What Do You Take Photographs Of?

Here is a photography quote from a famous photographer of yesteryear:

A good picture—in photography or any other medium—is most likely to be produced by the artist who upsets the apple cart, snaps his fingers at the rules, and does as he pleases. Then an art critic comes along, measures and analyzes, interprets the result, and lo! another ‘rule of composition’ is born. This sequence cannot be too emphatically stressed. Pictures come first, composition after. There is no hen-and-egg doubt about it. From his earliest days man has made pictures, to frighten evil spirits, to record history, to portray happenings, to express himself and his feelings, for any number of reasons except one—he did not make pictures to carry out the laws of composition.”

Edward Weston, 1937

I don’t know what good composition is either, as Diane Arbus says below. I know there are all kinds of rules with lines, squares, triangles, golden rectangles, spirals and other assorted shapes and sizes. There is this thing, a kind of unified field theory of photography, called “dynamic symmetry” trying to capture all art and photography with Euclidean geometry, including some baroque fear of the devil and goodness diagonals thrown in (Unless you are left handed, then reverse it). Apparently, if you apply it to what are judged to be good photographs, it shows you they are, surprise good photographs. I think that’s confirmation bias, but whatever. I don’t have one of those software grids, ones you install on cameras covering prospective photographs in lines, rectangles, and triangles to make good photographic scenes on your camera, so you don’t have to waste time on bad ones. I would take better pictures if I did, oh well.

I watched a B&H YouTube video recently about photographic composition and deciding what you are photographing by Adam Marelli.  One thing he said got me to thinking: “What are you trying to take photographs of?” Go back and read the quote above.

Many novice photographers are told to always try to take a picture with a noun in it. You always have to have some “thing” that you are taking a photograph of, so other people can understand your image. Adobe makes their money selling software to paint, brush, color, enhance, sharpen, and otherwise point big, bright neon arrows towards the noun you have chosen to photograph. There are photographers like Jay Maisel  who are very good at taking images of nouns, (among other things) and people love their work. People love the endless photographs of yellow light that Galen Rowell took, as another example. Everybody takes pictures of nouns, including myself. It’s usually isn’t what I am trying to capture in photographs, though.

Here is another quote:

“I don’t know what good composition is… Sometimes for me, composition has to do with a certain brightness or a certain coming to restness and other times it has to do with funny mistakes. There’s a kind of rightness and wrongness and sometimes I like rightness, and sometimes I like wrongness.”

Diane Arbus

I will be the first to admit, it took me a while to appreciate Diane Arbus’ work. You may not like it at all. It doesn’t have any nouns in it, and if they sneak in, they are not pretty nouns like sunsets and trees. She takes raw photographs of the outsiders/freaks in the world we live in, posed on plain, everyday backgrounds in commonplace situations. She may have been seen, or thought of herself as a bit of a freak, who knows. She was a depressive who committed suicide. Her work is existential in my opinion.

Thinking about Adam’s YouTube video again, I have decided for today at least, I am interested in and trying to capture existence in my photographs. Is that a noun?

In the last year I came across Stephen Shore, a new photographer to me. He started photographing at 17 in Andy Warhol’s den in NYC and is largely unknown to many photographers, outside of Germany. When I first looked at his work, it seemed like looking at mine. Not that I am anywhere as good as him, but what he photographs and how he does it is very similar to my own style of photography.

You may enjoy Ansel Adams photography, many people do. Ask yourself “What is Adams taking pictures of?” Is it light? Is it Trees? Is it Mountains? Clouds? Rocks? My opinion is he is taking pictures of the existential nature of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and other Western American environments. If he was just trying to take a pretty picture of a rock you might flip to the next page and move on. I believe his picture frames are filled edge to edge with his capture of existential nature. Composition has nothing to do with them at all. He said it himself:

There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.

Ansel Adams

But not everybody cares for or approved of Ansel’s work either. You know how artists are…

“The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!”

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

Other photographers I enjoy, who I believe are trying to capture existence are: Matt Black, Josef Koudelka, Fan Ho, Bruce Gilden, Mary Ellen Mark, Keith Carter, and Dorthea Lang, … There are many others too including modern pictorialists like Jeff Wall. His image The Vampire‘s Picnic is cool. You have probably seen his staged street image Mimic if you like street photography. And, Barbara Peacock who “takes” intimate portraits of Americans in their bedrooms. Is she trying to steal their souls?

I guess it might come down to: “What is art?” No one can answer that objectively, but we all know what it is subjectively.

I recently read, Vision And Art: The Biology Of Seeing by Margret Livingston. I enjoyed the book because it gave a neuroscience foundation to the tricky signal processing the eye does to capture images, encode them, and pass the data along to the thalamus which mirrors the eye cell structure to map images to. The “art” aspects of the book are not as interesting to me, lacking any high level brain understanding or modeling of how images are selected to be remembered, are remembered, processed, or how emotional metadata are attached to them. For example, I see nothing special about the Mona Lisa smile no matter how I look at it—following the authors suggestions or any other way. Some of the other optical illusions she describes are interesting, but again lack the higher level brain modeling that would be able to assign them as art as we understand art to be.

Maybe people see the Mona Lisa smile as special because our brains are wired to be stimulated emotionally by human attributes. We all think that “real” robots are humanoid, not those things that assemble cars, so we click with a vague line drawing of a human part or shape to quickly fill in the remainder of a total human figure. Think line drawings of a sexy female shape for selling beer to men, or the Ikea commercial of the sad, abandoned desk lamp in the rain. Or, maybe the Mona Lisa smile is a micro emotion.

There is a school of thought developed by Paul Ekman and others to catch liars by learning to see the flickering micro emotions thought to be influencing the muscles of the face. There was even a TV show about it: Lie To Me. The Israelis use it to screen airline passengers and potential terrorists, the FBI teaches it, and I even watched a TSA agent in Detroit a few years back walk down the line waiting for the X-Ray make eye contact with every passenger, one-by-one. The agent was obviously using the theory to screen passengers. Recently, however, the concept of screening liars with micro emotions alone is falling out of favor. It’s not precise, testable, or foolproof.

Emotions are drivers in lying and photography, and good photographs may all be lies, or as Stephen King says: “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” But, that’s another confusing topic for another time.

So, how do you tell a good photograph objectively from a not so good photograph? You can apply the magical composition grid with the super special geometry to it. You can nitpick the technical bits like straight horizons you like, colors you like, focus you like, any distractions you see and don’t like, all the shadows and highlights just the way you like them to be. Or maybe you can just look at it and decide if it is good or not. (You notice it’s all subjective, don’t you. Art…)

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book about looking at something and seeing it. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he has a chapter about how art experts look for fake art of known artists vs. the real thing. The most reliable way is for the art detective to look at the art cold for a few seconds to decide right then if it is real or not. It’s not 100%, but correct many more times than random chance would predict. All the objective, measurable stuff about pigments, canvas, tool marks, brush strokes, etc. only confirm the first impression by the experts in this thesis. Oh well, that doesn’t help at all does it, for telling somebody why their photograph is good or not?

This won’t either.

“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

– Henri Cartier-Bresson


“When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision. Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial clichés.”

—Edward Weston

What does all this mean to help you take better photographs? Maybe you should decide just what you are taking a photograph of to start with. You should not worry too much while you are making a photograph about rules and dos and don’t dos and just take the photograph of what you see in front of you at the right time, when it feels right to push the shutter button. It’s also good to try to understand what other photographers you enjoy are taking pictures of, copy it and practice it. If that doesn’t work, take more pictures and look at more pictures, then take more pictures…

And lastly? If you aren’t enjoying it, go do something else. We only get good at things we enjoy.