Thoughts on Image Making & Composition

On Being Original – From Reality to Abstraction

[Update 3/2/11 – a later post on Abstract Photography] ________________________________________________________
Throughout this course I’ve gone on & on about making images in your own personal style – images that are original and are your own. What this means is difficult to explain except that –

  • It excludes taking the same picture that everyone else takes and that has been seen 100’s or more times. How can yours be original if it’s the same as the one the person next to you is taking?
  • It says that it’s difficult to make an original image of an iconic site (which, at a stretch of the definition of iconic, would include subjects like the HH Oak Tree and Gazebo) since iconic sites have been shot many, many times before.
  • If you attend competitions regularly at a top club, like NVPS, after several sessions you will begin to be able to pick out which photographers made which images (advanced photographers, not novices as they aren’t there yet). These photographers have developed a personal and recognizable style.
  • As the saying goes – “You’ll know it when you see it.”

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Hey, Ed – If making original images of iconic subjects is difficult then what am I to do?
How about trying flowers for starters! Flowers are good subjects for making original images. They’re readily available – outdoors & indoors – and lend themselves to a wide range of photographic techniques and interpretations. In the end, they may not be your photographic cup-of-tea but are a wonderful starting point. Explore the possibilities.

And while you’re exploring possible techniques and interpretations, my advice to you is to heed Robert Frost in his The Road Not Taken and take

  • “.…the one less traveled….”
  • That is – find your own way and you may find originality and your own style.
  • Keep trying something new and different – and use that new & different result as your point of departure to things even more new and different.
    • Keep in mind the words of Albert Einstein –
      • “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
      • Experiment, be wild & crazy, stop doing the same-old same-old (by me, not Einstein)
  • A documentary style image of a flower – such as one that might appear in a botany text or Audubon Field Guide – is not original. Start there but rapidly move on.

Even if in the end you choose subject matter other than flowers, you may find that your floral journey will teach you things about yourself and how you view the world around you that carry over to other subjects. I did.
When photographing flowers,  try looking only through your viewfinder – all of the time (& you MUST use a tripod!). While doing this vary your camera’s position, point of view, and focal distance. With a close-up or macro lens you will see things – small worlds – that are invisible to you otherwise. Even a very slight change in the camera’s position or direction will unveil new sights that you wouldn’t have imagined – landscapes in miniature, abstract forms, unimagined beauty.
Let me try to demonstrate with examples (click to enlarge). Join me on a journey exploring the world of a single tulip. Quotes accompanying the images are by Georgia O’Keeffe.
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Sometimes I start in a very realistic fashion, and as I go on from one painting to another of the same kind, it becomes simplified until it can be nothing but abstraction. Georgia O’Keeffe
OK for a starting point but nothing more – move on. It’s at best an ordinary image of an extraordinary subject and in my opinion not a very good image. We’ll start from here and see where our journey takes us.

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Fill a space in a beautiful way. Georgia O’Keeffe
When photographing flowers use all, or at least most, of the frame. In the progression suggested in Georgia O’Keeffe’s first quote the tulip image has been simplified. Although the angle isn’t the usual view of a tulip, it is still recognizable as a flower. Not yet an abstract.

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I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could. Georgia O’Keeffe
Further simplification and abstraction. I kept the camera close to where it was for the image above but moved slightly to the right – peering through the viewfinder for new possibilities. Decided on this further simplification by removing more of the distinct tulip shape while retaining the  tip of the leaf to lead the eye up the petal (up & to the right which is found to “send a positive message” to viewers).

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I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for. Georgia O’Keeffe
Looking more through the viewfinder, this mix of green with shades of pink caught my eye. The interesting outline formed by the petal’s edge as it moved to the top of the frame also attracted me. I made this top outline sharp but kept the rest soft by means of the shallowest possible depth of field as I wanted the rest of the image to form a soft complementary surround and not compete with the petal outline for the viewer’s eye.
In photography we use the terms positive (foreground) and negative (background) space. In psychology they’re more commonly called figure and ground respectively. Gestalt theory explores being able to see something in the ground as opposed to the presumed actual “figure”. That’s the case here – I want to show the figure (left hand petal) but would also like the viewer to shift perspective to the ground (a person peering across the frame from right to left?).  A classic example is shown below my abstract.


Faces? Goblet? It depends on whether you feel that the negative space (ground) is the black or the white portion of the image. We will have more to say about this in our coverage of composition – and the interesting world of Gestalt which can affect your images in unexpected ways if you’re not alert.
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You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t. Georgia O’Keeffe
If you try similar floral exercises, what you see is not what I or anyone else will see. You may even surprise yourself by seeing and feeling the unexpected. This petal, viewed edge on to show a line (a line emphasized by throwing everything else out of focus via a shallow depth of field) is what I saw. Through my viewfinder I saw a soft sensual line, sharp in the foreground and fading on a soft oblique into the distance. This is not anyone else saw – nor likely would have seen. I thought – Wow, look at this; it’s pretty!

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When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Georgia O’Keeffe
Here, the world through the viewfinder is almost completely one of abstraction. As an abstraction, the sense we make of it – if any – depends almost completely on the shapes and colors and their arrangement. We know that the eye is attracted first to objects with the highest contrast. In this image the light areas, sharper than their surroundings, in the upper left (or lower left – right hand image) are leading candidates. If they are going to capture the viewer’s eye, where is the best place for them? That is, where do we wish the viewer’s eye to begin its journey through our image? (Recognize that this image has eight different possible orientations, four of which are vertical and four horizontal.

In our culture, where we read from left to right, the left side of the image might work well. If we decide to place the two white shapes on the left – should they be at the top or bottom? There is logic for both – 1) our culture reads left to right and top to bottom and so the left version of the two shown fits that model, however 2) studies of eye movement and vision suggest that the eye prefers the lower left as a starting & a resting place. A tie-breaker might be that these same studies suggest that movement up and to the right is viewed as positive and uplifting. If we recognize that these two white areas form an implied line or shape that points on an oblique up & right in the right hand version, then this suggests choosing the right image over the left – if we want our message to be “uplifting”. Further, if we recall that “pointers” should point to something of visual interest then take a look at the diagonal corner opposite our pointer. Isn’t that warm & cool colored shape up there a bit interesting? It’s the only thing in the entire image that isn’t a total soft blur of color – the closest thing we have to an actual subject. So – if it was my choice I would choose the right hand image as my vertical orientation selection  (and I’d repeat the process for the four horizontals).
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A few more fitting quotes by Georgia O’Keeffe (with my italicized emphasis – my goals) –

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time ….

I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty

Abstract art isn’t for everyone. Just five years ago my engineer trained brain and my non-touchy-feely psyche would have rejected these images without a second glance. Similarly the work of most 20th century painters who worked in cubism and other abstract forms did less than nothing for me. That’s changed for me and it may for you as well – if you give it a chance.
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Try what I’ve suggested above – and keep at it every day for at least a month. Don’t stop each day until you’ve made at least 50 images. Don’t worry about what the images look like – at least not at first. At this stage (and for me, beyond this stage and forever) it’s the journey and not the destination that is the reward. Take your own road less traveled. Don’t allow others to dictate where you should go and how you should get there. If you want to be a good photographer there is only one critic whom you must satisfy – yourself. You won’t be happy with your work until you realize this. It’s the reason why I stopped competing; it was too hard to ignore what others thought – especially judges – and I was allowing them to dictate my route. I was shooting for the judge & not myself.
For info regarding macro photography, see this earlier post from the Craftsmanship section on Focus.
See this post for info about simplifying landscapes by Moving Closer.

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