Happy, happy New Year. I sincerely hope that wherever you are, you will have a safe, happy, glorious New Year. I think we all deserve it. My part of the world went into lockdown again a few weeks ago, and I’ve taken it perhaps more seriously this time, by not venturing out at all since its declaration, except to pick up something curbside that was ordered well before lockdown.
So that means a lot of time on my hands, right? Would that it were so. I’ve set myself a number of goals, and am moving forward on each one, perhaps more slowly than expected but moving. One of those goals was to make some artistic direction decisions about my photography. More on that in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I’ve also immersed myself in ideas that might set me in a new direction. This post is about one of those – rules in photography.
Whenever I listen to a talk delivered by a “successful” photographer, one comment that invariably is made is the need to “break the rules” of photography. This implies two things: that there are rules to be broken and that if there are, you can’t be a good photographer unless you throw them away.
What are those rules? They pertain to things like scale, contrast, balance, tension, depth, colour, repeated elements, positioning in the frame, distractions, focus, edge patrol, clutter, composition, juxtaposition, negative space, yada, yada, yada. There are books about them, courses about them, even, yes, presentations about them. In photography, competitions adhere strongly to them. Judges award or penalize based on them. So, why would we constantly be told to throw them away?
It makes for a good headline. It makes for a good tag line to get you to buy a product or attend a talk. And yes, it does get you thinking.
I guess I have a different perspective. As with any skill, profession or art form, basic competence has to be a first goal, and this is achieved by exploring, understanding, and employing the “rules”. Heaven help us if our car mechanics or medical doctors don’t first learn how engines work or how hearts beat respectively. It is a bit of a different situation for photographic artists, I will grant you, but there are fundamental concepts of light, contrast, shape and positioning that have long been acknowledged as key to the success of any photograph, even those that break the rules.
Even when you do learn these basic rules and no longer have to consciously refer to them – when they are second nature – I would argue that a tribute to them, a link to them, a nod to them, is still necessary in every great photograph. This is where I both agree and disagree with the premise of breaking the rules. Instead, incorporating them creatively – with enough acknowledgement to pay your respects but also to thumb your nose – helps enormously as a way to bring your audience with you.
I look at it this way: it is acknowledged as not very adventurous to be standing behind a fence back from the edge of a cliff while taking your photo, and it’s also acknowledged as not very adventurous to be falling off a cliff while taking your photo. But it is hugely adventurous to be tied securely to the fence while leaning out over the edge of the cliff to take the photo. This is a metaphor people – don’t try this at home! The rules, to me, are the cliff.
We are a society of values, norms and behaviours. While we appreciate individuality, we simultaneously praise those values, norms and behaviours when we are exposed to them. We subconciously seek them out, even while in the midst of satisfying a need for something unexpected. To live completely in one or the other domain means little success in either, in my humble opinion.
Let me provide some examples. One of the most stunning images I saw recently was during a talk given by Cole Thompson, a photographer based in Colorado, who photographs exclusively in black and white. Some of his images were of icebergs off a northern sea cost. Out of respect for his work, I’m not displaying them here, but you can visit his website below and see his “Melting Giants” series. What makes this series so captivating for me is the stark white treatment of the icebergs against the almost black treatment of everything else in the surroundings, while at the same time acknowledging composition, spacing and relationships. They are simply stunning, especially since I have similar full colour images which, without the treatment, can be rated at best as “meh”.
In contrast, I’ll mention two other “works of art”. One was an old, dirty porcelain wash sink, stuck to a plain pastel coloured wall in an art gallery, at an angle, above eye level, with little to surround it. Supposedly a commentary on the urban decline around us.
And my all-time favourite, also in an art gallery, of a pile of dirty snow in an equally dirty parking lot beside the blue wall of one of my country’s big box stores. It was a grey day, so the scene was dull. No attempt made to enhance the image in any way. Its message was unclear to me.
It could be argued that both of these latter examples “broke the rules”. But in my view, they went too far, and jumped off that proverbial cliff. There was certainly some puzzlement (my emotional response) at finding these in reputable art galleries. But beyond that, there was, in my view, absolutely no redeeming element in either piece. The last item was actually up for auction to raise funds for the gallery. It received no bids. So I don’t think it was just me and my biased point of view.
I’ll say it again. While the message around “breaking the rules” seems romantic and appealing, maximum impact from this rebellion seems to come from images that exploit the rules, rather than abandon them. And it seems to be as much fun for the photographer as for the audience to see just how far the exploitation can go. Sometimes, I am delighted by what I find.
One last point. I think the ability to exploit comes with experience. While there may be one or two among us who can reach that pinnacle at a young age, it really happens for most of us when we are older, past 40, even into our 50’s and beyond. Even Cole Thompson admitted that it took him 50 years to reach his own personal awareness and position on the rules. So I will never tell a young photographer to break the rules. Instead, I will tell him/her to embrace them, learn them, delight in them, then exploit them mercilessly and completely. It’s the only way.