The Clearest and Strongest Way of Seeing (Part II)

This post is a continuation of my previous essay about visual composition. Please note that I have edited the original post for clarity before writing this one, so you may wish to revisit it even if you’ve already read it.

We do not long remember those artists who followed the rules more diligently than anyone else. We remember those who made the art from which the “rules” inevitably follow.

~David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear

In the previous installment, I explained why I feel that intuition is a much more reliable way to approach visual composition than deliberately applying any prescribed rules or templates. In a nutshell the argument is this: if there are in fact rules for “better” artistic compositions, we don’t know what they are. We do know that visual perception—how we make meaning from visual information—relies on both objective and subjective factors, so even if there were some universal “rules,” they are still not guaranteed to always yield a desired effect. Empirical study shows that bits of advice commonly referred to as “rules of composition” are sometimes wrong, or at least lacking in evidence. Finally, we know that focusing on rules rather than on intuition may inhibit creativity and limit one’s range of visual expression.

There is simply no evidence that such things as the golden ratio or the use of leading lines have any universal benefit in terms of aesthetic appeal or visual expression. Even if following such advice may prove effective in a given photograph, this evidence is anecdotal and not universal. Suggesting that these so-called “rules of composition” be accepted as universal truths just because they work in a handful cases, is what philosophers refer to as appeal to consequences—a type of logical fallacy.

The collective meaning expressed in a picture—the way all individual elements in the frame combine to make a singular impression—is referred to as gestalt. For artists, I think that a better way to refer to this collective meaning is as a concept. In plain terms, the concept for a work of art is the thing that the work is about—the thing the artist wished to express to viewers, or the effect the artist intended for the work to have (in cases where the work is not intended to express any singular, decisive meaning).

A concept can be as simple and obvious as aesthetic appeal (pretty flower, bucolic scene), or as complex as moods, emotions, humor, fatalism, symbols, metaphors, visual riddles intending to prompt viewers to fill in their own meaning, or even meanings there are no word equivalents for. A photograph having a concept (that is, a photograph intending to achieve something other than just portray an obvious recognizable subject) is an expressive photograph, rather than a representational photograph. Expressive photographs are intended primarily to convey or elicit subjective meaning, rather than to portray objective appearances. (Certainly, these are not hard and fast distinctions and some overlap is to be expected, especially in photography, which relies on material objects as input.)

Analogies to studying expressive art can be found in studies of consciousness, in the sense that both artistic perception and consciousness are complex cognitive perceptions arising from combinations of simpler components. Consciousness has been a lively topic of research and philosophical thinking in recent years, with many scientists attempting to unravel the “neural correlates of consciousness” (NCCs)—the physical components and activities in the brain that give rise to perceptions: our ability to recognize, feel, and respond to things in our environment. Philosopher David Chalmers suggested that these studies, even if successful, will only solve the “easy problem of consciousness”—the mapping of certain perceptions to certain brain regions or processes. In contrast, Chalmers coined the term “the hard problem of consciousness,” referring to how these disparate brain activities come together to form qualia—the sense of having subjective experience, and of being a singular, unified, conscious, free-willing entity.

Similarly, we can define “the hard problem of composition”—how our known responses to individual visual stimuli (lines, shapes, patterns, colors, etc.) combine to give rise to a unified perception (gestalt) of, and emotional response to, an image composed of these elements. As with the hard problem of consciousness, we know fairly little about the hard problem of composition, especially when it comes to art. In his book, The Aesthetic Brain, Anjan Chatterjee sums up the current state of our knowledge:

We encounter limits of what neuroscience can contribute to aesthetics when we consider meaning in art. Neuroscience has something to say about the way we recognize representational paintings. We know something about how we recognize objects or places or faces. […] But this knowledge is about our general understanding of these categories of objects and not about the particular response to a Cézanne still life, or a Rembrandt portrait, or a Turner landscape.

It’s no surprise that art keeps evolving and changing in disruptive and unpredictable ways. Since no rules for making or perceiving art are known to exist beyond how we may respond to certain elements (colors, shapes, faces), artists continue to experiment, explore, and discover new ways of expressing themselves visually. Classical art doesn’t look like impressionist art, and impressionist art doesn’t look like abstract art, and so on. It’s all but certain that more art movements are still to come that will look little like today’s art. It is also certain that these movements will not arise from the ranks of those who stick only to commonly established patterns.

The consistent rising of new movements, new ways of thinking, and ultimately new artistic expressions, relies on the human capacity for creativity. Adhering too closely to rules and to established templates may suppress creativity. Whereas applying rules and following recipes relies on convergent thinking—thinking that aims to use known methods to arrive at known outcomes, creative ideas require divergent thinking—coming up with solutions on the fly without having a preconceived outcome, considering many possibilities at each point of decision before settling on a course of action.

Creativity also suffers when things are made too easy, such as reducing the “how to” for any activity to a stepwise process or to a list of tips. The easier something is to accomplish, the less creative it is likely to be, and the more likely it is that others have already figured it out. Ease also hinders the experience of flow, which requires, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Supposing one acknowledges the benefits of striving for creative expression in photography, and is willing to put in the effort needed to gain the rewards of flow, discovery, and perhaps even the good fortune of making some significant contribution to the evolution of visual art, now what? If the art of visual composition is indeed so mysterious that it cannot be reduced to lessons and rules one can learn and exercise, then how does one get good at it?

Although we don’t know enough to articulate the rules of expressive visual composition, we do have a way of putting compositions to the test—to tell successful compositions from unsuccessful ones. Each of us has a brain that is capable of consuming and interpreting visual art. The challenge, therefore, is not so much reducing visual composition to simple rules but conceiving possible compositions and comparing them against each other.

We may not know how the brain decides what a good composition is, or what a given work of art expresses, but still the brain does these things all the time. We feed an image into the “black box,” and we get a reading: like or dislike, works or doesn’t work, expresses X or expresses Y, interesting or dull, obvious or complex, appealing or boring, tasteful or kitsch. This black box—our intuition—has the answers (granted, subjective rather than universal answers), and we can use it in the course of divergent thinking. At any point, when faced with a creative decision, we can run some possible scenarios through the “box” and compare them by gut feel, choosing the most effective one. This, in summary, is what visualization is all about: the ability to conceive in the “mind’s eye*” images that don’t exist in any objective sense, and decide whether they are worth bringing into existence—the literal definition of creation.

An important aspect of intuition is that it can be trained. All people are born with some innate aesthetic preferences, but of course not everyone likes or even understands the same things, especially when it comes to art. Cognitive abilities, including creativity and art appreciation, can be trained just like physical abilities—by building up and exercising the metaphorical “muscles”—the brain circuitry—responsible for these abilities. Just as training programs for physical abilities rely on isolating particular muscles and picking exercises targeted to those muscles, we can also isolate certain cognitive abilities and find exercises to target them. Also, just as with physical fitness, it helps to adopt lifestyles, habits, and attitudes that keep one in generally good shape in addition to the targeted exercises.

If we think of visual composition as a cognitive ability that we can train, then it doesn’t really matter that we don’t know exactly how it works. After all, how many gifted athletes can name every muscle, tendon, and nerve needed to perform their sport, let alone the underlying biochemistry and neural circuitry. In practical terms, the analogy suggests that to be a good creative artist one must first adopt life attitudes conducive to being in generally good “artistic shape,” such as mindfulness, interest in learning about art, making art a prominent part of one’s life: set daily time aside to practice art, read books, attend exhibits, interact with other artists, etc. Then, when one is in sufficiently good artistic shape, one can seek targeted exercises for particular skills they wish to strengthen.

In the next (and likely final) installment in this series, I’ll propose some useful exercises to improve your intuition about expressive composition.

Reframing the Story

* As I wrote this piece, a story in the New York Times came out, revealing that different people may differ profoundly in their ability to visualize. The story highlights an uncomfortable truth: not everyone is equally capable of producing expressive art. Just like different people may score differently in IQ tests or in various personality traits, artistic ability is also not distributed evenly. This is a fact, not a judgment. There are two important conclusions to be drawn from this fact.

The first important conclusion is this: just like it is pointless for most of us to compete in some athletic pursuits against people whose body types are more suitable to these activities, it is pointless to judge one’s work based on how it compares with others. The point of artistic work is not to win contests, but to enrich and elevate one’s life. I believe that just like most people can enjoy running or playing basketball even if unfit for the olympic team, anyone can also reap the inner rewards of pursuing creative work, regardless of outcome.

The second important conclusion is this: art is among the most subjective pursuits that a person may have. So long as we do not impose on others, we are each free to pursue our art in whatever manner, using whatever tools, and with whatever intention satisfies us most. Different people may find satisfaction and creative success in different aspects of photography (or any other creative pursuit), in different parts of the process, in different activities. The greatest rewards don’t come from doing any one thing better than (or even as well as) others. The greatest rewards come from deep and prolonged immersion in a creative activity, however one chooses to pursue it.

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8 thoughts on “The Clearest and Strongest Way of Seeing (Part II)

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  1. Hi Guy. Your article is both interesting and supportive as I have long been trying to unravel why and how I compose my own landscape photographs. Unlike many photographers, I do not spend lots of time at a single location trying to find compositions. Instead, the longer I contemplate a scene the more likely I am to revert to the “rules”. My preferred approach is to surprise myself, to turn a corner and perceive a ready-made composition in the juxtaposed landscape elements. Such perceptions are non-conscious (intuitive?) and occur in the milliseconds before my brain can rationalize the scene’s physical content. I believe I am witnessing a Barthes’ “punctum” in that moment but without understanding why it has “pricked” me. I then proceed to create a photograph that expresses my memory of that punctum. The composition is “ready-made” because, as perceived, it arrives already visually balanced and with physically unconnected elements relating to and harmonizing with each other.
    However, I also need to be in a state of flow, with rational thought suspended, to create such images. For me this requires the environmental conditions to be quiet, ideally, I would be alone, feeling myself to be invisible, and with no noises or distractions from the weather. Consequently, I rarely achieve successful images when accompanied by others, in cities or other busy locations.
    I will be submitting my research as a PhD thesis later this year but already it has changed my landscape practice away from locations and subjects and towards trying to experience and capture the moment and its punctum.
    Thanks for your inspiring writing and photographs.

    1. Neil,

      Thanks for your comment about a technique that works well for you to find creative compositions (rather than ones that just follow rules). It’s not something I’ve thought about before this, but I do get drawn towards following rules when I spend too long on something.

      For the way I take photos (and please don’t look me up online like I did you, I don’t have a current portfolio!) it’s still often worth it to slow down a work a scene, but I’m going to try to doing things quicker and more intuitively.

      Your “Shapes & Design” and “General Landscapes” albums on your website are both beautiful. You have a naturalist eye that feels more true to a scene (I often find my images feeling contrived). “Landscape Research” is an interesting album, and I’d love for you to create a video sharing your findings.

      1. Thanks for your comments. Nice of you to suggest it but I doubt if I’ll do a video for myself. However, I’m hoping to present a 10 minute talk at the next On Landscape conference, which, I guess, will be online but I’ve no idea when.

    2. Thank you, Neil!

      You touch on some very interesting topics. In case you haven’t seen it yet, look up some of the recent studies on the phenomenon called “aphantasia” (I’m sure a web search will dig up a lot). As it turns out, not everyone can visualize images in the so-called “mind’s eye.” Having read some of the studies, I’m inclined to revisit my own teachings on visualization.

      Also, there’s been a lot of recent work on how the brain creates our sense of “now”—the sum total of sensory perceptions, augmented with knowledge, memories, emotions, etc. As you can imagine, this takes time so we are always experiencing some approximation of the world as it was a fraction of a second in the past. By the time you become conscious of what you see, it is likely that some subconscious processes in your brain have already made some judgments about the information coming from the senses, which may explain the sensation of the “punctum.”

      I’m the same way when it comes to working alone. You may be interested in a book by Adam Gazzaley and David Rosen titled “The Distracted Mind,” which talks about how much various interferences can “cost” us in terms of how much we are aware of.


  2. Having read your article , I feel , somehow , true photography is somewhat safe , atleast for now , looking at the social media and how photographers are popping up everywhere with no true sense of what photography really is.
    Your blogs remind me of books that bend towards art , spirituality , metaphors , meaning and a sense of timeless art. I myself have recently developed an understanding of what true photography is when u reduce it to its bare bone fundamentals when I realised that its not enough to display a photograph that is merely “beautiful” , it does nothing to the viewer except gaining a comment “thats a beautiful photograph” and then the viewer moves on. Rather I agree on your point that a photograph should be like an open invitation with a fine balance between “expressing your point with your work” and leaving it open for the “viewers interpretation of your work” hence making it engaging and capturing.
    I would love for you have have a look at my work and comment on it.

    1. Thank you, Akshay!

      I think photography has always been safe in the sense that, no matter what anyone does or things, we are each free to practice it in whatever way is most rewarding to us. This has to come with the caveat that there’s always the possibility we may discover new and more rewarding ways as we go along, and as we learn more (one reason I don’t quite understand the “photo celibacy” phenomenon).

      Beauty is important, but it’s also fairly easy to accomplish in photography by relying on beauty already inherent in some objects or scene. Creativity, on the other hand, requires imagination and engagement which are the preconditions for flow and discovery.

      I’d love to see your work if you’d like to post a link, but I generally refrain from commenting on other people’s work when I don’t know them. There’s really not much I can say other than express my own preferences, which ultimately is not very helpful and may even be detrimental to the photographer’s creativity. I’ll need to know a person pretty well, and have a sense of their motivations and how they may respond to my critique before I feel I can offer anything truly useful.


  3. Just beautiful Guy. Although I completely agree with your points, I am sooo impressed with your ability to express them so clearly and beautifully.

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