Obligatory Intro Image to Get you interested in the Verbal Content that follows:
Image titled Remembrance Scanned from 6cmx8cm Velvia 50 Transparency film. Taken on the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah, with a camera that doesn’t even need a battery or use a USB cable, and was designed on a peice of paper by an engineer who used a calculator and a slide ruler in 1975. Note: this is a Triple exposure using filtration concepts and the films reciprocity failure characteristics to naturally tone adjust the image like an HDR without a computer on a single frame of film. this looks nearly identical to the back lit transparency on a light table.
My name is Scott McClarin, I have been practicing a way of seeing lyric light, and generating a quest for meaningful and impactful imagery that functions as light poetry, influenced by poetry from Pablo Neruda, William Blake, and Arthur Rimbaud. I have been incorporating techniques and have been influenced greatly; photographically, looking at imagery from Henri Cartier Bresson and Sebastiao Salgado, as much as Ansell Adams. Imagery as a function of lyric light has become an undying muse that enables discovery of the world around me and that I have only recently come to realize since 2004. In another sense I have been practicing a way of discovering myself through the conflagration of what I thought I was doing when I set out. This whole practice has become an exercise to meditate on the ever changing world before me, and select out portions at moments where it all comes together, and then on special occasions celebrate those reflective moments with others.
The conscious and sometimes unconscious effort of finding meaning in image making has been a cathartic experience. This practice has taught me something about the nuance of my perception and the limitations of my patience. Many times I head butt my limitations, sometimes its my perception of my limitations that gets surpassed in the imagery and each time there seems to be a lesson worth noting. Sometimes what we feel from an image, wasn’t what we saw when we took it, and sometimes it becomes much more intense and meaningful long after the initial, paradoxical and often cliched “click”! I find it more appropriate to call myself an “amateur darkroom practitioner” or perhaps an “Obsessed Image Maker” hopefully more akin to a “visual poet” or “Romantic Light Scrivener”, instead of a “Photographer”. There is something I loathe about the word and association to what a “photographer” is/has become; someone who engages clients and agencies as part of a profession of handling a camera making Photos, who consults or works with art directors for direction as if the creativity ended at pressing the shutter button, or condemning us to being the person behind the camera who might not have meaningful creative input beyond their non MFA understanding of light and form. At any rate I feel “Photography” is not simply what I do. I would be the last person to claim to be a professional photographer to anyone else, or to use that visage as a springboard to generate business from people I do or don’t know, despite that I have previously made agreements to use my content solely on album covers for some artists upon request, or approve some of my imagery in publications for various authors writing books on photography, and have made a few unsolicited print sales (categorically this lifts me from hobbyist to semi-pro according to Nikonians.org’s definition of camera experience, for some strange reason I don’t understand) this has come without any legwork on my part other than simply making images and sharing them on Flickr or Face Book. (soliciting or advertising my work is not something I accept in my life’s workflow, I am not in the business of groping for attention or sales, its just not my modus Operandi) I have never entered a contest, nor do I currently care to. The only thing I have to prove is emotional or mood invoking content in the imagery I make to myself. Anything external comes out of the impact of the images themselves, though I do look harder at those images that get comments on Flickr and in public and try to discover what it is that others are seeing and reacting to, I always ask myself if there is something I may be missing in the image itself.
In this post I am going to share with you some insights and tools I have come across to help guide and inform the creative process for finding compositions that hopefully invoke something more than just a casual observation with images. Too many forums and blogs and Professional business men with cameras and a sense of digital media, and networking, talk about gear and technique, that is the smoke and mirrors behind image making that matters little to the impact a good image makes on a viewer. So much effort is spent on the next level, or the next tool when the bulk of what we do is generate imagery that either makes an impact on ourselves and possibly another person, or it doesn’t…
Traditional sketch artists can do all this with pencils and charcoal on paper even in 2020. our gear is part of a multifaceted tool (read that as an “extension of your mind”) through which; your educated and worldly experienced intuition, Spirituality if you feel that describes it for you; uses those every day devices and substances to make an impact without words or description. Every camera is the right gear when the images have been pulled from the right place and time with good lighting and presented effectively, Those images succeed mostly due to composition and light and your juxtaposition of elements in the scene, and any emotional response that it all creates both in you and someone else’s mind, have little to do with the machine in your hand that took it…consider the limitations of Henri Cartier Bresson’s single frame manual, zone focus, single wind advance Leica, with only black and white film and 24 exposures (before they made 36 Exposure rolls, or live view, ot instant WiFi connection to share up to the interwebs instantly for all your viewership to oogle).
Now consider the quantity and availability of modern cameras capable of creating 14 frames per second when not filming 4K in stereo sound at 60 frames a second or making stills at resolutions capable of printing 16×20 prints flawlessly from automated exposures using a database of 30,000 different scene possibilities in a fraction of a second…why isn’t everyone creating Bresson like images with fleeting decisive moments pulled from the frames of 2000 images out of every day in glorious color that spans digital recreations of Velvia to Sensia to HDR in black and white in 2016? Why isn’t every Journalist and smart phone owner suddenly taking noteworthy images reminiscent of Sebastiao Salgado or Richard Avedon?
Certainly there is more to this image making than having the greatest equipment. Perhaps some self belief in what you are doing and, more importantly, coming to understand the depths of Why you are doing it, and WHO you are doing it for, is at play. There must be a purpose, and a camera user with a specific idea of how to create emotive depth and engagement behind a small reason for doing so…not with the potential viewer or buyer of the fine print…but with meaning and intent for the artist behind the camera at the time of acquisition, who is still present behind the enlarger or computer at time of Post Processing, all the way to a satisfactory print, to a satisfactory lighting on the wall and surrounding Paint color scheme, or acceptable proximity to a window; that is the one that makes a silent impact on the self; Artist if we alre lucky to gain that noble title, and subsequently each and every fortunate viewer that feels a connection. To sing as an Artist in any medium; Satisfy the aesthetic being inside yourself in all things first and foremost, to find yourself in it all, is the highest goal anyone should hope for, what follows is fortunate circumstance if you haven’t died before your works are discovered by someone who will claim to know more about it all than the person that created it.
If you use any kind of framing device to view the world you will soon discover that you instinctively crop to try and find something meaningful while removing distractions within a frame. but are you moving around the elements and subjects of your scene experimentally? (mostly by moving around and through the scene yourself rather than zooming in and out with the lens) Are you doing it in ways that create visual tension through spacing of your subjects or elements, or experimenting with their distance to one another? Are you trying to set up a sense of depth, or destroy it? Are you playing with symmetry and balance and then deliberately upsetting that balance to create tension; either with symmetry or asymmetry? Are you seeking Mood or seeking to eliminate it by selective focus or lighting or through using clouds and backgrounds or subjects effectively? sure you can stomp into a scene and stand your tripod up and mount your camera and take some well placed shots, but how much time do you spend not on the tripod focusing in and around your playground just playing with the elements through your lens before you even place the tripod. how much time do you invest in the experience of feeling out a scene with the tools at hand before you load the film?
This post is aimed at getting anyone into deeper creative waters while thinking critically, and hopefully, empowering you also to be subliminally critical about every image you make. Corporate interests would rather we all spend our effort on talking about photographic equipment, on lens shootouts, on new sensors, on sensor cleaning, on pixel shift, on new Film, or the best film cameras for portraiture and landscape, on the best sharpest developers to get the highest possible acutance, or on switching systems and software subscriptions to the latest versions every 2-3 years. Few articles based on image creation are focused of finding a way to become reflective and responsive to our inner aesthetic instinct through our own life’s experiences. Being reflective and responsive to subtle queues of depth and mood, combined with your aesthetic instinct to frame a strong composition, will make or break all the images you create, regardless of the tool in your hand. Refine the Mind behind the lens…then grab any tool that is handy or available and start thinking and expressing beyond the limitations of your gear.
Warning: I had to borrow some google searched images on occasion in this post to show the ideas I am about to discuss, in order to make them more accessible. It was much faster than drawing the idea on paper and scanning them to keep the content original. With a simple google search you can also find a vast array of examples to discover the same concepts. Although the direct examples of photography are my own images, sometimes I share public images via google search of Bresson, or Rule of Thirds, or Gestalt to outline a few of the creative composition tools and ideas borrowed from art history and mathematics that you can use to enhance your content creation regardless of the camera you have.
If you don’t believe me about the type of camera, here is a pic I took handheld in Bali back in 2006 with a 5MP point and shoot that took more than 5 seconds to focus and only output JPG. It made a nice 8×10 print long ago…and makes a nice 8×10 print now. Yes its Cropped, this was taken long before I learned about composing in camera with film cameras using the ideas we are about to discuss in more detail. For me this image was cathartic about the equipment and the moments of life passing us by all the time. It literally took me 12 years of soul searching with a camera on tropical Islands and in several countries, above and below the ocean surface holding my breath for miracles to happen, and within those images, the bulk of which are terrible realizations of concepts I was only grasping at in the dark; I had to go through all that to get to what I hope to share with you in the next 10 minutes of reading this post. Do you see lines of perspective suggesting depth in this image below? Hint: there are at least 5 plus a horizon line none of which I hadn’t realized was there until well into 2013 taking a drawing and water color class where I sketched it and painted it; if you can’t see the lines of perspective creating depth, don’t worry, it will become intuitive.
Image Copyright Silent_Soliloquy, created by me at UluWatu Temple, Bali, 2006.
I was exclusively using a Nikon Coolpix 5600 in Bali because my girlfriend and I couldn’t afford much more than a $250.00 5MP point and shoot camera, seen below. It was slippery in the slightest humidity…like a bar of soap, it got horrible reviews except for image quality for its class, but it was fun enough to start a humble beginner on a path to self discovery with imagery and with cameras that I had forgotten, and I genuinely enjoyed using it. This is also the first camera that I put in an underwater case (another journey altogether when free diving on stifled breath)
Image of Nikon Coolpix 5600 5MP piont and shoot camera from Nikon‘s archive webpage.
Lets talk about negative space, the space between your elements and subjects in a scene…It is an unspoken virtue of the arts to value the absent space as much and sometimes more than the main elements themselves. The distant mountains, for example, or any object at the edge of a large calm lake, reflecting to the viewer, in any given scene suggest a shape, their symmetric reflections of an otherwise asymmetric formation do something in the mind of the beholder. That barely tangible something has value if the shape eludes to something greater than the sum of its parts. Is that a face profile looking up into the sky or down into the remnants of an inland sea, or both? Is the sun creating a sort of Yin Yang figure in the clouds? Does the mirrored little clouds in the far background create a fractal effect on the viewer making the depth seem to go on and on? the space between the clouds seems to compress above the background mountains reflected in the water, how does it affect the mood of the image? What do many negatives spaces do to the eye as it looks into a scene; does your gaze seem to wander around trying to make sense of it, like an Escher drawing? I am not saying it is a good or even great image by using it, just looking into what this image makes the viewer feel looking at it. When you start to ask yourself these questions looking at every image you see you will be on to something deeper than just enjoying photography.
Image Copyright Silent_Soliloquy, created completely by me on the great Salt Lake, SLC Utah 2012.
Now Google Gestalt theory when thinking about negative space, and symmetry vs asymmetry…MC Escher employed Gestalt, to great effect: For me the negative space between the ducks just before it becomes fish is the most fascinating, and then just below when the ducks abstract into negative space between fish…just wonderful. It becomes a visual Haiku where the air becomes the fish or is it about when the water becomes the ducks, or more telling….the Air? When water becomes the air, has a nice ring to it that could form a Haiku in the mind based solely on the visual queues of M.C. Escher.
Image borrowed by Google searching Gestalt: Images
The image is as much a construct in your mind with negative space as it is a deliberate construct from the artist.
Another example of Gestalt, Below is one of the more famous examples used frequently in art and psychology. Is it a beautiful woman, looking away feigning attention, or an old crone looking right at you, with a hint of contempt? Is it both; or neither because it becomes a construct of your mind? What it hints at is the idea that the viewer will always take something different from your image than you can ever fully hope to control, or comprehend. Fact: someone once threw a giftshop mug at the mona lisa, and many have done worse; for reasons we can only imagine, but they felt so strongly about it as to publicly act out, and get arrested for their convictions, over a painting that was created hundreds of years earlier by a stranger from another lifetime and another culture. Link to more detail: at the Huffington Post; One thing is certain, Imagery can be very powerful, and even deeply moving all for different reasons than the artist can possibly have imagined.
Image borrowed by Google searching Gestalt: Images
For me, finding compositions is a way of finding some new perspective about what I think I see in the world . Many times I find something entirely different from when I initially took the image that I only realized weeks later looking over the negatives, or the digital proofs for the second or third time, or when selecting images to print. It leaves me with the feeling like someone more experienced took the image, or “wow I took that!?”
What framing queues and composition exercises do is assist you in learning to juxtapose elements in a scene until they create an unmistakable impact, as I said before and Reiterate here; firstly and most importantly making an impact inside YOU, doing it in a way that appeals to your Aesthetic sensibilities, born out of your life experiences, and for sometimes inexplicable reasons is also happens very strongly in other people. When you start having emotional reactions to images you create of otherwise lifeless objects, Like with Edward Weston’s Solitary Pepper (figure below), you will begin the journey of emoting and expressing not just what was seen, but a range of feelings both at the time of capture and every time you look at the image…a good image shows you something new about you that you didn’t know existed…A great image does it every time you look at it and becomes a fetishistic visual addiction just having the print on your wall. When strangers find new meaning and feel compelled to let you know it meant something to them, take it as a MASSIVE compliment to have transcended what it means to you, into what it means to them, you might be on to Art in the truest sense of the word.
Those addicting ones are the ones you feel compelled to share, and print and hang on a wall no matter how cliche it feels to do so (Unfortunately I am an introvert and it always feels cliche and sometimes humiliating to share my photo’s with those who don’t ask to see them)…Those images may even become requested images from others who revere them for reasons that often times, have little to do with you. When this happens you know you are on to something, consider than you may actually be deeply affecting other people with an unspoken dialog with yourself that somehow you seem to have unlocked through composition and the arrangement of elements through your own style that ultimately reflects your life experiences (does that last bit sound familiar?). those images might only be meaningful to you, and that is perfectly fine…but don’t (EVER) let that, or negative reviews or opinions of professional business people who brand the word Professional like its an MFA diploma; stop you from expressing your being in this world. You have a beautiful valid perspective that deserves to be shared, if only to find yourself with more clarity through it all. It’s an experience this thing many call photography, that returns to the practitioner something of value greater than the value for the images, if you let it. What you are doing has value in that it brings value to you, separate from the money or social unrest those images generate.
You don’t need an MFA to enjoy creating beauty, or destroying and recreating it in your imagery…Michelangelo was an apprentice of Domenico Ghirlandaio, but Neither of them had modern MFA degrees,neither did Picasso, or Van Gogh, or Gaugan, or Vermeer, or Ansell Adams, or Bresson. Additionally you don’t really need to win photography contests to enjoy the imagery that you are making, and you don’t really need validation from strangers to feel connected spiritually or emotionally to a medium, hell you don’t even need to make money from it to be considered by many as exceptionally good at it…people still paint and draw on various surfaces and with various mediums, and also manage to sell those paintings and drawings in 2016, so don’t sweat the gear or the medium that makes your heart soar. Painters find a Brush and paint with what works for them and use their tools relentlessly or replace them without much thought. Charcoal sketch artists burn through charcoal and paper like the tools that they are…use what you have, and learn to see the world for how it makes you feel, and find a way to celebrate and endure those things that most get you up in the mornings.
Here is a humorous image I took with yet another point and shoot while I was waiting for my charcoal to heat up before grilling some hamburgers in my backyard back in 2011. I thought I was just wasting some time taking snaps of fire, and then BLAM! something hit me in the preview stage (Yes, I was “Chimping” my images after taking them, Did I mention I was killing time? Time is killing us too, remember that) suddenly I couldn’t delete it! There was no editing, except to enhance contrast to see the flame jumping like a fish out of water over the Jordan river in my backyard a little better, in fact “Fish out of water” is the name of this image. Can you see the gestalt suggestiveness with the shape of the fish in the fire and the negative space of the water in the background? I didn’t create the shapes you see, our minds did this separately through our life experiences despite that those experiences can be wildly dissimilar. Clearly this was a smacking accident that turned out amusing and humorous. I am telling you now that often; reality is more surreal than we realize (how odd is that thought). Normal is a setting on the dryer so keep an eye out for the surreal reality as it unfolds around you all the time and have what ever camera possible handy always.
Image Copyright Silent Soliloquy, aka Scott McClarin, 2011. Taken with a Nikon P5100.
Henri Cartier Bresson had an almost supernatural instinct for finding coincidental figures and capturing them in compositions that were both fleeting and striking emotionally while also framing within the rule of thirds framework, and wielding gestalt like negative space. Bresson was of a higher order of street photographer that is for sure, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find the same things all around you, in landscapes, in people, in family portraits, in humorous images, and even in the fleeting passing of a “Decisive Moment”. lets Look deeper at the spacing of the back bike wheel in a Bresson Image below and the railing and the spacing between the balusters of the railing…Is it coincidence that they are nearly the same spacing? perhaps, but it may also be partly why Bresson is so celebrated…His coincidence seems sublimely in tune with the composition in ways that are hard to deny. Look at the spacing around the figure riding the bike, he is excellently framed and spaced from the large railing, the building at his left, and the wall above him at roughly the same distance. An art student fresh off an MFA program might have taken the image without the Biker just for the effect of the spiraling railing and missed the opportunity tying it to the immediacy of the world rushing by on the street.
Image borrowed by Google searching Bresson: Images
Life has a way of being both reality and surreality at the same time. According to Theodore Adorno in his book Aesthetic Theory, “An artwork is always itself and simultaneously the other of itself”. Think of the contextual and coincidental ebb and flow of the passing experience unfolding before you, also as “always itself and simultaneously the other of itself”. Reality may also be Surreal within the context of its own realness.
The act of heightening the effect of the surreal, needn’t be thought of as a lie. Photoshop didn’t create the idea that reality could be stretched to convey emotion or to make an impact…artists have been doing that since well before the Cave paintings at Lascaux.
You also don’t have to tell the truth tonally if you don’t feel it either, Ansell Adams didn’t bide his time reproducing tonal gradations in his prints, and he certainly didn’t become famous because he could replicate what the world gave him. Additionally you don’t have to accurately portray color if your mood tells you to explore some other spectrum or hue, like a deep vibrant Velvia sunset, or a Velvia Dawn. Go North with it, and if that doesn’t appeal to you, go West, East and South with all possible variations of a scene till you find something that sings beyond the medium.
Did you know that Eddie Ephraums wrote the book on Creative Elements? you should read his book if you get a chance, many library’s have it on loan. Ephraums wrote about Creative composition and photographic expression born out of his own experiences, it is still a great read when I am pondering different ways of processing, or seeing the world with a bent at refining an image I hope to create.
Another great name in photography in the context of presenting surreality is George Hurrell. Hurrell was both a great photographer and a master retouch artist who, it has been argued, through his stylized retouching of negatives, raised the bar for Hollywood glamour in the couple decades that he took portraits for the MGM studio, because the face of his sitters looked like they had makeup applied and their smoothness was superfluous, Fact: Hurell often shot sitters without makeup between production shoots or Scenes, because that is the only time they were available. Preferring to do the retouching later instead of use a makeup artist. Hurrel’s genius was all in his retouching of his negatives and prints as well as his compositions, but it represented the Surreal Ideal of Hollywood, not the Reality of it; much like actual makeup does for people every day, it provides and idealized mask that can be confidently worn as if it was the visage of the person behind it. Kind of creepy if you think deeply about it, especially when you meet someone with large amounts of makeup and perfume.
So now that we have pulled up the veil of perception a little bit on retouching and portraying the surreal in the real; lets get to framing a scene and what creates tension and balance visually in the image and talk about the frame itself as an element of composition.
Artists and mathematicians long ago discovered a pattern to aesthetic composition, known as the “Rule of Thirds”; also called the golden mean or the Golden Rectangle, they are related to the Fibonacci sequence. Fibonacci’s number sequence, which is all around us in nature and took humanity thousands of years to re-discover and describe in the language of math. consequently the Fibonacci spiral aids us in setting up a synergistic spacing within the frame that feels natural and powerful…what you eventually discover is that the elements and subjects can be seen as dancers, and the space near the intersections of the golden mean grid lines sets up a sense of tempo as the eye scans across the image and gives a sense of room within the light and shade represented that sets the stage for feelings you sometimes didn’t even know you had when you took the image, when used effectively, this sensation either lets the viewer breath as if in wide open spaces, or makes them suffocate like they were in a closet with a jacket with a hat and a scarf; all this with lines of perspective and spacing elements in side the frame from foreground to mid field to background. Objects and elements, as well as lines of perspective, when placed near intersections in the rule of thirds grid, seem to hold attention and also elicits emotion with viewers. Try using it and see how it works for you.
Numeric representation of Fibbonacci Sequence (google search Fibbonacci sequence)…this happens in life as a result of Cellular reproduction and plant growth functioning in the same numeric fashion, like with Cauliflower. Cancer cells also grow similarly along this same replication pattern. Perhaps if you could break the replication pattern you could safely cure cancer by only creating benign variants that don’t grow exponentially via this sequence.
Fibonacci’s number sequence above inside the Fibonacci Spiral and the self generated golden rectangles acquired by Google searching Fibbonacci’s number sequence.
Image borrowed by Google searching “Rule of Thirds”: Images that also includes a Fibonacci Spiral.
Whats important is that the Spiral is near (not perched axactly on) the intersection of the Rule of thirds frame. You don’t have to line up objects or Elements of a scene, they can be nearby and still make an impact, so being exact doesn’t help you…just be aware that placing an element nearby an intersection can generate a sense of enhanced depth.
I became obsessed enough to even make a rough view screen based on the Fibonacci spiral on a mamiya RB67 view screen:
Image Copyright Silent Soliloquy, aka Scott McClarin, 2012.
Then later created a grid using the math of the Fibonacci set instead of the graphic spirals and drew it on my 4×5 view screen. It helps to compose balanced images in a hurry in the field, when I have to take my time for other things, like remembering to take the dark slide out before pressing the shutter as the sun sets and I only have 3 more minutes of light on my subjects. Or when I still need to use my focus magnifier to check focus before making an exposure. (being rushed has tangible consequences in any Film work)
Image Copyright Silent Soliloquy, aka Scott McClarin, 2012.
You can see the modern version in the New Pentax K1 camera’s View Screen grid:
anything look familiar?
Image borrowed by Google searching Pentax K1 View Screen and pulled from Pentaxforms.com
Balance can happen when objects of varying size or shape, when organized across the rule of thirds spacing, or when intersecting the intersections of the gridlines, visually offset one another, or have the self similar spacing within the frame…Bresson’s images could suspend a master class in subject spacing and image balance or imbalance, including visual tension, in virtually everything he created. just look at the hands in the image below, where they meet is near a rule of thirds intersection (lower right in the foreground) starting at the thumb and moving in direction toward another intersection where the same figures hand goes behind the woman’s head…The tension and imbalanced balance functions on many levels in this image, and just gets more fascinating with every second you look it over. The hand gestures are just as interesting as those from the Last Supper, almost deliberately suggestive of action but not of any actual effort unless the central figure, possibly a male, is doing the woman’s hair at right while another is doing his, and the woman at right seems to be trying to either dance with him or stop him…and why is he so casual about what he is doing?
Image borrowed by Google searching Bresson Balance: Images
now that you have an idea of balance, Gestalt theory, Spacing, and Fibonacci sequences as they relate to the rule of thirds, lets look at “Lines of Perspective” which are artistic visualization tools used by painters over centuries to suggest depth…these invisible lines can exist in the real world if you learn to see and use them, and once you begin to see them, everything has potential to create depth and draw in the viewer of the images you create.
Image borrowed by Google searching Lines of Perspective: Images
Michelangelo’s Last Supper successfully uses lines of perspective and the gesture of his figures to suggest depth and importance of the central figure. It is doubtful that ceilings of the era had such relief, but it suggests depth on an otherwise dull surface that if it were a photograph would have been cropped out to show the main subjects more intimately. Here it was maintained…the Ceiling has half the total importance of the scene just from the space it occupies over the subjects below. Ceiling and wall literally takes up 50% of the total visual area with mostly drab colors and no figures present. The head that breaks that boundary first visually is obvious, but upon further investigation two other heads break that boundary further and are higher. This is purposeful image creation and visual story telling at its finest.
Image borrowed by Google searching “Last Supper Lines of Perspective”: Images
One of my favorite personal Prints, “La Guitarra De La Diosa” pasted below, does this with shadows, and the perspective lines set up by pillars on the Great Salt Lake…Can you guess which pillar got the center of perspective set up by the sun that Jesus got in the Last Supper? (Hint: It is not the central numeric 5th pillar, Jesus in the Last Supper was located numerically 7th from each side.) You see, by putting a pillar off center from the cluster of vertical lines it creates asymmetric tension in an otherwise symmetric composition, to the effect of visually spiraling the viewers eye with subconscious queues, despite that the eye doesn’t actually spiral around this image…or does it? Do you find yourself swirling back around to see ground detail more than once? Do you go Clockwise or Counterclockwise?
Image Copyright Silent Soliloquy, aka Scott McClarin, 2012, “La Gitarra De La Diosa”, on the Great Salt Lake, SLC Utah.
Side Note: Including enough foreground to draw in the viewer as if they were standing on the sand themselves is also important, even if we have to push the figures in a composition to the center of the frame. Generally this is thought to be a big Faux Pas, (Michelangelo however, did it in the last supper with his ceiling) but with a strong perspective and good subject spacing it can be overridden to the point where the discomfort of looking at a symmetrical composition can be glossed over for the other elements. There is asymmetry and symmetry in the image, which I feel makes it work despite that the horizon and the central line of perspective that outlines the central figure is nearly in the center of the image.
The goal to understanding rules of aesthetic convention is to understand the formal convention and more importantly, how and when to break with that convention to make a statement, or enhance an impact or even to create a soliloquy among the viewer about why the convention was broken and why it does what it does to the eye and the emotions. Feel free to piss people off here its your own sensibilities you are ultimately appealing to.
Lets move on to an invisible influence called visual tension. visual tension should lead to a cathartic internal dialog about what you are actually looking at and more deeply, why certain images make you feel something beyond words….feel free to google Visual Tension, I can wait…
Thanks for coming back!
Tension throws your eye in uncomfortable directions, or draws your attention to places in the image that seem to perplex your finer sensibilities. One example is an un-named image I recently scanned, but desperately want to print, or perhaps revisit the site for a sharper 4×5 negative of the same scene with more moody clouds, it explicitly shows the horizon crooked while two pillars at different distances, seemingly unrelated, coincidentally stand straight. Are the pillars standing plumb and straight in a crooked world? or is it a coincidence that two distant pillars could find the same lean angle to become an interesting composition? Does the fact that you can’t see the bottom or the top of the pillar in the foreground become unsettling? Is it smack dab in your face like a would-be criminal who is about to steal your wallet? Does the blurry background make you yearn for more clarity in the distance? Does this say something about a desire for clarity in the distant future while looking past the detail of the ominous present? regardless of how much I may be reaching or reacting to the scene; that feeling for all of these different elements in this image is the result of visual tension. That tension is deliberate. Once you can recognize it, it will be surprising, finding it in nearly all well known images you see in the future.
Image Copyright Silent Soliloquy, aka Scott McClarin, 2016 Pillars were near the Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake.
Another example of asymmetry causing tension and driving the eye to wander, but not aimlessly, is this one:
Image Copyright Silent Soliloquy, aka Scott McClarin, 2014, From the Great Salt Lake near the renovated Saltair building.
Did you feel how the texture at lower left of the sand, with their converging lines of perspective and direction caused by the pattern, (Not unlike Michelangelo’s ceiling in “The Last Supper”) accelerated your eye to the horizon did they? When youre eye passed there was it coerced uncomfortably to the left by the dark sandbar in shadow or dod you plow through it with consternation for being pushed against the direction you were taught to read moving from Left to right, only to have the eye cast back to the right into the sky; in a swirling clockwise motion. Note the perspective line of the beach and what it does to your eye movement after it moved through the sky; that is a deliberate tension set up as part of the composition at the time of capture. In fact it was noted in the scene before me well before capture…In actuality for me it is the sole reason the capture ever happened.
This tension I silently and reflectively learned to set up after taking thousands of images at the same place over 8 years of revisiting the same scene in different seasons and times of the day. The tension in this scene, functions like a catapult against the viewers desire to read an image like a book, and then sets the eye free at the horizon line to freely discover the detail of the sky and the distant mountain peaks that seem clearer and more detailed the longer you look at them.
One way to check that you have balanced out your negative space, and see that tension when reversed on itself creates stunning balance, is to double expose 180 degrees on the same print to see where your horizon line sits with reference to your other elements within the framework of the rule of thirds, like this accidental lith print (using diluted Lith Developer and specially tested silver bromide printing paper that is known to react favorably to dilute lith developers) I made this during a workshop and forgot to put the print into the Developer, and then slid it back into the print frame upside down (while I was chatting about where I took the image to other workshop participants), Despite my lack in attention to what I was doing I miraculously managed to put it back in the easel emulsion up to make a double exposure. Some lessons are more accidental than purposeful, but they are still valuable lessons. One of the lessons is that double exposures don’t blow out highlights with Lith Processing, like a standard processing would have done, the whites are still white and the dark shadows still retain detail.
Image Copyright Silent Soliloquy, aka Scott McClarin, 2013, Image from a Print created during a Lith Print alt process workshop put on by Robert Hall
A great quote I found in my notes from the Lith Workshop and its chief Artist, Robert Hall, is his casual affirmation to a question about equipment and process being authentic “The method by which you arrive to an image that transcends is irrelevant.”To re read that 3 years after the workshop when I was feeling down about what I thought I was doing with image making was cathartic and reassuring. The same can be said about the tools used to create it, or the temporal nature of the creative process that seems to flow and ebb from the practitioner.
In closing I hope you feel on some level that anything is possible. many of my black and white images came from cameras older than 40 years, one of them I still use that helped in seeing “La Guitarra De La Diosa” is from 1945, A 4×5 Peacemaker Speed Graphic (71 years old!), That peacemaker has a Bauch and Lomb 88mm Wide Field lens (equivalent to a 21mm lens in 35mm format) that visibly shows lightly scratched glass in the front element that seems irrelevant to the images created from the light that passes through its substance…This business of creating images that transcends their creation process is not really about the camera or even the quality of the lens…quite simply the hard lesson that dawns on us after about 10,000 images or more (according to Bresson) is that it’s the being behind the camera, and thus behind the image, and the lasting impact of the image that persists long after the person who created it, has left this world, that makes a statement about what kind of image has been passed on…Just look at a short video of Edward Weston’s process to create the lasting images that he did if you doubt me. because of all of this it also doesn’t really matter if you have a cellphone, a digital point and shoot, a Pro Grade DSLR or a film point and shoot, or a pro film camera, or a Press camera from the 1940’s. To make an impact with an image that transcends it’s medium, it simply doesn’t matter what you use if you create a great image, because it will also transcend the tool that took it; that cheap film camera sitting on a shelf in a pawn shop and a few rolls of film, and a temporary closet or bathroom darkroom should be equally valued by what it can do in modern times compared to modern cameras. They simply help the mind behind them to create emotive and meaningful imagery.
Does anyone fondly revere the many paint brushes used by Michelangelo or the pens or paper types or myriad paintbrushes William Blake wielded? Few individuals who could wield both with equal aplomb like William Blake; google Blake if you ever lose sight of yourself in the endless stream of advertising that NikoCano corporations who want you to believe that the tool makes the image a better thing.
Liberate yourself from that marketing ideology and feel freer to shoot next to profesisionals, or those posing as such. If you find yourself at a great spot with a point and shoot, or a film camera shoot it without self loathing of not having a better camera you left at home or with embarrassment for what you don’t have to create it, lose yourself in the scene and the moment you find yourself in and also allow the emotive scene you feel inside your mind that has yet to be uncovered. I also recommend you read the book of Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel, in this PDF link, that inspired Bresson’s decisive moment and begin to see the fleeting surreality unfold in small glimpses through your own imagery…It was well known to have influenced HCB Greatly, why on earth can it not do the same for you? It has been a Street Photography standby to use that book in seeking out the decisive moment, but there are decisive landscapes and expressions on your children’s faces or relatives gestures at dinners and events that can do the same. Many photographers have written articles online about it.
If you are looking at improving your equipment because you think it might improve your imagery, and “up your game”, If your’e not using it to compete in an economy of clients and advertisers who use equipment as a crutch to maintaining image quality, my advice is to shoot what you have, or pick up something cheap and usable and interesting with a story of its own and make sure that it suits your preferred style of image creation (e.g. a rangefinder for guessing distances and taking quick compositions when travelling, or a 6×7 camera lugged into the field, or a larger format view camera for slower more contemplative image creation), be it a film camera, or a second hand point and shoot you buy on Ebay, or a cropped sensor DSLR or full frame, or an older Pro body with rough condition lenses, or even a smartphone. The goal is to discover the joy of seeing through a different lens, and hence a new perspective, in a world of being, that is both real and surreal every second that passes us by…Try them all in varying conditions, you will see for yourself it doesn’t really matter what device you use if you create depth and emotion in an image…what matters more is the one you use most often. Even the thumbnail image you down sample should make an impact and make you and others want to open it for a full view.
My hope is that you discover a new sense of enjoyment that those moments and spaces create and come to appreciate them in the fleeting time we all have in this life, no matter what device you use to pull in perspective, create depth, and arrange your elements to engage your senses. Have fun my friends…life is brief, and we learn something new every day if we are sensitive to the subtle lessons all around us. Sincere thanks for reading my content this far. If you wish to see more of my images and visual musings you are welcome to follow my Flicker stream where I post my most recent film scans, prints and digital images from, artistic outpourings, random outings and my daily life. My Flickr name is Silent_Soliloquy.
Carpe Et Diem.