Composition vs Content
I have been thinking a lot lately about compositional challenges for myself as an artist. This has been in a large part driven by the fascination that I have with some of the work by Sigfried Hansen. Its also something that I have been developing in some conversations that I have been having with a friend that I recently met in Melbourne who is also a photographer. Its amazing what you are able to learn just through the process of sitting with a like minded person and having a conversation about things like this. I guess the first point for me in entering into this discussion is to outline what composition is, and how for me its very separate from content in many ways. In simple terms the word composition means 'putting together'. In this simple description there is a rabbit hole of information that can be unearthed, The thing with composition and any visual art form is that there is not only the 'putting together' of elements within the image. It snot just about these magical things that occur within a frame to make an image.
There is an artist involved. There is a human. There is something that has a conscious mind that is directly influencing the 'putting together' of things in the frame. Even though they may not physically move elements within the frame, they always have a level of control. They can control the angle of the shot, the length of the lens, the exposure of the image. All of these things, as well as many others, can have a direct impact on the composition of an image.
Another thing that had a huge influence on this train of thought for me is this really good video of a talk that Adam Marelli gave. Adam is cross trained in a number of visual mediums, and this is evident with his knowledge of composition within a two dimensional plane of a photograph. The video is well worth spending the time to watch.
Im not going to try and cover this topic in as much detail, or with as much knowledge as Adam does in the video above. I couldnt even if I tried. So I am going to assume a little knowledge from here on in, and if I am out on said knowledge then I would implore you wo watch the video from Adam. So the question at hand is along the lines of the importance of composition in an image over content.
If you flip through some of Sigfried Hansen's work, especially in the folio of Graphic work, you will see that in the case of all of these images the content is not really important. I dont know if thats the right way to say this, but I think what I am getting at is the content really is the composition. As I think a little more, I guess its not really possible to have composition without content. We have already mentioned that composition literally means 'putting together'. In order to put things together there needs to be content to compose.
As with many of my posts this one has been a work in progress that was started a week ago as some of these thoughts developed slowly, and has been the subject of more discussion over Friday night pints. When continuing the discussion talk turned to the different types of photographers that might be involved in the two ends of the spectrum that I am stumbling to outline here.
Photographer number 1 wants to document people. He spends a lot of time inserting himself into the community that he is trying to document. He gains the trust of the people. He cares about them. He wants to tell their story. He does this over a lengthy period of time, maybe years.
Photographer number 2 on the other hand doesnt really care about people in a way. He doesnt want to insert himself into communities and has a full realisation that any images that he comes away with of people that try and mimic this documentary style will therefore be weak and contrived. He doesnt mind having people in his images. Hey, sometimes they are important aspects of his work. The difference is that the people in photographer numbers 2's work are there to tell his story, not theirs.
Photographer 1 is in it for the content. He wants that depth and emotion to his images that come with a strong contextual element. It comes with that time thats spent getting to know your subject. Sometimes the motives that drive photographer number 1 are no less self fulfilling that photographer 2, but this is secondary.
Photographer number 2 on the other hand is all about the composition. The composition is the content of the images that he hopes to create. He cares no less for this content than photographer number 1. By all means he wants to understand it and know it, but its not a community of people that he has to invest time in. If the time investment isnt in the people in this case, and its not in a community, then where is it?
Time (and money) might be invested in books. Time and money might be invested in travel. Though travel is an interesting topic in the context of this discussion.
Photographer number 1 is not likely going to benefit from travel. They will travel to a new location and lack the connection to the people of the new place. They will lack the developed ability to be able to take an image of someone in the community that they have accustomed themselves to without being noticed.
Photographer number 2 on the other hand might have a little more luck when it comes to traveling somewhere that they are not used to, but there are going to be draw backs for him as well. The area that he is in will be unfamiliar. This may be of use in some instances, but for some reason I feel that having some locations that you know, some places that you might have seen something that might have worked, these things might be an advantage. I am unsure of this a little at the moment as I am still in the process of training my eye on this front.
I have also been pointed in the direction of some work by Blake Andrews. Blake completed a series called Line Ups. The series is a little different to Sigfriends work. It was described to me as being less clinical. I agree with this. Its a little more intellectual. Its clearly evident from Blakes work that the images were preconceived. None of the images were mistakes. None of the images were chance. All of the images were a result of a well trained eye that was able to search out and find these interesting compositions without having to influence or manipulate the scene.
One of the things that I have found interesting to discuss in relation to this type of work is the fact that although there are no people in the image, the images are not easier to obtain. Its easy to go and take an image of a person in the street really. It may feel a little confronting at times, but from a intellectual point of view, its the confrontation thats the issue, not the cognition. The compositional work on the other hand is a pure result of the artists ability to see. Its a result of the artists ability to find these interconnecting instances in the world around us, and use the two dimensional display of the three dimensional world that we live in to create an illusion of sorts.
The second point is the learning process that is undertaken in teaching ones self to get these images. The tricks of composition that one learns in achieving this kind of image will flow through to the other work that the artist undertakes. The ability to compose images like this without the stress of moving subjects and people in the frame is something that the photographer will then be able to transfer to other work that they complete with people. It still may not end up being on the same level as photographer number 1, but it will make for a greater level of control over one of the unknown aspects of some of the work that we do ont he street. The person.