In our kitchen we have a tear-off calendar with paintings by Monet. Looking at the paintings, it has struck me several times that if Monet’s paintings were photos, and if he were to submit them to some social forum for feedback by other photographers, many of his compositions would probably immediately be criticised for breaking basic rules of composition. “Leave more space around the subject!” (Camille Monet and a child in the garden) “Don’t cut off your subject’s hand – if you had taken a step back you could easily have avoided that!” (Camille with a small dog)
A blogger at fotosidan.se noted the same thing when reading a book about Edward Hopper. A window frame “growing” out of a woman’s head – what kind of composition is that!
These rules of composition, presented like immortal truths, are so strongly influenced by current fashions and trends. Right now, the rule of thirds is on top of every list as if it was really a rule. Go back fifty years and there was no such thing.
It bothers me when these ideas or concepts are presented as rules, and then with the admonition to only break the rules when you know why you’re breaking them – when you have mastered the rules and made a conscious decision to break them.
I have come to really hate that idea. I don’t want photography to be about rules. I don’t want to follow a checklist and then carefully break one rule make a pretty photo.
In fact I don’t even want my photos to be beautiful, most of the time. I don’t really know what I want them to be, but beauty is rarely among my goals.
I take photos with distracting elements competing for attention. I take photos where the subject is facing away from me, or with faces partially hidden, or with heads cut off. I don’t do it for any carefully considered purpose, guided by artistic vision. I do it because it’s what I want to do at that moment.
That was actually an incredibly liberating insight I had recently. I am not a photographer. I don’t aspire to greatness in photography. I do not need anybody to approve of my photos – I have no clients I need to please, and I don’t need the approval of “real” photographers, either. I would rather take photos that mean something to me, regardless of how many rules they break, even if everybody else considers them crap.
Another rule that I keep hearing is great light is the most important thing for photography – photography, after all, being “drawing with light”. If you don’t have great light, you won’t get a great photo, and that’s that. If you have crappy light you might as well put away the camera and go home. Well, I refuse to listen to this rule, too. Crappy light is all I have during six months of every year, and I would rather take ugly photos than none.