Composition: Beyond the labels – Seeing Part 1
I have had the incredible privilege to photograph with and learn from Freeman Patterson on visit to Namaqualand some years ago. Freeman was one of the main catalysts who started my photographic journey and I keep on finding inspiration in his books and photographs.
One of the main subjects of the conversations I had with Freeman was that we as photographers should learn to look at the world around us, without attaching labels to things.
Our first words spoken as babies are nouns aka “labels”. We name things – we describe by attaching labels when identifying objects and in our conversations, thoughts and dreams. Labels often act as the filters, which determine how we will use our senses to experience something, often excluding all but one or two of our senses. Stopping to connect and interact with something, experiencing it honestly enough, to get beyond the “labels”, is where we need to go to really see……we then think in terms of shape, lines, balance, rhythm, repetition etc. It is in this “alternate reality” where waves ebbing and flowing over rocks can be captured as “passing time” and frozen in a single exposure. Or where a range of sand dunes can become a collection of repetitive lines or shapes – almost abstract in their simplicity.
During some pre-dawn moonlit walks, I was struck by how hills, rocks and trees, stripped from detail, colour, form and texture – reduced to mere flat shapes – allowed my senses and imagination to experience them as anything but what they actually are. Two strong lines of repetitive shapes formed by a rocky ridge in the moonlight, had completely disappeared when I went looking for it in daylight. Yes, they were there, but the brownish mottled colours and varying textures had now completely “overwritten” the repetition I had seen in the moonlight. The lines and beautiful repetition had now been reduced to very uninteresting rocks. The strong formidable upright, almost authoritative, monochrome silhouette of Helmut’s tree, became a rather feminine Akasia, decked in pretty yellow blossoms in the morning light.
I was set an assignment at Bokbalbaai – a stretch of coastline approx 1km long, consisting of nothing but pebbles, rocks and kelp of varying colours and shape – to photograph anything but pebbles, rocks, kelp and sea. I sat on a rock feeling a lot of despair, looking at millions of rocks and pebbles…..
Remembering what I had taught so many of our students, I knew I had to simplify the scene in front of me, in order to make any sense of the assignment. Using the viewfinder, I limited my perspective to what could fit in the frame and deliberately deleting the labels “rocks” and “pebbles”, I started seeing shapes, curved lines, shadows repeating the curves and patterns to create form and repetition. It comes as no surprise that “simplify” is the first “rule” first composing great images….
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