Seeing, part two: the anxiety of infinite composition

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In part one of this pair of articles on seeing photographically, we examined our mental expectations of art, and considered whether it was a product of nature or nurture, and if it could be taught; in part two, we’ll approach seeing from the opposite end of the continuum: what if you can’t stop seeing? The images used to decorate this article are a series of perhaps non-obvious compositions that may not have appeared immediately apparent to the unconscious observer.

Although I touched on this somewhat in the article dealing with the stages of creative evolution of a photographer, I think there are several ‘levels’ to seeing; and by seeing, I mean the ability to create an aesthetically pleasing and balanced composition that conveys the meaning or message intended by the creator, lit in a way that enhances the presentation and makes the subject obvious. Firstly, one needs to be aware and conscious of any available opportunities, interesting subjects or potential frames present in one’s surroundings. Next comes awareness of light and the quality of light; where the shadows fall and how harsh/ hard those shadows quite seriously affects the overall balance of the composition. Such shadows must be thought of as additional shapes within the frame, not extensions of their parent objects – they can overlap their parents (thus reducing apparent size) or be projected onto other parts of the frame, thus requiring space in their own right to ‘breathe’.

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Seeing, part one: can art be taught?

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Artistry in architecture, crafstmanship (theoretically) and capture. All can be learned, yet not really completely taught.

A few weeks back, I got an email from a reader that peaked my intellectual curiosity: he effectively asked, ‘can art be taught?’ I pondered this question for a while before sending back a cursory reply: yes and no, and to wait a while for this very article I was in the process of writing. Of course, it’s taken me much longer than expected to complete it because like what makes a good image, it’s proven to be one of the more difficult questions to answer.

First, we need to define art: obviously, it’s anything involving some form of creativity that goes beyond the barely functional; yet you’ll undoubtedly find people who will argue that there’s a form of art in that, too. And you’ll get no dispute from me over the reduction of an object or thing to its simplest form requiring a degree of creativity and artistic thought, too. In a loose way, I see art as anything superfluous or not strictly necessary to accomplish a task or goal; you can get from A to B on bare feet, but if you choose to drive a handmade 1930s landau, then clearly your choice of transport has something beyond the ordinary in it. Art is for situations when a conscious choice exists: you can have a bare ceiling, or you can commission a master painter to spend years on it. We also have to consider the difference between art and craftsmanship: the building above was finished by crafstmen, who are perhaps ‘limited’ artists; it was designed by an architect, who had to be an artist to give it that synthesis of form and function in the first place. The artist has to see beyond their immediate subject: taking the example of the building again, the architect was undoubtedly influenced by traditional forms, which in turn relate to religion, culture and history; the craftsman doesn’t need to know any of this in order to cut and fit a marble panel well.

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