Composition in photograph has been on my mind. What’s going to be in this shot? At which angle will I get my best view at the scene? Who can be inside the frame? What should be left out? Some say digital photography lets composition take a back seat when the photographer is out shooting, because she can take so many more photos and “see what’s there” later. “Crop” seems to be the buzzword of digital manipulation. I think this notion travels contrary to the artistic vision, however. I think this way because I’ve tried many times the machine-gun “shooting” technique and have seldom found inspiring compositions within the set.
To compare those rapid-fire photos with what I remembered of the place, and scene, left me wanting: “I should have got that sign in”; “This would be great if I had not cut that person in half”; “The reflection off the water would have been perfect if I had just waited!” I shoot often for travel writing gigs, but am constantly on the prowl for dramatic “art” shots—of people, architecture, wildlife, cityscapes. Travel seldom allows me to go back the next day to reset the shot that I missed. In retrospect, I know this to be true: all of my best shots have come after I’ve consciously set the shot by understanding what is in the frame and how best I can capture my intentions of its use.
There are no shortcuts to good photography, or any art. I find now that I want to study the scene (and always be prepared to start shooting) before taking shots. Perhaps this comes from my writing background. I need to understand before writing what is involved in a scene, who is there, why they are there, what objects occupy the place, and how everything there “looks” and “sounds” to the reader. I have brought those sensibilities to museum galleries to see how masters have built a painting, constructed a sculpture … and to see how I might bring those techniques into my writing.
The transference between one art-form technique to another can be an exhilarating experience, and inspirational. Ezra Pound taught this to Ernest Hemingway when he walked him through the Louvre. Mozart set operatic music to great poetry. Look at Matthew Brady’s American Civil War photographs. These are seldom mere “war is hell” pictures. They develop what I like to call the beauty of the grotesque, something found in every classical art form.
A photograph likewise tells so much more when you want it to do so, and when you use techniques from all our sensory capabilities. We are visual creatures, firstly, but we listen, we touch, we taste, we feel movement. A snow-covered mountaintop is beautiful, but it is just a beautiful mountaintop; on a windy day you can capture a stream of white blowing from the cornice, and then you create for the viewer motion, and sound … and drama. A bicyclist in a park is all movement, but let your shutter speed leave a blur in the wheel, or run off the back of rider, and you’ve demanded from the viewer his understanding of speed’s dimension to the visual frame, and perhaps create a story in the composition.
Our “why?” of art is individual as fingerprints or shades in a sketch. How we come from the why to the how that makes art beautiful and dynamic instead of turgid and stale is the state of our understanding of the process of art. Rembrandt van Rijn created thousands of etchings, but not one came from magic. He studied his subjects, understood his environment, and knew how to tell a story through simple, beautiful images.