In an age of digital photography and advanced technology, viewers often neglect a photograph's composition and aesthetic value in favour of its informative value. Principles of Design Through Photography is an investigation of how a particular principle of design - rhythm, harmony, contrast, balance and symmetry is used in a composition, and how that composition will, in turn, help the photographer convey an effective message to the viewer.
Each composition aims to give a visual experience of the principle of design that helps to better perceive a photograph. Each principle of design has been isolated as much as possible so that it can be understood and used in combination with other design elements. This book is an introduction to the way in which photographs can be read and appreciated, and will delight students of photography, aesthetes and those who are curious about design and photography.
About the Author
Dr. Deepak John Mathew heads the Photography Design Department at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. He is a professional photographer, painter, printmaker and curator. After graduating in Physics, he studied painting and did his post graduation in Graphics and PhD in Design Education.
He has developed the curriculum and designed the first post graduate Dual Masters Program in Photography Design in India. With an experience spanning over eighteen years in photography, painting and graphics, he has received many awards and exhibited his work at numerous international and national venues. He has published several papers and conducted workshops on photography. Or Mathew has taught as visiting professor at many institutes in India, New Zealand and UK. Apart from photography, his interests include art history, colour and form, illustration, printmaking and painting.
This book is written for people who are learning and trying to understand photography, as well as those who appreciate the aesthetics of photographs. It is an introduction to the way in which photographs can be read and appreciated, an interest that grew out of my experience teaching design students, mostly first time camera handlers, to capture images during a basic photography course. This book is a point of departure for further study, and is an introduction to the principles of design through photography. It aims to provoke discussion and is designed to look deeply into various aspects of composition.
The treatment is systematic and traditional since I find that theoretical principles are better explained through photographs as they then become visually alive. Readers who are familiar with the medium and with design might need additional theoretical readings.
Here, at an introductory level, readers first need to get an overall understanding of the kind of principles in a composition which guide a viewer through the image.
An investigation of how a particular principle of design is used in a composition will help the photographer understand how effectively the message is conveyed to the viewer. Each composition aims to give a visual experience of the principle of design that helps to better perceive a photograph. All images do not use only one principle of design. In many cases, a combination of many convey the message better.
In this book, I have tried to isolate each principle of design as much as possible so that it can be better understood and used in combination with others. When one principle of design is used in combination with another, the dominating principle will determine the final message and the other will act as its supporting element.
Photography is the art of making photographs. We may concentrate on the photographer, the photographic process or the photograph itself. The subject matter of the photograph is usually something identifiable. We have become so accustomed to looking at what the photograph depicts that we neglect the aesthetics and composition of the photograph in favour of its informative value. Because of our habitual approach to such ways of seeing, it takes special effort to view photographs as art.
The widespread availability of photographic equipment, much of it with automatic operations, may also add to the belief that there is no 'art' in taking pictures. Rather than a creation of art or artistic expression, photography has become more of a visual archive to record events and the things we see. Photographs are the standard form of souvenirs. To reinvent this taken-for-granted attitude towards photography, the first view to be articulated is an extreme one that insists that the photograph should be the result of a creative and conscious act.
This volume focuses on the principles of design such as rhythm, harmony, contrast, balance and symmetry, but does not take into account the subjective aspects of an image which is the outcome of interpretation. This is a formalistic approach; formal structures of the work are the clues to its aesthetics worth and other pleasure giving elements are less important.
In this context, I am reminded of Herbert Read who once remarked, "Beauty is a unity of formal relations among our sense of perceptions. And from this basis we can build up a theory of art which is inclusive of any theory of art needs be.
I am deeply indebted to many people for this book, and would like to thank the following for their support - Pradyumna Vyas, Akhil Succena, Shashank Mehta, Shilpa Das, Shobit Arya, Sapna Rangaswamy, Nandita Jaishankar, Sanjukta Sengupta, Darlie Koshy, Anil Sinha, Mareena K. Alex, Aastha Marium John, Aaray Deepak and Thomas Vadaya. I must, however, give special mention to my students of photography, whose inquiries and challenges stimulated me to put things down in this fashion.
Deepak John Mathew, PhD
When we look at photography as the art of making photographs, we take into consideration a number of things about the photographer, the photograph and the viewer.
The photographer falls into two categories. The first kind picks up the camera and shoots without thinking. The main purpose of this activity is to capture a particular moment and share it with family or friends. The aesthetics do not play much of a role. The photograph will always have personal memories associated with it.
The second category of photographers sees the subject and an idea is formed in their mind - the composition and positioning of elements in the frame are visualised before shooting. The photographer thinks about what the picture is going to communicate beyond what is depicted in it. There is a conscious effort in the thought process which results in a certain positioning of the elements.
The photograph is a product of the activity of the photographer, most of the time translating a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image. So the image once formed will have an independent identity, though related to the original situation when it was captured. The chemical or digital process also plays a major role in bringing the image to a visible level.
Once the photograph is created, it is free from the original reference. The equipment, photographic process and the time of capture affect the quality of the end product. Here the quality is also judged by the situation where the image is used. It may be an illustration in a newspaper or an article. It may be reproduced in a book, or as an independent image in a gallery or on the wall. Depending on the situation or the use, the scale at which the quality of a photograph is judged varies. The viewer also plays a vital role in the process of photography. The viewer interprets it from many perspectives. Firstly, as an onlooker who sees the image as documentation of an event or an object. The second way of interpreting the photograph is seeing it as a process and an experience. In the first way of seeing, if the expected is demonstrated in a technically accurate manner the viewer's intent is satisfied. In the same way as the photographer tries to communicate a certain idea through the picture, the viewer also tries to experience something from it. In the latter this happens when the image triggers a stream of thoughts in the viewer's mind, created from a visual vocabulary that already exists. The photograph creates cross connections and builds a new perspective that leads to an aesthetic experience.
To appreciate a picture better, we need to be aware of the following views of seeing photography as:
Since each view corresponds and restricts itself to a certain perspective, it is susceptible to a certain blindness. By looking at these approaches in more depth, we may have a better understanding of the complexities of photography and we may find corrective measures for their respective short-sightedness.
Let us look at each of the above mentioned ways of seeing a photograph in more detail.
Photography as revelation
In this approach, photography happens in a snap of time. The photographer clicks and at that moment he records the world around him. A photograph does not really freeze a moment; it actually pulls out a moment and makes it an independent entity. Photography is a matter of being willing to be taken in by the world rather than just taking pictures of it.
The photograph is not the image of the revelation but it is the entry. In many of the works of photographers such as Edward Weston, one enjoys the 'hiddenness' made accessible through the photograph.
It succeeds not through the accuracy of observations that repeat information about familiar objects, but through inculcating a sense of familiarity with the unknown.
Photography in this view is an intuitive, mystical, even metaphysical experience.
Photography as representation
When we look at photography as a representation, it is the camera that takes the picture, not the mind. It gives an almost accurate account of what is there. The photograph never replaces the original object but it is very close to it. In that sense the photograph is the imitation of the real, timeless and eternal. We enjoy pictures of wild animals, strange places, historical events and many other things which are otherwise inaccessible. The pleasure of seeing pictures of things must be refined in the photographer's search for pictures to be taken. Thus photography is an art in exploration.
The aesthetic enjoy men of photography comes from this enjoyment of interesting elements presented with tasteful accuracy, of which Andre Kertesz and Eugene Atget are the best examples. This view of photography has its roots in Realism. The main objective of realism is the representation of the world with an emotive significance for the viewer. Representational photography could do the entire job of representational painting. The movement of 'photo realism' is one step ahead of photography in its observations of the visual surface of the mundane.
Photography as appearance
While the representational and revelational view are opposites, they are, in fact, connected; this in turn calls for revision. According to this view, the photograph captures only the appearance. What we see in a photograph are not really things but an appearance of these things. The photograph is only speaking of the seen rather than the object. The camera is an optical instrument that is put to work by our eye. The photograph produced is a way of seeing rather than a way of being.
It captures the vision of the photographer like the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Alfred Stieglitz. We become interested in the quality of that vision, like composition and the contrast of expression that is in the subject.
But these are more dependent on the subjectivity of the photographer rather than the objectivity of the subject. Something beautiful could be shown as ugly and vice versa. Photography is not so much revelational and representational as it is presentational.
Photography as illumination
If we analyse and take further the view of photograph as appearance, we will realise that the photograph is not necessarily an appearance, but rather, it is an arrangement of light. The operation of light upon a light-sensitive paper creates a photograph. The photographer therefore practices the art of capturing the play of light by directing it through the optical box to the film. The lighting is the main aspect of the subject/object, and the way it is controlled makes the photograph.
The photograph is a two-dimensional surface whereas the subject/object photographed is a three-dimensional entity. So the photograph is never equivalent to the original entity that is seen finally in the photograph. One can derive aesthetic pleasure from it if its light and dark are well organised, emotive and interesting. But what appears in the photograph must not be mistaken for a thing existing in the world or even in the photographer's mind. It is only a form, a tone or meaning in the photograph.
This is very similar to Impressionism, the movement of modern painting, which turned from representation to the depiction of appearance, and then concentrated on the play of light on the canvas.
Photography as aesthetic autonomy
Taking further from the illuminative view, the photograph is a print resulting from chemical and physical activity on paper. The light entering the camera may be a starting point but the finishing happens in the dark rooms or on computers. Here the artist has the freedom to take the help of chemical baths, filters, additional lights, enlargers, computers and a variety of papers. The photograph is a physical surface and not just a play of light. Also, the freedom of cropping gives complete autonomy in the creation of a photograph. In this way the photograph ultimately is a print like any other print-making technique.
Photography, like painting, can be abstract. Free from exploring our world, photographs are free to explore their own world.
What the other views seem to have missed in provision for an aesthetic of photography is the status of the photograph as a work of art. They may have been thrown off the aesthetic track by the fact that photography also serves factual purposes by making valuable documentary records. As an illustration a photograph may replace a thousand words. But as a fine art print, no words can replace a photograph.
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