" I would respond.  Even though I knew these recordings by heart, and despite the fact that I was a professor of muscal comosition and theory, my "score" on 25 musical examples was not only poor, but less than I would have achieved simply by chance!  So much for the "universality" of "the musical language."

A problem in trying to teach anything about composition, musical or otherwise, comes in how elements of style are valued.   We can find what appear to be common principles in a given style of art (or specifically, photography), but this is analysis of what certain people did in their photographs.  If we then teach these elements of style, our students might learn that photography that does not follow those "principles" cannot be "good" photography, rather than learning that "this is what these photographers did in that style."

I think that Caponigro's approach to isolating elements of composition can, in the best case, give anybody from snapshooters to professionals, a way of learning to be more aware of what they potentially can see and how to explore the use of these elements to make something that works for them.



JPC has done a nice job of isolating elements of composition, without making value judgments about them.
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« Reply #18 on: June 13, 2009, 02:31:47 PM »
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Walter,

Having had ten years of piano lessons, which ended when I became fifteen and discovered that girls were more interesting than the idea of becoming a concert pianist, I’d have to agree that in music, details are important, especially in composition. And though I had a hard time learning to read music, even at a very elementary level, since I could memorize easily, I’d have to agree that in music words and an index finger can make a difference.

But when we talk about learning photographic composition, I’m not so sure that details of individual style matter that much. The common principles you mention, at least the ones that matter, are, in fact, common: a proper grasp of geometry, a proper distribution of masses and lines, and a proper location of  the main thing the picture’s about. In photographic composition you don’t want to “isolate” elements of composition, you want to conjoin them, intuitively and at once.

Having spent three years in Asia I’m not at all surprised at your showing in your “drop the needle test.” One of the wonderful things about Asia is that cultures there can be very different from our own. Look at how Asian painting handles perspective. Instead of showing distance with vanishing lines it uses changes in brightness – each receding plane fainter than the last. The difference is lovely and instructive. Unfortunately a camera won’t let you do that.
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John Camp
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« Reply #19 on: June 13, 2009, 10:15:24 PM »
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If you look at well-known photographs (as opposed to photographs by well-known photographers -- that is, if you focus on the images themselves) you will find that most of them are well-composed. If you tear them apart, they have certain structural elements that make them visually engaging.

Some of these things are quite simple, and are virtual cliches -- don't have telephone poles, or anything else, growing out of peoples' heads, unless you're doing it for a good reason. If you have a portrait of somebody taken from the side, don't press his/her nose against the edge of the photo, while leaving space behind the head; that is, if there's space, have the person looking into it, not looking at the edge of the photo. Roads, edges and lines work best when leading the eye into the photo, rather than out. Simple things like these are almost instinctive, but they can be (and are) formulated as rules, and they can be learned, and they can be violated by people who know what they are doing. Other compositional propositions are not so much rules as ideas, but the ideas can be expressed and discussed and taken account of.

To say that photos have to be composed in a split second is only true in certain kinds of documentary photography (I would include wedding photography in that designation) and street photography, and in those areas, there is usually some leeway for poor composition, because of shooting conditions. And yet the very best street and wedding photos are well-composed. People who argue that you really don't have time for composition are correct in a sense -- you may not have time to contemplate a situation, or fuss with the composition. True. But if the composition isn't there, well, your photo won't be great, and won't become famous. Tough luck. The point is made clearest by the photos of Henri Cartier-Bresson -- he made possibly two of three dozen really famous photos (and maybe not that many), though he shot literally tens of thousands. All of his famous photos are well-composed; perhaps not because he composed them consciously, but because statistics were in his favor. That is, if somebody works hard at photography, and makes tens of thousands of photos, some are going to be well-composed, and those, if any, are the ones that will become famous. I think HCB became famous because he actually had such a high hit rate. Another person with a similar kind of compositional eye is James Nachtwey, who has actually been criticized because his best war photographs seem to be composed with an aesthetic sensibility that sometimes can make violence beautiful.

Sear Reid, who does the review forum, goes to a Daytona Beach motorcycle rally every year (if I recall correctly), sets up a camera and shoots passers-by. It's a form of street photography, but by choosing a background and an idea, he almost guarantees himself good composition. That is, he uses building elements and backgrounds to emphasize the movement and appearance of his street subjects. Many photo artists do that kind of things - and some of them create entire fictional scenarios that they then photograph, and these photos are usually beautifully composed. Most of these people know what they are doing; this is not happening by accident. They learned to compose photos, and not by random experimentation.

JC
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