The Art of The Matter

Growing Up

“Growing Up”
True story: On the day the above photo was taken, the girl in it was 11 years old and her dad was just minutes away from getting remarried. If you’d asked her at the time why she wanted to wear that particular style of shoe I wouldn’t be surprised to hear she had no better answer than, “I don’t know, I just like them.”
But I suspect there was more to it than that and I’m positive that wearing them was really very important to her. How do I know? Because she did wear them—
all day—even though her ankles got sore and she ended up with blisters on both feet. It wasn’t until late into the reception that I saw she’d finally taken them off. Actually what I saw was this: both her and her new step mom, shoes off, laughing like school girls and dancing with one of the happiest men in the world.

I didn’t take the above photograph. Not exactly, at least. Rather, it’s what I found hiding in what what I did take: a spur-of-the-moment snapshot. I was in the middle of photographing the bride who was just arriving and was lucky enough to see three girls, including the bride’s step-daughter-to-be, standing at a wall to my left. I turned, got the shot and returned to taking pictures of the bride. There wasn’t much more to it at the time. I remember thinking the three of them looked cute there, the littlest of them especially so, but that was about it.

The original photograph

It was in the following days, with the photo now viewable on my computer instead of just the small LCD on the back of the camera, that I started seeing that there was something extra special there. It was partly the daughter’s awkward pigeon-toed stance, and there was that visual metaphor of her being up against something larger than herself, but there was also something else. The angle of her dress and the way it flipped up at the end just really looked “right” to me.

How did I get from the original shot to the finished photograph? The following image shows where I started. In it I’ve cropped way in to both isolate the elements I felt important and to put those elements into some “aesthetically correct” relationship with what would become the new edges of the image. It would be easy to say I simply cropped the photo and leave it at that. It turns out, though, that cropping is way more than just cutting an image down to a new size. “Well, of course,” you may be thinking, “it’s also about choosing what to take out or leave in.” True enough, but there’s more to it.

Getting closer

Truth be told, I was partly just lucky that I cropped it the way I did. At the time, although I’d taken some art classes and was well aware of The Rule of Thirds I was going more on “what looked best” than anything else. It would be another 2 years or so before I’d figured out that there was another “rule” I was unknowingly applying when deciding where to crop. That other rule, what I call the Rule of Corresponding Angles (RoCA), describes “aesthetically pleasing” positions and angles for elements in the composition relative to (corresponding with) the aspect ratio of the image’s height and width.

In the photograph we’re talking about, RoCA suggests that because of its particular height-to-width aspect ratio (3:2 in this case) the angled line of the girl’s dress should be aligned with the lower left corner, which is exactly where it ended up (you can see that in the following image where the thicker pink line coming out from the lower left runs right up the left edge of the dress). The girl is also close to being centered on another RoCA guideline (the vertical green line running just to the right of, and parallel to, her left leg).

compositional elements

I’ll have a lot more to say about RoCA in another post. I’d like to clarify here, though, that it is a descriptive rule of thumb, not a “thou shalt” sort of rule for art. Just following it alone guarantees nothing. At the same time, if it truly is descriptive you should be able to find examples of art that follow it. I was fairly surprised when I realized that it lined up well with my photo and even more surprised to find out how well it lines up with some other photographers’ work (including the first photograph to ever sell at auction for more than a million dollars!).

There are a lot of factors that go into making art aside from what’s been talked about above. But there are also factors that detract from the quality, value or power of an art piece. There is another “rule” in art that says whatever is not adding to the qualities the artist is after is subtracting from them and should be removed or fixed. One clear problem I had with the image was that it was full of distracting “things” that interrupted the normal flow of the lines. There were all kinds of marks in it that didn’t add anything to what the picture is about but that would grab my attention away from things that mattered. I’ve circled all of them in the following image.


There are two other issues I had with it. One (as indicated by the orange arrow shown earlier) is that the natural flow of the photo is somewhat negative in feeling (going from upper left to lower right). For whatever reason, the photo just looks cheerier flipped horizontally so the flow is instead going up from left to right.

Finally, there is an element in the original that added nothing to the story I wanted told: the color. Some photographs don’t look significantly better one way or the other. This one definitely looks better without the information the color was adding to the image.

Growing Up

An important note: One of the ironies of being a wedding photographer is that, while potential clients are attracted by artistic photography, they are unlikely to buy that much of it. In the particular case of the photo I’ve been talking about here, my guess is that if forced to choose the client would rather have the original. The original is about their family. They can recognize the children in it and they can use that photo to bring back memories of that day. What I created from that original is far more abstract. It could be about any young girl. I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that if you’re working on photos of people with the intent of selling them what you produce you have to keep in mind what they are actually in the market for. They want something that helps them remember their loved ones as they were at some particular time. They don’t mind those photographs also being “fine art,” but that’s not what they’re paying for.
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