The Geometry of Photography or How I Began to Understand Portrait Composition!

The artist David Hockney recently recalled a conversation he had with Henri Cartier- Bresson to the art critic and author Martin Gayford*. Hockney said this “We first met at my drawing show in Paris in 1975. He immediately wanted to talk about drawing, as he did whenever we met after that, and I always wanted to talk about photography. He said to me that what made the photographs good was geometry. I said to him, “Yes , well, it’s a matter of being able to translate three dimensions into two dimensions, which means making a pattern, how you arrange it. It’s also a question of looking at the edges…The edges counted particularly for Cartier-Bresson because he deliberately didn’t crop anything. He made sure that the photograph worked as he took it.”

I like Hockney and I like what he says, it makes sense to me but I only recently realised just how relevant his comments are to me and my photography. That may seem a strange admission for someone who trained in graphic design and who has worked with photography for as long as I have but let me explain. For years I have created images on gut instinct, some worked, some less so but when it came to portaiture my hit rate was okay but never as good as I wanted it to be. The hits won awards and kept clients happy but I struggled to build a consistency of vision in my work that I was happy with. I don’t think this is unusual amongst photographers (in fact I know it is not) so I hope that what I intend to discuss here is of use to those of you like me.

I have written before about finding not making or creating a photograph and it is my re-newed awareness of the importance of geometry in the creation of that image that has allowed me to take control of the portraits I create.

In many basic drawing classes, students learn that there are three basic elements of a composition: the frame, the positive and the negative space. The positive space is easiest to understand. Generally, it is the space occupied by your subject. Conversely, negative space is the space that is not your subject. The negative space is defined by the edges of the positive space and the frame or border (the third element). So, part of the negative space is contained by the frame and another part is contained by the positive space. Sometimes the negative space is completely contained by the positive space. What is  important to understand about this is that the negative space also defines the subject.

As I have said this is basic teaching on an art course but I wonder how often it is taught to photographers of any age? I was aware of it as a designer but it has taken me sometime to apply that awareness to my photography. 

Here’s a simple exercise you might want to try. Take a sheet of tracing paper and a black marker pen. Lay the paper over a print of one of your images and see if you can identify the positive and negative space by drawing over the images the lines that define the different areas of the image (in effect what you are creating here is the subliminal structure of the image but maybe I’ll talk about that another time). Take the paper away from the print and what you should have is an abstract images of juxtaposing shapes. This should give you an insight into the geometry (the properties and relations of points, lines, surfaces) of the image and the strength of that geometry in the construction of the imagery.

It was by deconstructing my own images in this way that I started to understand them better and with that understanding I was not only able to bring the longed for consistency to my work but also to understand other photographers work from a new perspective. A ‘win, win’ situation.

The image that leads this article was created with my new awareness of the geometry within my images. Shot on commission in the subject’s home, the location for the portrait was chosen by me based on the geometric relationships between the window, picture frame, chair and carpet. The light was obviously another key factor in the decision but I gave the subject no instructions other than to sit in the chair. I was pleased with the resulting image created over just four frames but what interested me most was the response I received to the image from fellow photographers and art directors when they saw the image posted on Facebook.

The overwhelming response was positive but it was the words used to describe it that intrigued me most, words such as classic, refined and painterly appeared more than once.  It was the use of the word painterly (which I don’t think it is) that interested me most as I find myself increasingly drawn to the geometry of the painted portrait as a source of inspiration for my own work. The very place where geometry is the foundation of the created image.

I never want to stop questioning my work and learning from others so in that respect this article is also a work in progress, with no definite answers but with some ideas and questions. As David Hockney said in the same conversation with Martin Gayford I previously mentioned “I question photography. A lot of people don’t they accept that the world looks like a photograph. I think it does, but it doesn’t entirely, I think it’s actually a lot more exciting than that.I couldn’t agree more. 

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of the United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer in Editorial and Advertising Photography at the University of Gloucestershire, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).

© Grant Scott 2016

*This quotation is taken from A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen, David Hockney and Martin Gayford: Thames & Hudson 2016


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