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.
* 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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