IV. Composition / Social Order

In pictorial art, composition relates to how visual elements are organized within a frame. Both Eastern and Western artists through the centuries developed insightful guidelines to help them maintain the viewer’s attention. Aspiring artists and many in the public appreciate that the organization of elements within a frame influences the viewer’s experience of an image. How does it work? How does composition contribute toward capturing and holding a viewer’s attention? Each of the aesthetic dimensions being treated in this series are contributing factors, but specifically related to composition are the principles of unity, balance, focus, and placement. Because these have been thoroughly confirmed as successful across cultures, adhering to the rules, while no guarantee of success, is believed to be pleasing to the eye. At the same time, the rules can and are often broken. My advice to students was generally to have a good reason for breaking a rule.

Visual Elements and Information Theory

An eye for composition develops more quickly by regarding subject matter as elements, the parts of an image that together make up the whole. By enclosing space within a frame of any sort, the message to viewers is, “Look here, I want you to see this.” Imagine a dot like this ( . ) anywhere on a white background that’s framed. That’s one “bit” of information. It simply “says” it exists. It conveys no meaning because meaning derives from relationship. Add another dot, and a relationship is established. The artist had something in mind, and the viewer’s challenge is to make sense of it—if that’s desirable. Add a third dot and the potential for meaning increases dramatically. Instead of a dyad with two elements, like two people talking, there are three. Because the dots are within a frame, the viewer assumes they have some significance, so he or she reaches to identify the subject, understand its meaning, why it’s being shown.

Being human, we tend to anthropomorphize, so the three stones above could be interpreted as parents and child. Which would be the father? Actually, any of them could be, but our preconceived notions assign “him” to the larger stone because men are generally larger than women and children. What might the differences in texture “say”?  When more elements are added, the relationships become more apparent. Each additional element—line, squiggle, circle, form or subject matter—irregardless of size, shape, texture, or color is another bit of information, and the more information there is, the more readily a viewer can create meaning, even perhaps the artist’s intention, mood or preferences. So what’s the story below? What relationship do you see? What does it mean?


Communication Objectives 

In practice, to more consciously create an image, consideration of composition should relate to the “communication objective.” What do I want to say to the viewer, or what do I want them to feel?  Is the intention to communicate or express? Or both? If it’s to communicate, the more visual  elements—information—the better. If it’s to express, to generate an emotion, the starkness of fewer elements—less information—does a better job. 

Unity (Clearwater Skyway)

In the visual sense, unity relates to appropriateness. Are the elements within the frame justified relative to the communication objective? Not one dot, line, surface, form or subject matter is in the frame that doesn’t belong. For instance, the photograph above would not be unified if there was a kite flying in the sky. Aesthetic unification usually requires getting in close, zooming in or changing the angle to exclude anything that doesn’t relate to the principle subject. Unity strengthens the communication objective.

Balance (South Dakota Telephone Poles)

An image is balanced within a frame when the elements are neither bold nor heavy in one area relative to the overall space. Art students are taught to think of the frame as having a fulcrum at the bottom and in the middle of the frame. A balanced composition feels good. An image that’s top or bottom heavy, or heavy right or left, feels “off.” It pulls the attention toward the bold or heavily weighted subject matter, making it challenging for the eye to freely move within the  frame. Of course, if the communication objective is to convey a feeling of instability or attract attention through imbalance, the elements can be purposefully unbalanced.

Focus (Raindrops On Pansy Petals) 

An image is compositionally focused when the subject matter is predominant and prominently placed within the frame. A lack of focus is confusing. What’s this image about? For instance, a seascape that puts the horizon in the middle of the frame top-to-bottom could be a picture of either the sky or the ocean. Which is it? In order for a video camera to be able to zoom-in on a subject and be tack sharp, the operator has to perform a “critical focus” at the point of maximum closeup before taking the shot. Likewise, in composing a still image the focal point is the place in the frame where we want the eye to go first—and return after wandering. It’s the primary subject matter, in that it accomplishes the communication objective. It “says” what the image is about. Again, this is accomplished by going in close, excluding as many secondary elements as possible. Maximizing compositional focus is why photographs taken close up are so powerful.   

Placement (Cincinnati Expressway Underside)

Arguably the most well-recognized aspect of composition has to do with where elements are placed within the frame, and how they are organized. It’s been said that the greatest compliment for an artist is the length of time a viewer attends to his or her work. The arrangement of elements in an enclosed space largely determines how long the viewer will stay with an image, and how their eye will move around the space. In this series of blogs, all the above and all the other “dimensions” to be considered, influence the placement of elements. Placement is an acquired skill, gained by studying the works of the masters, and analyzing our own creations to see what’s effective and what isn’t in terms of keeping the viewer’s eye within the frame. 

Because we read left-to-right and top-to-bottom in Western cultures, the eye is best directed within a frame by having the primary element, for instance a face or animal, situated on the right of the frame looking into the space, or placed at the bottom of the frame looking up. Otherwise, if the subject is situated on the left of the frame, the viewer’s eye enters the space at left and goes off the space to the right, out of the frame. I’ll have more to say about this on the topic of “Vectors.” Suffice to say here, that generally speaking, the rule is to keep the viewer’s attention engaged within the frame, the elements should be arranged so that no line, sight-line, or vector leads the eye out of it.  

(South Dakota prairie dog)
Rule Of Thirds

To situate subject matter within the frame in the most pleasing way, and to better control eye movement within it, artists devised a scheme where they divided an imaginary frame into thirds to create a grid. The “rule of thirds” advises us to not place the principle subject matter dead center in the frame, instead, to place it where the lines of the grid intersect. The illustrations would take too much space here, so I recommend a visit to an excellent site—Company Folders.

Sacred Geometry

Anciently, the world around, artists discovered ways of ordering elements within a frame such that they evoke a noumenous feeling, a sense of spiritual wholeness or grandeur. They found that certain geometric forms, those with specific mathematical properties, somehow set up a resonance within us. And it occurs universally. Here too, the subject is vast, so I recommend a visit to another well-illustrated page in Ancient Wisdom. Ignore the ads. Especially applicable for photographers is the “Golden Ratio,” illustrated by the spiral. It’s based on a 5:8 proportion. I’ve used it extensively for many years to format images and place primary subject matter on the imaginary “sweet spots.” I highly recommend a book, Sacred Geometry by Robert Lawlor. Its many illustrations allowed me to translate the philosophy into tools for everyday use. (Used copies are inexpensive).

Reflections On Personal and Social Order

Composition is all about organization—order, the ordering of visual elements. In painting and photography, the medium is a two-dimensional surface. In society, the medium is the three-dimensional world. In any given space, we observe that the elements within it are organized at one end of the continuum, or disordered, chaotic, at the other. Further, it makes a difference that we not only recognize order and chaos, we feel it. 

When objects—books, chairs & tables, houses, cars, buildings, neighborhoods are ordered, they establish and display a regular pattern or sequential arrangement that looks and feels complete, appropriate, managed. When all our “ducks” are in a row, they’re in a satisfying and assessable alignment. Order and disorder communicate, so we have to be careful in making judgments based on the composition of other people’s environments. For instance, there’s the backyard of a neighbor who has toys and tools scattered all over the place, left out in the rain with weeds growing over them. Then there’s the neighbor who has their toys and tools neatly stowed in a garage, leaving the grass open and well-trimmed. We may be tempted to think the former suggests an uneducated, uncaring person. Even reading these descriptions, it’s likely you formed an opinion. But the disorderly neighbor could have a Ph.D. in microbiology and sing in the church choir, and the orderly neighbor could be an ex-convict building a well-organized collection of handguns preparing for a terrorist attack. Admitedly, not very likely. 

A principle in the anthropology of visual communication holds that “everybody notices everything.” Another is, “What we see we evaluate relative to our history, experience and worldview.” Yet another, “We tend to see what we want to see, and find what we’re looking for.” On the positive side, judgments relating to order help us to place ourselves and others within a social context. On the other hand, if we let them, our judgments can build walls of separation and encourage stereotyping. The order-disorder continuum alone, is therefore not a good criteria for making judgments about people.

Expanding the context from personal to social order, Margaret Wheatley, noted systems theorist and management consultant, offered social principles relating to the subject of order and organizations—how we compose our lives.

  • The messiness that plunges you into chaos never feels good, but it is, in fact, the source of new order. Life is intent on finding what works, not what’s right.
  • Organizations and societies are living systems. We live in a universe that is alive, creative, and experimenting all the time to discover what’s possible.
  • It is the natural tendency of life to organize—to seek greater levels of complexity and diversity.
  • Life uses messes to get to well-ordered solutions.

Expanding the subject even further, to the nature of reality, theoretical physicist David Bohm  developed the concept of “implicate” and “explicate” orders. Using the analogy of a rolled-up carpet, he proposed that we should think of the objective or Absolute Reality as a “pattern” that already exists, complete and fully formed within the roll. The pattern is already there, but hidden. As the carpet unfolds with time, parts of that pattern becomes visible and that’s the reality we experience. Dr. Bohm was one of the first scientists, extrapolating from quantum theory, who theorized that reality and consciousness constitute a coherent whole that’s in a process of unfolding.     

Industrial Matting

Chaos is infinitely complex order.

David Bohm

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

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