Perfectly Dead Things

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Perhaps you will say: But wait, how about design and composition, or, in painter’s lingo, organization and significant form? My answer is that these are words which, when they become formulated, signify, as a rule, perfectly dead things. […]
Composition, design, etc., cannot be fixed by rules, they are not in themselves a static prescription by which you can make a photograph or anything that has meaning. They signify merely the way of synthesis and simplification which creative individuals have found for themselves

~Paul Strand

The first time I was invited to speak at a photography conference, years ago, I sat in the audience watching other presenters deliver their talks, waiting for my turn to go on stage. A then-prominent photographer, speaking about composition, offered his tips for making good nature photographs, which, by his definition were photographs that editors were likely to pick for publication. “A good photograph,” he stressed, “must have well-defined foreground, mid-ground, and background.” He then proceeded to show numerous examples of beautiful scenics, which, ostensibly, “proved” the rule. This made me nervous. Trying to recall the photographs I had in my own slide deck, I was fairly certain that many did not, in fact, have well-defined foregrounds, mid-grounds, and background. The reason I was nervous was not that I thought my work was any worse for not following the rules, but because I was anxious about contradicting the words of this well-respected photographer, on my very first photography event.

My presentation was scheduled for later that afternoon, so during the lunch break I decided to flip through my slides to assess just how defiant I was about to be. My memory served me well: of the 38 photographs in my slideshow, none had distinct foreground, mid-ground, and background. Not even one!

But it was too late to change, so with some trepidation I delivered my talk later that afternoon. As it turned out, nobody even noticed that none of my photographs fit the composition “rules” taught earlier in the day… including the photographer who taught them, who walked over to congratulate me on my presentation and beautiful photographs.

In the years since, I learned an interesting thing: although tips and guidelines for photographic composition seem to be exceedingly popular among photographers; beyond perhaps the rule-of-thirds and a couple of other simplistic “rules,” nobody actually remembers those tips.

If you are among those who believe that such tips, rules, guidelines, or other recipes for “good compositions,” or “great shots,” are important, but feel guilty for not having memorized those you came across, you may breathe a sigh of relief—not because you are not alone in such negligence, but because by not memorizing such templates or adhering to them, you may unwittingly have spared yourself their potentially harmful effects. Sometimes, laziness pays off. (At least until you read a few of paragraphs further to learn why laziness really doesn’t pay off.)

Before explaining the reasons why ignoring so-called-rules of composition is a good thing, it’s worthwhile to know that the science of visual perception—how our brains make meaning from visual information—is fairly nascent. There is much that we don’t yet understand about how we know (or think we know) what we are looking at, and how our brains decide how we should feel about what we see. The majority of information coming into the brain from the visual system, gets discarded before we ever become conscious of it. To decide what is, or is not, worth keeping, the brain uses mechanisms referred to in neuroscience as, attention filters; and we are still a long way from understanding them at any depth. Moreover, our perception of the world around us as derived from sensory information, is not a direct representation of what our senses detect, despite feeling like it is. In fact, our perception is a composite approximation generated by complex processes in the brain—a made-up story created to keep us alive and safe, not necessarily to inform us of what’s really happening around us. Neuroscientists have a term for that, too—one of my favorite expressions in any scientific field—our perception of the world is, according to some neuroscientists, a controlled hallucination.

The upshot of all this is that anyone proclaiming to know of any “rules” of visual composition that alone make for “good” photographs, or even a majority of “good” photographs, is speaking out of ignorance, or relying on anecdotal evidence. If such rules exist in any universal sense, we—human beings living in this time—can’t say exactly what they are. We do know that to the degree that such rules exist, they are far more complex, and contingent on many more factors, than anything that can be reduced to a list of simple-to-apply tips.

Are there rules that, all other things being equal, can make a difference in which of a handful of possible compositions may be judged as more aesthetically pleasing than others, by a predictably significant proportion of viewers? Perhaps. But in photography, all other things are very rarely equal. One composition may be more pleasing than another, but another composition may elicit an altogether different emotional effect, or draw the viewer’s attention to different elements in the frame, than the rule-based composition. Such alternatives may not necessarily be prettier, but may be more desirable in numerous ways: more expressive, more interesting, more mysterious, etc. Speaking in terms of range of visual expression, it’s very limiting if the only thing a photographer knows reliably how to express in a photograph is, “here’s something pretty.”

Still, the greater risk of memorizing and consciously implementing templates, guidelines, or other “rules” of visual composition, is not that that they may be inaccurate or incomplete, but that they may inhibit, or suppress, creativity. To follow rules is, literally, to not be creative—to not allow for possibilities outside of what’s already known, or what’s been predetermined to be the only “correct” or desirable outcome(s).

Creative thought requires a state of mind known as, cognitive disinhibition. To understand what that means, consider that much of what your brain does is not processing information, but filtering out enormous amounts of information deemed unimportant. To give you a sense of just how much information the brain discards, it is estimated that around 11 million bits of information are sent to the brain each second, of which you are conscious of only about 50. There are also mechanisms in the brain that prevent processes and data from being shared or combined in ways not deemed useful. This is the “inhibition” effect referred to. As far as your brain is concerned, given how limited it is in what it can pay conscious attention to, it makes no sense to, for example, recall a childhood memory of picking peaches in your uncle’s yard, when your attention is focused on making an apple pie from a recipe for the first time. In order for you to connect these dots and perhaps have an epiphany that you could make a peach pie, instead of, or in addition to, an apple pie, your brain must allow these two thoughts to occupy your consciousness at the same time—i.e., it needs to not inhibit them from connecting; hence, cognitive disinhibition. The same is true in situations when you may be focused on a recipe for making some “good” photograph—your brain will harness as much conscious attention as it can to implement the recipe, and inhibit thoughts it may consider irrelevant to the task, even if they may lead to better—more original, more expressive, more interesting—photographs.

When you consciously seek to implement the rule-of-thirds, for example, you are in essence instructing your brain to not consider whether placing the subject in the center, or in any other part of the frame, may be more conducive to a more expressive or interesting photograph. When you instruct your brain to look for leading lines, you are in essence instructing it to ignore random curves, squiggles, or shapes, that may yield a pattern much more interesting than whatever your lines may be leading to, etc. More generally speaking, when you consciously attempt to apply a rule, and make it the primary subject of your attention, you are telling your brain: don’t be creative. The harder you try to consider, or follow, some “rules,” the more likely you are to not notice compositions that do not fit within these rules, but that in many cases may yield more interesting and engaging photographs.

In discussing this with some photographers, I’m often told, “it’s still good to know the rules,” or, “the rules at least give you a good starting point.” No, they really don’t. What rules do is not help you, but prejudice you. They lead you—or, “prime” your brain—to consider some options as likely to be better than others, which may be true in a lot of situations, but not in making art, where “better” may mean a lot of different things.

Rules “work” by limiting your options, which is the opposite of what’s desirable to a creative artist. When it comes to visual composition, limiting your options to a set of prescribed templates, is especially damaging, since these limits are largely arbitrary. Whatever rules of visual perception may actually exist, are likely far more numerous and complex than any simplified subset you may be able to memorize. More important, you don’t have to memorize them, because whatever rules of visual perception exist, you already know them: they are encoded in your own brain. Given a choice of several compositions, you should already be able to judge which is most appealing, which has more expressive properties, or which includes the least amount of distracting elements. You don’t need to apply rules consciously to know these things; what you need instead is to be able to visualize your options: to train and to force yourself to imagine, and to examine consciously, as many compositional possibilities as you can, so you can make an informed choice, by whatever subjective criteria fit what you’re after: aesthetics, expression, interest, complexity, etc. This is where laziness—going only for the obvious, or for what’s easiest to visualize—absolutely does not pay off.

Going for the obvious is a sure way of missing anything else. On the other hand, clearing your mind and forcing yourself to think consciously of as many different ways you may compose a scene, as many different things you may express with the visual elements available to you, as many possible ways you may process the image after capturing it, etc.—are the things that will yield you the most successful and creative compositions. This method of considering consciously as many possibilities as you can come up with before deciding on the best one, is what’s known as, divergent thinking—a mode of thought known to be conducive to creativity.

Lastly, another reason to avoid preconceived rules, templates, patterns, guidelines, etc., has to do with distinct types of attention. When you decide to focus your attention consciously on some task, such as looking for compositions that comply with whatever rule or pattern, you are using what’s known as top-down attention: you decide first what’s worthy of attention, then drive your attention toward that thing. This is different from attention that’s driven by outside factors. You may catch a glimpse of something interesting and your brain is drawn to pay attention to it without making a conscious decision to do so. This is known as bottom-up attention. With bottom-up attention, you don’t decide in advance what to pay attention to; your attention is drawn to things your unconscious mind thinks are worthy for some reason (e.g., for being colorful, aesthetically pleasing, potentially dangerous, tempting, etc.) This type of attention often coincides with mindfulness—being aware of things, sensations, and feelings in the present moment—which is a wonderfully beneficial trait in general, but especially so for photographers, as our medium allows us to react and to make visual composition in response to unexpected things, and not just in preconceived ways fitting some contrived rules.

A Moment to Rest

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9 thoughts on “Perfectly Dead Things

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  1. Whew Guy, you’re on top of your game with this post! It’s evening here and the old wheels are now spinning, and will continue to spin through the night. Ah well, sleep is overrated I suppose.

    Note to self: read Guy’s blog early in the day, not toward the end of it.

  2. Hi Guy,
    I believe the most fun I have photographing is when I use my eye to see what is beautiful and photograph it and block everything else out. Now, I know why!
    Beautifully written and beautiful photograph. One question though,
    the blue in your photograph is so interesting especially its texture.
    What is it?

    1. Thank you, Jeff!
      The blue is actually gray silt washed by a recent flood from higher grounds, and laid over the red sand lining the bottom of a canyon. The scene is in open shade, which gives it a blue’ish tint (this is due to a phenomenon known as Rayleigh Scattering, which explains why blue light is scattered more than other colors; it’s also why the sky appears blue to us).

  3. Very well stated case, as always. I especially enjoyed the tie-in to how our brains perceive our surroundings. The timing of your post coincides nicely with a quote I read just last night from Dorothea Lange and seems to fit perfectly with your position: “to know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting”. I can’t say how many times you’ve so eloquently stated thoughts that are jumbled in my head, so I thank you for that.

  4. Guy, thank you! We nod like bobble-heads at the platitude “You must first know the Rules of Composition in order to know when to break them”, so I am delighted by your passionate (and well reasoned) dismissal of these rules. I like Georgia O’Keeffe’s approach: “It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things”, which so beautifully encapsulates the intent of visual design. I have bookmarked your blog to commit to memory with repeat readings.

  5. Excellent article and excellent read. Your last paragraph sums up everything I’ve come to believe about the “act” of photographing. Somewhere back there I gave up on preconceptions about what I was going to see/shoot today. I find it much more interesting to leave myself mindfully open to what’s happening around me and photograph that. I like the results much more than trying when I tried to ram reality into the mould of a set of preconceived expectations.

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