The world is being blinded by the tidal wave of photographs pushed through social media. So much noise, so little of lasting value.
And if like me, you aspire to artistic photography ..”not through argument but through feeling”, working to “close the gap between you and everything that is not you” [to quote “Shock of the New” by Robert Hughes], then perhaps going back to some “basics” is just the tonic the gin ordered.
Enter: “The Power of the Centre” (“POC”) by Rudolf Arnheim, a study of composition in the visual arts. Arnheim can’t write, but we can forgive him that given that his project was to explore the cognitive basis of art, and by extension, the world. His classic work, “Art and Visual Perception” was ground-breaking, but hard work. The POC is far easier to read even given its dry academic style.
Effort is rewarded though.
The argument builds. From an introduction into spatial systems and force fields, a comprehensive analysis of many examples of art follows taking each element that creates visual perception: centres, hubs and weight, frames, volumes and nodes, latches and vectors. The book springs to life as it examines the perceptual forces that make some pictures “work”. My favourite examples include Manet’s Le Rendez-Vous de Chats (1870) for its Latch, Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques (1905) for its Hubs, and Munch’s Sick Girl (1896) for the effect of its square Frame.
But useful as I found the book, I also felt slightly becalmed. We are given glimpses of a more fundamental underlying psychological imperative at work, as in the chapter on “The Viewer as Centre” and “Seeing the World Sideways” – “… the difficulty is that we look at our world sideways. Instead of facing it as a detached viewer, we are in it and of it. … our view interprets and misinterprets our position”. But we are left without a wind in our sails. What psychological universals are at work in our visual apprehension of the world? How do these reveal the workings of our minds?
A tad unfair of me? Perhaps! But if nothing else, this book woke me up to some basic insights into what makes a picture grab a viewer. In these times of 40 plus billion photographs being published annually, I need every little help I can get! Composition is the bedrock upon which artistic endeavour depends. Without it, you are just back to taking snaps.