Composition is the arrangement of shapes (forms) in an image – their position, relationship to one another and to the image as a whole.
Photographers, like other artists, compose their images to create certain effects and to affect the viewer.
The figure and shoe are placed centrally. The lines in the diagram opposite show how the composition forces us to consider the man’s precarious position. Notice how isolated the figure appears, as if oppressed by the indifferent city. Even apparently snap shot views like this street photograph can be carefully composed and reflect the skill of the photographer. In this image by Louis Faurer, presumably taken through a shop window, the silhouetted pedestrian is dwarfed by an enormous shoe. This is a powerful visual idea which is enhanced by the composition.
Some images appear almost symmetrical about either the vertical or horizontal axis .
This can lead to a very calm, balanced effect. However, there is often more to this than meets the eye.
Andreas Gursky - 99 Cent, 1999, chomogenic colour print, 6 ft. 9 1/2 in. x 11 ft. 5/8 in. The composition of this massive image, nearly 12 feet in length, appears almost symmetrical – ordered, balanced and unemotional. It suggests that the photographer is taking an entirely objective view. However, people seem to be relatively insignificant in this temple to commerce and the dizzying quantity and variety of products on display is quite disconcerting.
Order and chaos co-exist A symmetrically arranged environment is disordered in William Eggleston’s exposed interior of a freezer.
Together and apart? Evidence of domestic harmony or the site of conflict? Nan Goldin’s beds are mute witnesses.
Differences contained Robert Frank’s use of a grid-like composition in this famous image serves to highlight the racial, class, age and gender differences which the photographer observed in the compartmentalised society of 1950s USA.
Surreally symmetrical Jerry Uelsmann - Untitled , 1965
Influenced by abstract art and industrial design , photographers sometimes create grid-like compositions. Pattern and repetition are often important concerns, and often the grid is comprised of more than one photograph.
Lewis Baltz - Park City Interior #94 Ray Metzker - Untitled , 1966-7 Ray Metzker’s large composite grid is constructed from 63 individual photographs of a Chicago street scene. From a distance, the viewer sees only an abstract pattern. Closer up, the multiple elements become legible.
Photographers often choose dramatic angles and off-kilter compositions to create a sense of dynamism.
Jaroslav Rossler Untitled. Petrin Tower 1924-6 Berenice Abbott - El at Columbus Avenue and Broadway c. 1935-39 Abbott utilises a high viewpoint in order to emphasise the dynamic rhythms of city life. Thrusting diagonals and an asymmetrical arrangement of forms suggest energy and flux.
A ghostly presence Clarence John Laughlin - Vision in a Brick Wall , 1941 Laughlin’s double exposed image is unsettling partly because of the arrangement of the figure in relation to the huge expanse of brick wall and diagonally opposite the balcony. The entire image appears to be tipping down towards the left hand corner.
Compare and contrast Harry Callahan – Eleanor, Chicago 1953 Garry Winogrand – New York Zoo , 1964 Symmetrical Horizontals and verticals Order and logic Calm Asymmetrical Diagonals Dynamism and energy Tense
Sometimes, photographers attempt to describe scenes which are so complex that the eye struggles to perceive a pattern to the arrangement of forms. These photographs are similar in effect to looking at an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock.
Garry Winogrand - The American Legion Convention, Dallas, Texas 1964 Jackson Pollock - Untitled . (c. 1950). Ink on paper