Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Article On Luminous Landscape

CHeck out my latest article at Luminous Landscape, on learning from the best. As expected, it has generated some controversy, along the lines of "rules and tricks and guides have nothing to do with artistic expression". my response is that they have nothing to do with ideas and everything to do with expressing them.

I think this is fundamental to the issue of traditional photographers being frustrated with the low level of quality in much of the work being promoted by the more "Arty" of organizations and publications. They worship the idea while downplaying communication skills.

Thoughts on the subject?


Random Banjos said...

Edward Weston said "Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection."

I have seen many examples of those who examine and analyze during composition resulting in soul-less images. Whereas experience making photographs gives you your own way of seeing and expressing ideas without analyzing the composition. It then comes from the heart, not the head. In music, the greatest technical skill is nothing compared to a musician who exposes themselves through the expression of the music.

Andy Ilachinski said...

Your piece, as always, was thought provoking. It is, of course, impossible to have the last word on aesthetics (which are so highly personal); even more so in a visual medium (where words fall far short of conveying, on a meta level, something about which the "image" is doing the real talking). In the end, for me, a telling point (though one which leads to more mystery I'm afraid) is that while we can always *in hindsight* say why this or that image did or did not work (and for what perfectly reasonable, impassioned even, reasons), but no amount of *prior* musing, argumentation, pondering, study, etc. will suffice to tell photographer X (or even ourselves, if we are doing the pondering) how to go out and shoot their "Weston Pepper #30" masterpiece (say). Oh, we can *tell* afterwards if we've succeeded; but no amount of prior pontificating will point us the way. (BTW: there is something akin to "real science" in this verbiage... biologist/complex systems theorist Stu Kauffman has argued that *life* - more precisely the biosphere as a whole - depends on the activity space being large enough, that no one component - namely, no one organism, nor even species - can *predetermine* what he calls the "adjacent possible"; that is the space of all possible steps that can be taken from their current position on nthe fitness landscape.) I suspect something like this exists in the "creative space" as well.

George Barr said...

I disagree with Random. To continue his analogy of gravity, one understands through experience what to expect when one takes the next step. We may not understand the theory - we don't need to. In composition, with experience we understand that certain arrangements work better than others without needing to understand the theories behind why certain compositions work better.


George Barr said...

Re Andy's comment and to followup on Random's ideas. I agree that going out photographing today, with my article in hand, or memorized or summarized is utterly pointless. On the other hand, remembering what I wrote as you view the next 1000 images, yours or others and keeping my comments in mind could change the way you see. You won't be aware of my list as you photograph, but you will possibly see certain aspects as being right, without identifying why.

To use the analogy of music - most of us have listened to many many thousands of tunes over the years, but if we take a music appreciation course, we can learn about what makes some music great, the tools composers use to get our attention, create a mood, portray a picture in sound. Having learned these lessons, we then listen to music differently.

I will remind you that when I took a photographic appreciation course, I thought it total crap, I was really steamed after, a complete waste of time, and six months later the way I looked at photographs was changed forever.

Perhaps the same thing will happen here. Maybe I'm delusional. Time will tell.


Kelly said...

Very good piece. Another music analogy is improvising and having ideas as well as having the technical ability to express them. Both are needed. No ideas with great chops can result in sterile, boring music. Great ideas, but poor musical ability usually results in, at best, mediocre listening and at worst the idea not being expressed. In music a player with ideas will try to improve his technique so he can express, in photography can feel he doesn't need to.

Rajan P. Parrikar said...

I, too, find Random's analogy misplaced. We do not consult the laws of gravity at every step because induction has taught us to predict its consequences. I mean, you don't jump out of the 2nd floor window not because you have studied Newton's - or Einstein's - Theory of Gravitation.

A knowledge of what works and what doesn't accumulated over tens or hundreds of years is always useful. Therefore, as I said on LL, the points laid out by George Barr in his article cannot be brushed off. Even in photography, a conditioned mind will almost always be better prepared to exploit a given situation than an unprepared mind. Of course, the caveat being that one should not be so conditioned that it has deadened one's capacity for spontaneous expression or for divergence from the norm. Most creative work strikes a happy balance between a call to tradition and innovation.

George Barr said...


nicely put. On the issue of being "so conditioned", oddly I suspect that if one studies a few photographers of similar style, one risks being conditioned, but if we open our eyes to a variety of styles and genres and hundreds of photographers and thousands of images, it is hard to be conditioned to any one "rule" and our sense of rightness becomes flexible, open minded, yet fairly subconsious - "this works for me, damned if I remember which 217 images used the same technique, don't care, and for the next image, it will likely be totally innapropriate, but for now it works".

Something along the lines of "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing".


Sandy Wilson said...

First there are no rules of composition, only guide lines.

When we look at Edward Weston's 'Pepper' what do we see? We see an image of a pepper pared down to the bare essentials located centrally in the image frame. The guide lines of composition tell us never to place the subject in the centre of the frame, but here we have it bang in the middle. So what it works.

On further study of the image we see the beautiful soft lighting on the pepper. If you ever have the privilege of seeing the real print you will notice the glow and luminosity of this image that cannot be seen in any book reproduction.

So why is this image a great image, it is due to the lighting and simplicity of the the subject nothing more.

Weston must have seen and knew that when he saw the image on his camera's focusing screen.

Simplicity is the key to all great images. If you study all the great photographic images you can guarantee simplicity is present in them all.

roger100c said...

Hi George,
I strongly identify with your article on learning from the best images. As a judge for our local association of photographic clubs I am often confronted with 70 or 80 images in an evening where many photographers are still not "Seeing" the image.
They set up a beautiful background - and then forget the core subject, or capture a core subject but leave the rest of the image cluttered with distractions.
Artists (who paint or sketch etc) seem to have an easier time in composing the images than those who go straight into photography, even though they may have more problems with all the controls of the camera.
My own personal learning method is to create a photobook of the best images from my last trip and give the images a strong critique based on a list not to far removed from yours (with help from colleagues) about what is missing and what I would better do next time.
I include this critique in the photobook and take it with me on the next trip to remind me what I missed last time.
I feel strongly that learning and improvement is an iterative affair and that just as musicians and athletes practice every day to improve, we as photographers need to do the same thing. Whilst we may admire their performance on the day of the event, they have been practising against self imposed targets and measuring their performance daily!

grant kench said...

George, I wonder if you would expand on your last paragraph. I have the impression that the art of photography is splintering and evolving in many different ways. This cannot be bad.
I beg to differ with you in respect of the comment by Random. I don't go about my photography thinking about the things you wrote about but more intuitively. I get the results I want and if others appreciate what I produce that is a bonus.

George Barr said...

just this morning was reading CMYK 2.0 and the author referred to art being concept + craft. I think that all too often, people think that concept is all that is needed Some of those people are in positions of power and lend credence to photographers who ignore craft and if those photographers get praise by critics of a similar mind, well they are happy and I happen to not enjoy the work, that's my problem.

However, I wrote the essay for those who are not happy with their photography, who struggle to make it better but who are unsure how to improve. Sometimes there is no concept - they simply saw something pretty and wonder why they are unsatisfied with a record shot of the subject but very often, they have a concept, a good idea and in the translation from concept to reality, they fail to create a meaningful photograph.

An architect may have a wonderful idea for a new home, but if he forgets closet space, the roof leaks and the driveway is too steep to negotiate in the winter, the owner is going to be very frustrated.

If the photographer includes the kitchen sink, in the idea that the more good things he adds to the picture the better it's got to be, then likely he will be disappointed in the result. if presents the concept in ways which cloud its meaning to the viewer, he risks being misunderstood, or just not understood at all.


grant kench said...

Thanks George. Happy with that particularly the craft comment. I have always viewed myself as both an artist and craftsman. As I noted intuition plays a large part with the artistic side - the capture. My craft then is fashioning the perfect print. As a craftsman I cannot achieve without the artistic goods, the perfect light particularly.

George Barr said...


do remember though that within the definition of craft, I am including things like compositional skills and use of colour, things that have to do with the scene, as well as those parts that relate to the editing of images.


Joe Lipka said...

Comments on article on luminous landscape
I read your article. I knew I had to respond, because this is a necessary conversation. As the ability to create and share photographs becomes less cumbersome than it was thirty or forty years ago and the visual literacy of society’s younger elements increases we are already and will continue to be inundated with a plethora of images of dubious quality.
You created some guidelines to describe the characteristics of an interesting photograph and the viewing public does not appreciate your advice. This does not surprise me. Little Johnny has received nothing but praise for his artistic efforts since kindergarten and now he can’t possibly conceive that his life his artwork is being criticized. He is shocked there are “rules” that should be followed to make a good composition. He protests that his artistic creativity is being muzzled, fettered and tethered by your “rules.” He refuses to bend to “the will of society” and will continue to create fuzzy conceptual art photographs.

“Rules of art” are necessary.

The concept of “rules of art” is old, respected and is a requirement for exercising creativity. Consider the Haiku, Sonnet, Fugue and just for fun, the limerick, or even the “one liner" joke. Every one of these artistic forms of expression is governed by a strict adherence to form and rules. Yet in spite of the “rules of art” for these artistic forms, the artist can continue to solve the problem of creative expression. The problem of creating within a framework places more responsibility on the creator, giving him (or her) the dual responsibility of constructing their art within a set of rules.
I do not advocate a slavish adherence to “rules of art.” One should learn what they are, how you can use them effectively, how they can help you create a coherent image. Once those have been learned, they should be smashed with impunity if they get in the way of what you need to communicate. Learn the rules first. Demonstrate them to yourself and others to show you understand what they mean. Then go out and smash them if the situation requires it.

Sadly I must conclude, George, your efforts were not sufficient in detail. You have been bested by an entire website devoted to rules of composition. Here is a link to the site.

George Barr said...

Referring back to the comments on the luminous landscape forum, I'm amazed at how many photographers are happy with their work and feel no need to improve. Mind you, I guess I'm a little jealous - no worries, but I can't help wonder if it isn't being a bit neurotic about being "good enough" that pushes us to excel.


Susan said...

This won't succeed in reality, that is exactly what I think.