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Some thoughts on photographic composition

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David Ward

David Ward

T-shirt winning landscape photographer, one time carpenter, full-time workshop leader and occasional author who does all his own decorating.

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Following the recent Meeting of Minds conference, photographer and blogger Malcolm Ragget’s posted his personal summation of the weekend.

(http://mraggett.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/onlandscape-conference-craft-versus-art/)

David Ward - Eggum Boatshed

In a thought-provoking article, Malcolm calls for landscape photographers to broaden their horizons and consider metaphor as a key ingredient of a good photograph. Toward the end of the post he makes a plea for “…delegates to think more deeply about their photography, to let go of the camera-as-craft and use it as a tool of enquiry…” The notion of letting go of “camera-as-craft” really struck a chord in me – although not, perhaps, in the way that Malcolm intended.



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  • Fascinating article. I always try and avoid too much thought but you’re not really giving me much choice. I’ll need to articulate a proper reply but I’m up at 3am to visit Loch Tulla then onwards to Skye – I would guess that most of my images from the trip will likely be fairly superficial. I fear that a more studied approach might not be as enjoyable.

    • Hi Mark, I wouldn’t fear that most of your images will be ‘fairly superficial’. I’m not suggesting that single images can’t be deeply evocative and meaningful, just that concentrating on composition alone isn’t necessarily the way to achieve this. Your work to date shows that you are consistently capable of making very moving photographs!

      Many of the criticisms of your winning LPOTY image on internet fora centred around a perception that it was compositionally ‘weak’. This is based on the fallacious argument that only ‘strong’ compositions are worthwhile and meaningful. I believe that your winning image was incredibly evocative. For me, and many others, you managed very successfully to convey your emotional response to the conditions you found.

      I’ve long held the belief that there’s a kind of alchemy at work in photography; great images can transcend their subject, the ‘base metal’ of the scene can be turned to ‘gold’. I think this happens when a photographer is sufficiently insightful and attuned that they are able to reveal aspects of the world that viewers would not have seen without their perspicacity. But for critics of your image only the ‘strength’ of the composition mattered. This is missing the point entirely.

      It would be wrong to believe that I think through all the things that I’ve written about here when I’m making images. Consciously thinking about the deep workings of photography is for another time. At the point when I make an image (ideally) I’m in the flow and I’m simply responding to what I feel. You do this too and need to carry on doing so.

      Have fun in Scotland, I look forward to seeing the results.

      D

  • A beautifully composed piece David, equal, of course, to your pictorial offerings :) I found Jem’s talk at the conference itself quite tiring at the time, if I’m honest, coming, as it did, at the end of a long day where concentration was pretty tough going for me. However in retrospect, I also found it the hardest hitting and the most challenging of all of the talks to my own landscape photography journey (having watched the talks again on the stream with a clearer head). Since the vast majority of my work is based in the Lake District I’d already come to a place whereby I wanted to focus on projects rather than individual images, basing nearly all of my photography around Thirlmere. Yet despite the ‘glue’ that loosely holds my work together, probably too strong a word really, I value the individual composition of pieces very highly. I ‘stray’ very occasionally into metaphor but its pretty superficial when that does happen. I’m certainly sure that I could never undertake a project such as those presented by Jem, I just don’t have those qualities / character traits to make it work, however I find that his work is truly fascinating and probably more befitting of the term landscape photography than most work that I’m exposed to on a day to day basis.

  • Mediumformat Phil

    David, thanks for a very thought provoking article. I read the piece last night before I turned the lights out, which was a mistake for it took me a long time before I actually nodded off thinking about the points you have raised. I believe my initial response was similar to Mark’s comment; I try not to think too deeply about why I go out into the countryside with my camera. However, I am distinctly unsettled and disturbed now!
    It was interesting that one of the paintings illustrating your article was a mid-ninteenth century American one; I have been looking at George Innes and Henry Ward Ranger and other Tonalists seeking inspiration (new artists to me, I’m ashamed to admit). Each of these has a distinct style, but equally a body of work that is in the main totally coherent. I wish I could apply this to my photographs. I have been slightly perplexed by Jem’s photographs, for at times I have felt they seem chaotic, and others completely mesmerising, as if on some days I ‘get it’ and on other occasions his philospphy and motivation for his images eludes me completely.
    Perhaps I should just ignore all of this and concentrate on what I enjoy doing, but it does beg the question as to why do I have this urge to photograph, what exactly is my motivation and what am I trying to say.
    Oh dear, I think I had better go and lie down again….

  • Simon Miles

    Most thought provoking and, as others have said, even a bit unsettling. Perhaps the problem is that landscape photography is inherently an exploration of place and therefore (perhaps more than any other genre of photograph) reactive. There’s never a blank canvas (nor even an empty studio) so it’s that much harder to start from an original idea.

    • Hi Simon,

      I think that your point is interesting and valid but it’s not the whole problem. Many other sorts of photography, including wildlife & reportage of all kinds, start with far from blank canvasses. What they do have is a more developed iconography. In the case of reportage this springs from shared human experience, or at least from a common understanding of facial expression and gesture. We are inherently capable of empathising with our fellow humans. Many wildlife images rely to a certain degree on the viewer anthropomorphising the subject. We cannot know what it feels like to be a lion, a zebra or a penguin yet we attempt to intuit the experience of these other lives based upon visual cues drawn from our own – and often reach mistaken conclusions.

      The fundamental problem for landscape photography is that there is no fixed or common iconography. When we look at another human’s face we can read what they’re feeling (to an extent!) but we can’t know what a photographer was thinking when he shot a picture of a tree. We can only ‘read’ such an image based upon a necessarily individual interpretation. Such interpretation is therefore always very speculative. In a sense you might say that the canvas of a landscape image is, if not exactly blank, devoid of prescribed definitions.

      D

      • Simon Miles

        Yes agreed, it’s quite complex and nuanced once you start really thinking about it. My wife is a wildlife sculptor, another genre where there can be a fair bit of debate (and prejudice) along craft vs art lines, particularly if the work lacks the kind of overt abstraction that you see so much of in art galleries (but not so much in private homes!).

  • colin shaw

    David, an excellent article that raises some interesting issues. I agree with what you say about the over reliance on composition. Living in the Peak District there are any number of images around that all look very similar because they all follow ‘the rules’ and to be honest I find them boring. Yes, they sell because it is what people have come to expect but what bugs me most is that it a styalised and partial view of the land. There is another landscape, one that shows the effects of human activity; that is what interests me and is the subject of a long term project. I guess I enjoy breaking the rules, always have! But the serious side is that doing something different gives you a chance to grow; that is what is important. Thanks again.

  • The somewhat disappointing reaction to Jem Southam’s work (which I also noticed) represents, to me at least, a general unwillingness of people to stray beyond their comfort zones. The same thing is also seen in the classical music world where many refuse to accept that anything composed after about 1890 is worth listening to. This tendency can be summed up in the well-worn phrase “I know what I like and I like what I know”.

    Until people are prepared to engage with art that they might not initially warm to and instead try to understand why others might consider it interesting/emotional/worthy then the prevalence of strong composition, bright colours, apocalyptic lighting etc. will continue. Another online photo magazine recently showed off ’71 amazing examples of landscape photography’. All contained strong composition and some also had great light and vibrant colours yet in not a single one of them could I detect any evidence of the artist behind the camera.

  • herb1815

    Thanks David for a very thought provoking article. It has made me have to use my grey matter, to consider and understand the points you are making, and I guess this is exactly what someone like Jem Southam’s images do as well,
    Or at least they do to some of us.
    I was at the conference and was fascinated by Jem’s talk and by his images, some I felt were incredible on their own and others I thought ” I could have done that ” but the thing is I wouldn’t have, because I wouldn’t have seen what he saw or more importantly how he saw it as part of his long term project.
    I think that maybe composition is important to a photographer until he’s cracked it, once you can play by the rules you can then find ways of breaking them, perhaps it’s also a question of who we are taking photos for, who are we trying to impress? If it’s friends and family or the general non photography public then composition doesn’t really seem to matter too much they just want to see a nice sunset, my more ” arty ” efforts are completely lost on them. If we want to see our images on the pages of the photography press then our images must play by the rules, but if we want to impress the world of fine art then it’s the message that matters (whether it’s really there or not is another matter). If I had taken those images of a scubby bit of woodland beside a river would they be hanging on the walls of important American art galleries? Not saying that Jem’s don’t deserve to be there but then he is a lecturer in photography at a prominent university and I’m just a tyre fitter
    Made me think too much, I need a drink !

  • Nigel

    I wasn’t at the conference but I watched the presentations later on Streamscape (http://streamscape.uk/ ) so was not able to join in with the subsequent debate and hear the reactions. However it felt to me that the issue which David is now raising was, for the most part, the elephant in the room at the conference. The matters which Jem discussed in his most interesting lecture and around which Rafael Rojas based his presentation must surely be fundamental to the practice of anyone who uses the landscape for photography. The question implied but not asked directly was why do some images connect with the viewer while many others, although technically good and compositionally strong, fail to ignite our passions? Why do these latter images, for the want of a better term, lack soul? No one appeared to pick up on it other than briefly in a couple of questions during the Question Time session with Cornish/Southam/Wakefield. (http://streamscape.uk/playlist/ from 14:14 and from 17:42 – free access)

    However these are not new questions. They have been posed for almost a long as we have had photographs. They were explored in detail in the context of landscape photography in an excellent book published about ten years ago titled “Landscape Within”. The book helped me develop my understanding of landscape photography as currently practiced and as part of a tradition which goes back a long time. That some people have been having difficulties with Jem’s images makes me think that there might be a market for the book among a new cohort of photographers if it were reissued.

    Jem’s description in his lecture of his discovery that some images began to stir things in his mind, “strum his memories very subtly” and allow narrative myths to emerge from his imagination was a moment of revelation for me and was they key which helped me get further into his photographs.

  • Hi David
    A very interesting article, as always and a lot of points to consider – not sure I can tackle them all but a few random thoughts below ;)

    Firstly, I do think ‘good’ composition is subjective, up to a point – also, a ‘good’ composition (whatever that may be) is surely compatible with a photograph that embodies an idea? The two are not mutually exclusive – so I don’t believe paying attention to composition prevents us from broadening our horizons in other respects…

    Secondly, whilst I agree a series of images can be extremely powerful and communicate a stronger message – I think one does also see evidence of people stringing together a bundle of not entirely convincing work, calling it a series (or ‘project’ seems to be the buzz word these days) and suddenly it is proclaimed as a masterpiece… OK I’m probably being a bit cynical here – but sometimes I think a series can be an easy way out. We struggle to create that one, individual masterpiece and creating a selection of ‘weaker’ images is perhaps less of a challenge?

    I’m not saying it has to be like that and of course there are numerous examples of superb series and bodies of work – but there is a danger of not being selective enough perhaps? Much depends on our objectives, of course – also on whether these photographs need to stand alone or whether they are to be accompanied by some kind of narrative.

    And, lastly, talking of ‘narrative’ – that was what I found so fascinating about Jem’s talk. Like many others, I was fairly tired and restless after a long (and very good) day but Jem’s talk was very compelling – I found his garden and pond series fascinating, though I suspect I would not have ‘got’ them without the narrative. Whereas, his images such as the one you include in this article I find very powerful in their own right – to me, this one is a superb composition too btw! As is Mark’s LPOTY winner! ;)

    A few rather badly expressed thoughts – but hope it makes some sense! Lizzie

    • Giles Stokoe

      Briefly, I do think that what many people would consider ” good” composition makes it difficult to convey meaning. These so-called rules generally attempt to introduce order and balance into an image and often claim to reproduce patterns that we are familiar with in nature. While I am all in favour of order and balance… they kind of inhibit the expression of disorder, disquiet, disharmony etc, and familiarity often prevents us from novel interpretations: we are not challenged.

      I do love classical compositions, it is just that after a subject has been given the classical treatment once, each successive attempt has to in some way “beat” the last in terms of light, season etc and it all ends up very competitive with incrementally less difference between new and pre-existing images, and therefore less being said about a subject that hasn’t been said before. By the way, I think this is one of the causes of the frantic and destructive search for new locations; if everyone is shooting the same subject according to the same rules, one has to find a new subject in order stand out.

  • david mantripp @ snowhenge.net

    It is interesting that this debate seems to be going on simultaneously in various disconnected parts of the blogosphere right now. In one corner we have what perhaps could be called the “scenic school”, where the single image predominates, and striving towards the masterpiece is fundamental. This is greatly amplified by social media, which rewards the quick buzz of a single high impact scene, and has no time, patience, or, at the risk of sound condescending, understanding of a larger body of work. In the other corner, we find what is termed, often scathingly, the “art crowd”. Of course there is some crossover between the two – a recent obvious example, in my opinion, would be Dav Thomas’ “With Trees”. Appealing to both sides of the divide is not impossible – although again in my opinion, a mild weakness of “With Trees” is, that indeed individually the images are a little too strong.

    I think that the point that a single landscape image (and I would not limit it to landscape) cannot express a concept is quite fundamental. But the vast majority of landscape photographers today are not actually trying to express concepts, but rather render beautiful scenes. I don’t thing that there is anything at all wrong with that, quite the contrary, but maybe we’re just seeing rather too much of it these days.

  • I had a right blast at Meeting of the Minds.
    I rarely think much deeper than that… haha.

    • Being serious and going a little inwards.. I feel the same about Jems work, I have to say I wasn’t really aware of the whole ‘photographic series’ approach and I feel educated now and my mind is more opened than before. Perhaps its debatable that for most it wasn’t the right stage for such a educational presentation, but in reflection I feel I learned a lot from Jem. I am going to try pop in for a cup of tea some time as he’s only up the road from me. I will let you know how his garden looking.

  • Joe Rainbow

    Luckily, we really don’t have to enjoy ALL art made (or music for that matter) As Jem himself said, he turns the other way from convention, and deliberately seeks out the less trodden paths. He is an Artist that uses a camera, putting concept at the forefront of his work. These factors alone will eliminate a huge potential ‘audience’ for his work, where convention is held in such high esteem, and concept left behind. The fact that establishments such as the Tate have collected his work and they command large sums of money, only serves to make people more suspicious, alienating them further, as they can’t see what others see in his work. I am sure this excites Jem :)
    This hasn’t stopped him loving the ‘craft’ involved in using his equipment, demonstrated when he kind of disagreed with Rafaels comment about a camera being merely a tool. He is really a kind of documentary photographer, highlighting the less obvious attributes of the landscape, and I suspect that like many others, it was only when hearing him speak so passionately and authoritatively about his work and his artistic standpoint, that the images seemed to make more sense and become more liked, appreciated and understood. I think you would have to go a bit out of your way to discover his work compared to the other speakers at the conference, as their work is much more readily available on social media etc, and again, this means people might not have lived with his work, and made a snap judgment.
    I think all the factors mentioned above only serve to highlight that convention can get in the way of just about everything, unless the viewer is prepared to be open minded and spend time to absorb what they are seeing. The way the world is going, means we are less and less likely to do that.

    Composition is a key part of photography, but it should be used to support the concept of the work rather than a practice in its own right. Similar to the processing of images, which can be used to bring out the artists idea, but can’t survive without an image. I guess the greats get their priorities right, and ultimately the message is what is left.

    A disorganised ramble, but the only way I could get it out I am afraid. I think we are a bit scared of Jems integrity and commitment to his ideas as it can make our fleeting visits to locations, and pursuits of instantly glory seem particularly futile :)

    • That last sentence of yours rings very true (for me at least)

      • Good post Joe. I actually found Jems work quite dark and almost morbid. I think this has to do with the epic time span each project takes and I almost felt that he viewed his own mortality in a different way to myself. I’m acutely conscious of the fact that I’ve come into photography very late and I truly love getting out in the countryside taking pictures. I really don’t think I’ve got enough time left to do all the things I want to do. I know I should slow down and be patient but the state of my body after two days tramping around knee and thigh deep in snow last week doesn’t really do much to convince me thats theres time left. Is that the way of the modern world or just an age old fear of death?

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  • I find Jem’s work very emotional. I can only put this down to content within the frame and the subtle composition. The sample above of the thirsty frail tree branches I find very touching.

  • Malcolm makes a good point in his blog. I too was surprised at the animosity which some delegates seemed to feel about Jem’s work. Personally, I found the variety of ways in which he developed ideas and images to be thought-provoking and interesting.

    Perhaps a true ‘Meeting of Minds’ requires some discord to make us reflect upon our aims, practice and hopes

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