Often one will read about the rules of photography, the rule of thirds, triangles, leading lines etc. But why are they considered “rules”. Well if one reads the book “Art and Visual Perception” by Rudolph Arnheim it quickly becomes obvious that placement of objects with in a frame leads to visual tension. So while placing objects of interest at one of the thirds line will produce a photograph that is accepted as good the photographer must go beyond simple placement at thirds.
It is fundamental that the photographer consider what impact and tension that they wish to create. After all it is the artists visual creation using light and therefore their responsibility to consider what impact they wish to impart to their art.
So where do things placed in a photo create tension? The centre has minimal tension whereas an object placed slightly off centre can be intense with its tension, with the caveat that there is not much else in the photograph to distract the viewer from the tension. An object placed well to one side with a large amount of negative space can create very strong tension as the viewer tries to resolve the argument between the object and the centre. Arnhiem discusses this intensly in chapter 1 “Balance” in his work.
Bruce Barnbaum in his book “The Art of Photography”, which in my opinion is a must read for any photographer, clearly does not support the rule of thirds. Barnbaum argues that the rule of thirds is a construct from faulty statistical analysis of art and placement of objects in the art. Barnbaum goes further and argues that composition, the primary object of the thirds rule is all about the best viewing. This is in my opinion a sub-concious use of visual tension to create an impact. If a photograph is to convey peace and serenity why would the artist by blind misuse of a rule create excessive tension within the viewers mind.
It has been my experience in various groups that I have encountered that very few think about what impact they are trying to convey with their photography. To enhance ones work it is important that consideration of the tension that one wants to create is considered in every image. Then and only then is the photographer conveying their emotion to the viewer. To blindly follow the compositional rules significantly limits the communication channels available to the artists.
Central tendency in photography.
During my brief interlude with statistics some years ago I met with a factor that greatly influences statistics, the idea of central tendency. That is the assumption that a population of study has a standard distribution, i.e. a standard bell curve. Now we know that much of humanity and its activities demonstrate this standard bell curve when measured. So what I hear you ask. Well recently I was reading an article on the herding instinct to be found amongst financial consultants (Jeremy Grantham, My Sister’s Pension Assets and Agency Problems. 2012). A further discussion with my daughter who is studying medicine mentioned that if a doctor makes a mistake and they are using a practise or technique that is or would be used by other doctors then that is a valid defence against prosecution. Again this is a herding instinct.
Extrapolating these thoughts and discussions to photography and looking at the popularity of certain types of photography it is pretty easy to see that the herding instinct is strongly alive and kicking. What do I mean? Well for example if I look at a landscape that has early light, water , long exposure which in itself I will admit is very pretty they generally get lots of favourites and comments. This of course puts pressure on other photographers seeking the same rewards to replicate the scene albeit at a different location. It is this pressure of acceptance by the collective that drives many to conform and generate similar photography. The herding of the artists to the central tendency of photography.
Moreover the rules of photography are often used indiscriminately to reject works from popularity stakes because they don’t fit the bell curve of acceptance regardless of what the artist may be trying to say with a photograph. No doubt many of you have experienced this rejection based on a subjective view by the audience of what is a great photo.
Here in Melbourne we have a the Monash Galley of Art, which is a major player in promoting photography as an art form. The MGA runs a competition called the Bowness Award. Last year 2011(which dates this blog) finalist and winners were not in any way shape or form like that found on many popular photography sites. So why did a selection of photographs that would not get much attention on such sites as 500px or RedBubble win a major prize ($25,000 AU). Well it may, in my opinion, be to do with the central tendency found in photography as well as other forms of art. A rejection of herding. Indeed looking at those artists that break the mould and establish a new form of art are generally rebelling against the established. These turning points are found throughout art or music.
In photography we have millions of would be artists many of which publish their works (including me) on sites such as RB, 500px, Fine Art America,Blue Canvas etc etc. With each collective pushing by likes or favourites the submitters to the central tendency, photography is in danger of becoming a ho-hum art form, seen that before why bother looking at another one.