How do we compose an image?
Apart, that is, from the obvious route of following some "rules" or re-visiting a "template" from one of our earlier images – we've probably all done this, in fact artists throughout history have re-worked particular ideas. What, I wonder, is the deeper mental process, or processes, that lead to us realising that we've found a composition? I don't claim to be able to make a definitive answer but I want to open a debate.
I think we've all had the experience of visiting a location and not seeing any obvious compositions but then suddenly being struck, almost as if one had been physically smacked between the eyes, that HERE is the picture. Sometimes this is an instantaneous reaction, often there is a process of assimilation of the salient forms which suddenly seem to coalesce before your mind's eye into a decent composition. Sometimes it doesn't strike your companions at all.
The image above, of Vikspollen in the Lofoten Islands, was made when I travelled there with a tour group in 2005. Sunset is very late in August in the Arctic Circle and the group had been having their evening meal and watching interesting light develop to the west of the islands. We had had very mixed conditions with only one decent sunset so far and everyone was champing at the bit to get out and make an image in some glorious late light. This dearth of sunset opportunities had led the group to an expectation of the kind of image they were going to make.
As we drove the 10 or 12 miles to our "sunset" location the cloud began to build in the west and the earlier promise of golden light was extinguished. A sense of disappointment settled over many of the group. They had had a fixed notion of their chosen photographic goal and its likely outcome and now realised that this was not going to be achievable.
The problem was that they were no longer open to the opportunities that still presented themselves. It wasn't going to be glorious but it was mean and moody and this might make an equally powerful image. Wandering around the foreshore I came across this striking boulder, covered in white lichen and perfectly positioned at the apex of converging grooves in the mid grey granite. These suggested an exaggerated perspective (recession on steroids!) leading the eye through the image nexus of the contrasting white boulder – the single, discrete element linking the miniature graphic landscape of the foreshore to the distant greater landscape. But I didn't consciously think about how these elements related to each other prior to making the image. I just knew that it worked, I instinctively and immediately recognised the possibility for a strong composition. How? More on that in a moment, first I want to relate the reaction of various members of the group.
I showed the boulder to two or three people who all failed to see any potential for an image; stuck, as they were I suspect, in frustrated sunset mode. It's apparent to me, then, that the first essential part of the process for finding a composition is opening one's mind to whatever possibilities are around you. Minor White wrote on the state of mind of a photographer creating an image, "the lack of a pre-formed pattern or preconceived idea of how anything ought to look is essential to this blank [creative] condition. Such a state of mind is not unlike a sheet of film itself - seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second's exposure conceives a life in it. (Not just life, but "a" life)."
Having set the essential precondition for finding a composition it's time to return to the "How?" question. It seems inherent in my earlier description of how compositions seem to suddenly, and almost unexpectedly, arrive in our mind's eye that the "How?" involves largely unconscious processes. I recently read a book entitled Blink by thought provoking journalist Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell's basic premise for the book is that humans make "illogical", instant, snap decisions (how apt in the context of this discussion!) seemingly on the basis of very little information and that these judgements, made in the blink of an eye, are often better than those achieved through rigorous logical analysis of a situation. It occurs to me that this is how we make our best compositions. Edward Weston wrote on how we compose that, "Such rules [of composition] and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection..." And I feel that whilst some of this "reflection" arises from a conscious appraisal of completed work, both our own and that of other artists, the most important part is subconscious and never spoken or even overtly recognised.
Gladwell explains that these instantaneous appraisals are based upon a sub-conscious sorting of a mental database of facts acquired over our lifetime. I like to imagine that when I'm searching for a composition part of my mind is flicking through hanging files in an almost infinitely deep filing cabinet draw, of the kind beloved by cartoonists (but perhaps that's a personal problem of mine!). Most of the files get rejected – their contents are inappropriate for the compositional problem presented to me at that moment. My subconscious mind flicks on, at an enormous speed and all hidden from my conscious mind, picking out this file and that until it has assembled a group of scenarios that relate to the lie of the land in front of me. Now comes a blending, a synthesis. Still at the subconscious level, my mind selects a part of this file and blends it with a part of that, mixing a tiny portion of a third or fourth and so on. There's a whiff of alchemy or magic about this, indeed adepts have often been credited with almost paranormal insight. But I don't believe that anything magical occurs. The more you see – the more you truly look – the more "files" there will be in your mental filing cabinet and the easier it will be to find images.
One final thought, the fact that the compositional process is hidden from our conscious selves makes many artists uneasy, and especially photographers who's practice is rooted in hard technicalities. These individuals often seek solace in the concrete notion of compositional rules but this is an illusory comfort. Rules bind the user, they don't allow them to find their own road but fence them in. The greatest images almost always defy categorisation using the rules of composition, they're to be found in the great uncharted land beyond the fence.
Workshop at Linhof & Studio
Paula and I will be running another LF workshop in Leigh on Sea in spring 2008. Details will be posted on the Linhof website in due course or if you just can't wait contact Paula on +44(0)1702 716116 for further details and to reserve a place.