the Proto Photographer

The forest for the molecules


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[photo credit: Aaron Kaffen @]

In the contemporary wing of the Cleveland Art museum there’s a piece that consists of two square canvases, one painted white and the other a shade of gray. The white panel is hung squared to the room, while the other is at an angle, slightly overlapping the white.

A fifth-grade class once stood in front of that painting, listening to their teacher describe the artist’s background, when one smart-ass student blurted out, “I could do that!” Without much to-do, the teacher replied, “True. But the artist thought to do it first.”

I have a very clear memory of that moment. I had been the one to make the presumptuous statement, and I was the one who slunk away sheepishly at the accusation of the teachers terse response. It was a moment of humility.

But humility wasn’t the extent of the moment’s impact. The teacher said that the artist “thought to do it”. It dawned on me, for the first time, that the artist had to have thought up that painting. He had to purposefully choose the shade of gray, and he had to calculate the angle at which the panels hung on the wall. The lack of concrete subject matter only exaggerated the artist’s skillfulness as he drew a sense of calm and peace out of these perfectly-sized, perfectly angled and perfectly colored canvases.

Much like that piece hanging in the Cleveland Art Museum, photos can be a vehicle for purely abstracted shape and color. However, among amateur photographers, there seems to be an unnecessary reliance on subject matter to make photographs impactful. When a photo contains compelling content, say a crying child, elements like composition can be overlooked by the audience in light of the human connection.

To develop photographic skills of color and composition, it can be helpful to indulge a more abstract approach. Take photos that have no apparent subject matter. Shoot too close, or out of focus, anything to obfuscate your target to the point that your photo becomes nothing recognizable. Then you can focus on the lines, on the color and on the proportion that, when applied to the rest of your photography, will create intended beauty beyond the limits of your subject.