Photography as a Philosophy, Part 1: Composition

I was asked by someone recently how my time spent in the world of music influenced my approach to photography. I thought this was a very exciting question, and as I thought about it I realized that music has played (zing) a significant role in my approach to photography and art in general, from the way I approach taking photographs to the way I feel about sharing them. So, I thought I would share my views on this.

Bear in mind: I’m not claiming to be some amazing photographer, I’m definitely not. I’m also not claiming that I always succeed at all the things I’m going to talk about, most of the time I’m downright crappy at them, but I think it’s important for every artist to have an approach and a goal. Those things might change as we grow and develop, but there should always be a path that the artist is trying to follow and a goal that he or she is trying to reach.

As I’ve thought about music over my many years in the field, it’s become apparent that there are four basic components in the creative cycle of music:

1. Composition
2. Rehearsal
3. Performance
4. Distribution (sharing)

In time we’ll discuss the difference between the performing and sharing of music, but I believe that these four components are not only at work in music, but in all art forms: in some way or fashion. These four things are cyclical in nature: either within the artist’s life or as he or she interacts with others. Over the next few weeks I’d like to examine how each of these relates to photography and the creation of an image. The first is composition.

Music, as a composition is the first stage of any creation. Classically speaking it’s the composer sitting down and creating the base concept of a melody. In contemporary music it might be the penning of a lyric or hashing out a new guitar line or keyboard hook. It always starts with big, broad strokes. It’s unlikely that Beethoven approached his fifth symphony by planning all the violin bowstroke notations. Rather, he probably started by envisioning it’s now iconic melody and building upon that to create the rest of the piece. Although the conception of any artistic idea can come from anything and everything: it’s first statement as an actual idea always comes by way of a certain specific idea. Jimi Hendrix might have had a huge number of influences (mostly drugs) when his mind began to work the birth of “Purple Haze”, but until he had, either through actually playing, or the mental awareness of a specific melody or lyric, a clear statement of what “purple haze” was, “Purple Haze” was not yet an actual idea.

I say this because this is how a photograph begins as well. In order for the photographer to make an image he or she must begin by having a clear and understandable (at least to themselves) idea. It differs from music in that this stage happens before the artist even picks up the tools of their craft. It happens when the swirling pool of their influences, inspirations, and emotions turns into an image in their mind and they say “I want to create that!”. In filmmaking this might be called “previsualisation”. A mental storyboard so to speak.

This previsualisation might come from any number of things. It might stem from a particular emotion the artist is feeling at the time, or perhaps from a specific image that he or she saw somewhere, or maybe simply from the desire to communicate something through an image. This sort of composition might happen to someone who has never picked up a camera in their life. For a professional, it happens every time they take a picture.

Likewise: this compositional process might happen over the course of a year or in the single second before the photographer takes the shot. Nevertheless: it is the essential difference between creating a bad picture and a good one. As we’ll see later: some areas of this four-part process make the difference between an “ok” picture and a “good” picture or an “excellent” picture and an “outstanding” one: but this element of privisualisation is the root of what makes a photographer someone different than a person with a camera. Without knowing what you’re going to do it’s impossible to create a decent image except by accident. This is on par with Beethoven pressing all the keys on his piano at once and hoping to create a understandable melody.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be some deep, introspective reading of a scene that finds some hidden meaning or purpose. Previsualisation can be as simple as seeing a tree and, at that instance, visualizing what a photograph of that tree might look like. This is the very root of the visual arts, a mental photograph, painting, or play that the artist is now going to take and create in a physical form so that it can eventually be performed and shared. However, this process is often thwarted by their own lack of knowledge. An idea might not be able to be rendered as in the artist’s mind, or they might not have the technical prowess to actually know what notes to write on the page, this is where the second component of artistic creation comes into play: Rehearsal.

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