Start with the Box!

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I often state that as creatives or artists—in whatever medium you are working—we should more often break the rules, not feel confined to conformed understanding; or as it is often expressed: be thinking outside of the box. At the same time, I acknowledge that those rules or all that which comes with traditional craftsmanship is there to help us learn and develop. It can be seen as accumulated wisdom (collected over centuries or even millenniums by artists before us) functioning as guidelines more than rules. Only when it starts to limit our creativity is all that accumulated knowledge becoming a limitation.

What I am trying to say is this: Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.

We need to learn the basics of our craft. If you understand the traditional craftsmanship, that is—when speaking about photography—the technical aspect of handling the camera, understanding composition, having thorough knowledge about light’s influence on a photo, and being familiar with the visual language of photography; only then do you achieve full freedom to express your intentions with a photograph.

Some believe learning the traditional craftsmanship will limit their artistic voice. However, I do not agree to that perception. As I see it, knowing will only make you freer—as long as you do not let those old rules confine your creativity. It can actually—and most likely will—become a resource for expressing your artistic intent.

Yet, the result may well be an unliberated or constricted photographer, if he or she in a mechanical fashion attempt to reproduce a rigid, pre-established vision and in so doing is averting the possibility of seeing the unexpected—which I have just written enthusiastically about in various posts last week. This kind of restricted awareness can indeed impoverish a photographer’s vision and art. As Philippe L. Gross writes in his book Tao of Photography; “Imprisoned by the discriminatory mind, the photographer with constricted awareness is unable to appreciate the boundless visual richness of the world that lies beyond the filters and projections imposed by mental constructs. Only when the photographer can become free of the discriminatory mind can creative, unconstructed seeing occur.”

It may seem at first that Gross believes the box—to use this expression—is actually constricting the photographer. However, that is not his conclusion. The point—and my point, too—is not to throw this box of traditional understanding away, but use it as well as thinking beyond what the box contains. Thinking outside the box only becomes possible when you have a box in the first place.

In his book, Gross does not use expressions such as a box and thinking outside of the box, but uses the term Little Understanding for the traditional craftsmanship and Great Understanding for being open to the world—both inside and outside—and having an unconstructed awareness. Philippe Gross makes a point that to develop our true artistic voice we need both.

He writes; “General speaking, Little Understanding in camerawork represents the frame of mind that concentrates on techniques, sets goals, applies photographic rules, arranges a scene to fit a desired outcome, and attempts to gain control over the subject. Great Understanding, on the other hand, corresponds to the photographer’s ability to respond holistically and spontaneously to a scene without overtly interfering with the subject. Ultimately, the liberated photographer is a companion of both forms of understanding: to develop one’s artistic ability demands first fully knowing and then transcending techniques—seeing, feeling, and responding holistically to a photographic scene.”

In other words, mastery of the craft’s skill does not mean rejecting the thinking outside of the box. It simple means freedom from the belief that traditional craftsmanship is a reliable, necessary, and, not the least, an exclusive guide to artistry. The creative and free artist can make use of the box without being entangled by it.

I will not conceal the fact that photographers are biased about this, particularly when it comes to compositional rules. In The Essence of Photography Bruce Barnbaum writes that in his book he does “not discuss any rules for good composition. I avoid them because there are none. Every composition is unique, and following some concocted formula will not guarantee a good photograph. There are no formulas; there are no rules of composition. I strongly urge all photographers, beginning or experienced, to avoid any instruction that claims there are—it’s bogus.”

Not surprisingly after what I have written so far, I do not agree with Barnbaum (still, I do recommend the book; it is a very personal and insightful book about his photographic approach. I only disagree with him on this point). Well, there are no rules as such—of course. Nevertheless, painters for centuries and photographers for almost two have built upon each other an understanding of what works and what normally does not work in order to create a balanced composition that is best read by the eyes’ movements. Of course, that may not be your intention—which is just fine. But these ageless compositional rules—which I would rather regard as guidelines, because no one has to follow them, indeed—can be very helpful for particular beginners who try to come to grasp with creating a photo that somehow works compositionally. And of course, any time those guidelines can be broken, as I have always been encouraging.

However, and here I am in total agreement with Bruce Barnbaum, he writes: “You have to be flexible at all times, and you have to work with the situation you’re in, even if it’s not the one you wanted.” Yes, and I would like to add; use all of yourself in the process, whatever you have in the box and whatever you can find outside of it.

41 thoughts on “Start with the Box!

  1. Interesting essay, Otto. I am a big believer that you need basic knowledge to start. It’s like a recipe. Until you get a feel for things, you need to follow the recipe to the letter. Once you have learned what goes with what, you can experiment and go outside…

  2. You’ve come up with a great aphorism: “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.”

    While I’ve done my share of photographic rule-breaking over the years, I do find myself drawn to certain historical photographic styles rather than others. The glowing portraits of the Pictorialists resonated with me and may have been at least partly responsible for my using black and white infrared film extensively from the late 1970s through the early 1980s.

  3. Otto, I love this post, and it reminds me of the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” an often-used metaphor to express how people build on previous discoveries. Starting with the basics and create your own version…sometimes an improved version…or not.
    Somehow I have stopped receiving your new blog posts??? Not sure why so I will be subscribing again and fingers crossed I will be receiving them again.

    1. I have no idea why the subscription stopped. Nothing of my doing for sure. But I am glad you are back. And thank you for the comment, and yes, good point, we do stand on the shoulders of those before us.

  4. I agree with Bruce too, as summarized in your last graph. I have also written about the so called rules, stating ‘there are no rules in art’. I am quite tired of hearing photographers recite the ‘rule’ of thirds when it is only one composition ‘formula’. I agree some ‘guidelines’ are helpful for beginners but then we need to learn to trust and express our instincts. I never think about the ‘rules’ when I’m shooting but do what feels right for the situation. Great post Otto!

  5. As in anything where your require learned skills, practice, and sustained effort to grow, you need first to lean the basics of the trade, and have a solid base where to stand, once that accomplished you can step outside the box and be creative.

    Great advice Otto.

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