Conceptual Awareness – World Within the Frame

Looking back through images we have created can give us useful insights about how we think about the art we make, if we can leverage the questions that matter. Minor White, an innovative instructor at the California School of Fine Arts during the middle of the twentieth century provided such a framework for his students to use. I am taking each of the five points separately to see how they can be put to use in our contemporary era of changing technology and social norms.

This article will be focused on the third point of his list: how the composition of the image speaks to us about what the artist is trying to achieve, or where they are coming from when creating their work.

Previous articles in this series can be accessed through these links:

Composition, or the arrangement of visual elements within the frame of the final image, may be one element that is not significantly different now than it was when White was teaching. At least, not different from a technological standpoint. Though our cameras have changed, our post processing options have exploded, and the options for how we have our images presented to the world have also multiplied, there will always be the final reality of a frame, and the contents. Entire articles may be dedicated to the ways in which modern technology may actually eliminate this (think Meta, projection mapping and other potentially border-less evolutions) but for now I will focus on a realm in which “photography” still ends in something resembling a photograph.

In all of these thought exercises, Minor White was trying to help his students see themselves as coming from points oriented along a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum White saw artists who were using “camera-as-brush”, or camera as a tool to create images from a tradition of painting, drawing, or fabricating the image in some way to create something new in the hand of the artist. On the other end of the spectrum were those he as as using the camera as “extension-of-vision”, or seeking to reveal an outside truth about the world through their lens, and therefore working to represent it as faithfully as possible to an external “reality”.

A simple litmus test in regards to composition is whether the layout of the final image seems to have been orchestrated in any obvious manner. Has the subject been consciously framed by other elements to be seen in balance? Has the image been staged in a certain way? Are there strong diagonals or verticals that seem “placed”? Is the image seeking to represent itself in any tradition of landscape painting or seated portrait?

Mystery Of The Street, Umbo (Otto Umbehr) 1928, The MET

In the image posted here from Umbo, the top down street view is sharply reformatted into a second scene, seemingly existing in a world other than the one we initially recognize. The strong diagonal formed by the sidewalk divides the image in half, creating a contrast between the figures. The shadows, lengthened in the afternoon or morning light, become the upright forms of humans that we expect to see. Their simplified silhouette forms push them into a realm of generalized meaning and symbol for man, woman and child, though their interactions are unclear. All of this is brought sharply into existence through the conscious framing of the elements within the frame of the image.

A created, or forced, composition will generally make the image appear to be a constructed thing. The viewer will instinctually consider the image itself, the work of art, the message it is trying to convey, and will stand back from entering the image, from seeing it as if with their own eyes.

To use the camera as extension-of-vision, the artist works to compose the image that they see in the world outside of themselves. White saw these images as being composed and dictated by the subjects, rather than the artist.

Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, Eugene Atget, 1928, The MET

In many ways, this is the central point that White seems to try and tease out throughout his five point framework: does the image invite the viewer to look into the image, or at the image.

When I think of photographers who capture images without imposing an artificial composition, I think immediately of “street photographers” and journalists. Those who are out seeking to capture the momentary happenings of the world around them, often with lightning reflexes and their instincts to guide them. In many of these images there is little chance to frame an image, and therefore we naturally see them achieve a sense of spontaneous open layout.

For any other photographer, even when trying consciously to break from what might be seen as a “traditional” sense of composition, there will always be the visual instincts that lead us to create images with a sense of balance, or rhythm or contrast or harmony or other fundamental quality so as to bring the image into cohesion. Indeed, these compositional elements are what help us create strong images which people will want to spend time looking at. Without some of these elements, a viewer is unable to grasp the thread, and will not be able to appreciate what the photographer initially reacted to in his or her own mind’s eye.

This and the following bullet points tend towards a more difficult territory of ambiguity in analysis, and White was quick to acknowledge this.

He came down in the shoes of the viewer, and their perception of the composition. Does the image seem to be orchestrated? Do the elements seem to hang together of their own nature and harmony?

In White’s time, when photography was popularized and graphic images were widely in use for advertising across the American landscape, he still had a sense that viewers would be aware of the classical painterly examples. He was keen to align the photographers who used camera-as-brush with the traditions of composition that belonged to painters. The avant-garde photography using extreme angles and juxtapositions, close ups, forced perspectives and unusual focus of details was probably what he was thinking of when we thought of the opposite end of the spectrum.

The way we frame images may not have significantly changed between his time and ours, but the rolling evolution of artistic movements and the ever more ubiquitous nature of images in all aspects of our lives has certainly changed the visual literacy of the viewing public. It does not seem to make sense of thinking in terms of a painterly tradition. Many of the avant-garde images have themselves created a historical canon for photographic composition that now seems quite normal, or even quaint.

If talking about the specifics elements of composition is not enough, I think the core of his analysis still remains. It is simply enough for the viewer to react either to the contents of the image as a sense of captured reality, or to think about them as elements arranged to create a new point of expression.

How do the compositional decisions impact how you create images with a camera? Are you looking for an outside truth to capture, or is there greater truth in the elements as you are able to arrange and present them? Can there even be such as a thing as an un-composed image, or is this question simply off of the mark?

We continue wading deeper into ambiguous territory with the fourth post of five, in which White seeks to tackle how we represent the truth of the subject before us. This, as has been the case in previous posts, is both more difficult now than it was in his time, and somehow quite simple.

Read the next posts here: