The theme for this month’s ArtSmart Roundtable is photography, and I have decided to share some tips to understanding photography. With a few tools under your belt, you will come away appreciating photographs more, especially when viewing them formally, as works or art or in an exhibit. These tools come from the traditional way that art historians consider art, especially 2-dimensional pieces like paintings and photographs. They do not come from any personal experience as a photographer because, though I love taking photographs, I have no background as a photographer besides a photography class in college.
There are many aspects of composition that students of art history learn and apply while analyzing art. They work as tools to appreciating the elements of a piece of art and allow you to see the piece in a more detailed way than you might otherwise. There are many elements of composition, but these six are the ones I thought applied to photography the best.
1. The focal point
This refers to the most important point of focus of the photograph. The focal point may be in the center, creating a harmonious, symmetrical composition, or it may be to the side, creating a more imbalanced, asymmetrical composition and leading to a greater sense of unease. Often something leads the viewer’s eye to the focal point; in the following example, the middle pillar seems to be pointing directly down at the group of people.
Texture often comes from getting close to the subject, as in the following Ansel Adams example:
3. Line and perspective
Line is one of the most important aspects of any work of art because it leads the viewer’s eye around the piece. Sometimes line is used to take our eyes back into the setting — linear perspective was invented in the Italian Renaissance as a way to create realistic space.
In photography, line is of great importance. In the following example, curving lines lead the viewer back into the image; the image would be quite different if the lines of the river were not there.
Patterns can be created by the repetition of certain elements in a photograph. For instance, line, shape, or color can be repeated for a sense of flow. In the following examples from two of the greatest early photographers, the curving shapes of the pepper and Georgia O’Keefe’s fingers are central to the images.
Contrast in photographs may refer to the contrast between black and white, light and dark, bright color and muted colors, and more. Ansel Adams’ work offers classic examples of this because his photographs included such great contrast between dark and light shades, which can be quite difficult to achieve in photography. (The repetition of shapes in this photograph is also an excellent example of pattern.)
Another element to consider is purpose. It is often difficult to know what the purpose of a photograph is, but sometimes it is obvious, as in travel photography, which showcases aspects of a particular place. In the case of Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer who lived in Mexico and worked in the first half of the 20th century, her work celebrated Mexican culture, mothers, and the working class, all reflecting her political views, as in this example of symbols of the working class in Mexico.
I hope that this explanation of some of the elements of a piece of art will help you analyze and appreciate photographs more. Please leave your additions and questions in the comments below and check out this month’s other ArtSmart posts about photography:
The Art of European Travel Photography from Eurotravelogue
Lee Miller from No Onions Extra Pickles
Chuck Close and Photorealism from A Sense of Place
Three Art Photography Terms Explained from Travellious