Composition Can Free You From The Logical World
Have no doubt subject matter is an essential element of any photograph. But, when talking about composition, the subject of your photograph may well be composition itself.
Consider the above photo, made from a high rise car park looking down on some historic buildings in the city of Melbourne, Australia. While you could say the photo is about buildings (or, more specifically, rooftops) it's really a study of one of the primary elements of composition: shape.
The photo was made under high contrast conditions. I processed the image to further enhance the stark nature of the scene and, thereby, concentrate attention onto the shapes within the finally photograph.
Discovering The Unique Photography Of Alex Webb
I remember back in 1986, as a first year student in a full-time photography course, being introduced to the work of photographer Alex Webb. He was famous for his ability to produce incredibly evocative images when photographing under extremely high contrast conditions. An amazing achievement given he was working with transparency (i.e., slide) film.
His secret seemed to be that he composed his images around color and exposed them in such a way that retained important highlight detail, by exposing for the highlights, and, as a consequence, allowed shadows to be recorded as black. That's exactly what I've done in the above image, Rooftops, Melbourne.
When thinking back at those marvelous photos by Alex Webb my memories are that color and shape dominated his work (I think the series I saw was made in Haiti) and that, rather than surrendering to the conventional wisdom of abandoning photography under high contrast conditions, he embraced the chaos in such a way that gave birth to his own signature style of photography.
Back then, well before the days of High Dynamic Range (i.e., HDR) photography, it was hard to imagine color and shape coming together, under such high contrast conditions. The fact that it was achieved, in camera, through candid documentary photography was, to my mind, staggering.
I only saw a handful of Webb's images that day and, as far as I can remember, have only seen his work once since. But you don't easily forget work by which you are so profoundly affected. If you check out the images in question, I'm sure you'll agree it was well worth the effort.
Next time you're out and about with your camera try making some photos where you concentrate your composition not on things like faces, buildings and rivers, but on the lines, shapes, textures and colors that define them.
You'll likely find, as a consequence, that your composition will improve dramatically. What's more, by doing so, you'll come across an easy way to begin to free yourself from the constraints of the measurable, definable and logical world.