Sunday, January 27, 2008

Composition in the Form of a Hemiola

Those who read yesterday's TODAY'S may have suspected a bit of tongue-in-cheekiness in my choice of quote. It was a response to a dear friend. She implies I may be a closeted proponent of this rule in spite of my occasional protests to the contrary. I will continue to lobby for repeal of the Rule of Thirds, as I would for all "rules" of composition. Yet, I find a useful truth in the concept.

A rectangular canvas is a field of force. Any forms placed on that canvas effect the force field and are effected by it. Imagine an invisible tic-tac-toe grid on top of the canvas. The places where the grid lines cross are, "hot spots," or nodes in the force field. Forms placed near those crossings will take on the extra energy of the force field and forms placed on other nodes will begin to interact with them in special, leveraged ways. Look at the last three images posted to see how this works on very flat images. On images showing depth one might begin to imagine a kind of counterpoint between the principle of the force field on the surface of the canvas and the illusion of depth within the canvas.

Of course forms placed in the empty spots between the nodes will also change the force field, and may shift the nodes drastically. In this way the principle of thirds may give way to a binary form or to something else altogether. Furthermore, photographers don't place forms on a grid, they place the grid on an infinite field of vision. It has been widely argued that it was photography in the 19th century that led Degas and others to compose in very different ways. They revealed how creaky some of those old rules of composition were and what power could be achieved through throwing a composition out of balance. However, study of their works both supports the underlying principle of thirds and also demonstrates how powerful it can be to violate it.

As a matter of practice, when I shoot the principle of the nodes is as far from consciousness as yesterday's clouds. Rather, I pass like the bird, waiting for my attention to be drawn by something and then I follow the dictates of the moment. Every composition will define its own rules of being. Only after my intuitions have composed the scene do I sometimes ask myself if the image might be stronger if shifted to validate the principle of the four nodes.

I like this photo for its simple, elevation-like layout. However, it breaks a number of principles of composition. The parts of the composition that fall on the four nodes are probably the least important elements of the composition. As an architectural student I was told that a columned portico ought to have an even number of columns so no single column falls at the center. Photographers are often alarmed when small light areas touch & interrupt the perimeter frame. The two white building faces in this image fall where rules say they should not, dead center, and slipping off the edge. To my eye, however, the five key elements of the composition provide a kind of jazzy interplay, something of a surprise in an image otherwise so linear.

And so, is this composition in triple time or is it binary? Perhaps it is a hemiola.


Ginnie said...

When I saw this on the big screen yesterday, Ted, my eyes totally popped open. Whatever "rules" of composition it may break, it is very pleasing to the eye! BRAVO. I especially like the shadow-play because of the fabulous light.

Ted Roth said...

Thanks, Ginnie. Yes, the shadows were a big part of what drew me to shoot this. I recall how shadows helped me create a bit of clarity back when I used to spend hours drawing architectural elevations.

The string of buildings continues a long way to both left and right. That string was what first drew me to shoot here a year ago, but I've yet to shoot any other pictures that please me that make use of this feature.