Most of us simply love to take photographs and often feel the most comfortable with a camera in our hand. Often we take photographs of just about anything that we can, from people to buildings and objects. Some of us do eventually settle into taking photographs of mostly one subject or another since it appeals to us personally for some almost indefinable reason. But are we taking photographs of specific subjects as we shoot or are we taking photographs of something more? I think the answer to this question depends upon the point of view of the photographer to some degree, but in general, unknown to some photographers, I believe that we are actually taking photographs of something else, and our subject just happens to be in that “something else.”
This is my transition into the artistic side of photography and how photography is affected by compositional rules or guidelines as well as by other artistic elements. It is these things that separate a simple snapshot from a more well-defined and focused work leaning toward art.
We probably are well aware of compositional guidelines and what the majority of them mean, so line, color, form, texture, rule of thirds, balance, symmetry, pattern, point of view, and framing are familiar to us. When we first start out at photographing we learn these rules and other rules or guidelines and most of us attempt to remember and use them when we find a desirable subject to shoot. Many people advocate that we “throw away the rules,” or use them “with a grain of salt.” But it is my belief that if you are a photographer, like me, who wants to go that step above the mundane or ordinary it is imperative to learn all of these compositional rules and to know them so well that they can be used without conscious thought. Then, and only then, can you forget about the rules and toss them to the wind.
I recently went to an exhibition of photographs taken by Werner Bischof, who took photographs around the world in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He worked for many important and well-known magazines of the day, including Life, and was the first photographer to join with the founding members of Magnum in 1949. One of the exhibition rooms held a large collection of his proof sheets and the one thing I could instantly see in each and every photograph of every proof sheet was a basic element of composition. It amazed me that it was so evident in all of the proof sheets and there were many, perhaps 50 or so, all around the sides of the room. He photographed many subjects, people, buildings, famine and war, plus the Winter Olympics in 1948. He used the elements of design even while shooting documentary and photojournalism images. Bischof’s basic education was in art, not photography, so he brought the elements of art into each photograph, it was instinctual for him.
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