The great photographer Edward Weston suggested that “following the rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial cliches”. Read any book or magazine article about composition and you will be presented with a selection of accepted ideas which are claimed to improve your composition; the rule of thirds, the golden section, using leading lines, diagonal lines, balancing the image, symmetry, using patterns and frames…the list continues!
They are all intended to help you to compose the image in a way that is appealing to the eye and indeed, they do have a proven track record. For example, the Golden Section is based on Leonardo da Vinci’s investigation of our ideas about beauty and harmony and uses principles that can be seen in art from ancient civilisations. Using these tried and tested formulas is inevitably mechanical to start with, rather like learning to drive a car.
But with time and practice it becomes more instinctive, and my question is, how do we then distinguish between photographing what we see and photographing what is attractive as a result of our subconscious application of one or more of these principles? Or indeed the deliberate misuse of one, such as the deliberate placement of a subject too close to the edge of the frame to create tension? Once learned, are these ‘rules’ inevitably leading us into pictorial cliches and hampering our creativity? Suggestions welcome…
My mother told me she is thinking about taking up painting again. “I need you to find me an interesting vegetable” she said. I interpreted this to mean something a little out of the ordinary. Of course, it might just be an unusual type of vegetable she was after, craggy and convoluted, to test her artistic prowess. But it could equally be that misshapen specimen left behind when the shoppers have gone home that might prompt the urge to take paintbrush in hand.
When it comes to buying food for our plates, perfection appears to be everything. I read this week that almost 40% (yes, over a third!) of the produce grown in the United States is discarded. It doesn’t meet the stringent requirements of the discerning food shopper and never even reaches the store.
One man in America has a plan to stem this tide of waste, by setting up a business dedicated to selling on this produce to those who are willing to accept that nutritious food comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Doug Rauch is hoping that his new store in Boston will channel some of this produce into local shopping baskets instead of to the trash.
Anyone who has grown food at home will know that the oddly shaped strawberry can be just as juicy as the perfect one, and yet when we are in the supermarket, suddenly only the best will do. I am guilty of it myself. After all, I am paying the same price whichever ones I pick. I want the best!
Unless of course, our purpose is art. Would Edward Weston’s peppers have been so compelling if they had been a regular shape? I think not. Much of the appeal of his famous photographs lies in the imperfections of this everyday vegetable, grown, I presume, at a time when irregularities didn’t consign produce to the waste bin. The art is in the innate beauty of the sensuous curves, something a modern-day pepper is frequently too prim to display. I tried it myself with a shop-bought pepper. See for yourself. I need to grow my own!
So, my mother didn’t ask for a nice apple for her painting. No, she wanted something interesting. Perhaps we need to tune into our inner artist when we shop for food as well as when we seek inspiration. Seek out your culinary muse along with your artistic one in the whims and fancies of nature and see what you find. You could surprise yourself.