Are Rules Made to be Broken ?
What follows is an attempt to clear up some apparent contradictions that have appeared in my writing regarding the subject of rules as relating to photography specifically and art more generally. I only intend to look at the aesthetic side of things and not the technical. The technical is a much more straight forward thing in my own mind; Knowing a given technical rule gives the photographer another tool which he or she can then choose to use or not. The use or non use of aesthetic rules is a much more complicated ball of wax.
What do I mean by aesthetic rules exactly? Anything that can be applied across the visual arts, rules that would apply as much too say painting as to photography;
The golden mean and it’s simplified offspring the rule of thirds.(The tic – tac – toe grid)
The rule of odds – surrounding the thing of interest with an even number of other things
The rule of space – basically negative space in the design sense as opposed to the art sense (whitespace)
Principles of Organization – which is basically another phrase for aesthetics as it seems to incorporate everything relating to composition.
Perspective – horizons, eye levels, vanishing points and all that other good stuff
Rules are really just a distillation of history. They are the Cliff Notes that previous thinkers have handed down to us. Much of the above list has it’s roots in ancient Greece with modifications, the most significant of which was the work on perspective during the Renaissance. The Greeks were obsessed with the idea that there was a prefect aesthetic that, that art, in effect, could be reduced to a mathematical formula. Fortunately they were brilliant but wrong. We have since had a few centuries to find the universal aesthetic and we are no nearer which is a really good thing.
Anyway, back to the point, what many who are learning art view as basically a technical manual isn’t that at all – it is more the chapter listing of a history book. This change of perspective may appear trivial at first glance but it is anything but. As one of the most brilliant artists in history, Sir Isaac Newton wrote in a letter to a rival,
If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants
(Newton was certainly not the first person to use this metaphor but that is for another time)
So, the rules are the shoulders of giants made practical for the non-academic layman. The rules are the history, just without the dates, names and places.
A rejection of the aesthetic rules therefore equals a rejection of the history of visual art. That would be a really brave or incredibly stupid thing to do. Very few visual artists have completely rejected what went before. They either combine existing strands art in new ways or they make the next step forward, do something that hasn’t been done before but, and this is the crux;
Something that wouldn’t have been possible without knowing and absorbing the history or at least the shorthand version of history – the rules.
But, and it is a huge but;
Without being so hidebound by the rules that it becomes impossible to think beyond them.
A philosopher or academic has the luxury of playing with these ideas whereas the visual artist usually doesn’t. Remember that the visual artist has his or her own ideas and stuff to get across to the viewer. The artist, for example, may be concerned with social issues and seek to point up injustice, more deeply personal subject matter such as identity or relationships or a thousand other things – aesthetics is not the whole deal.
The only solution for the artist to become so familiar with the rules that they require no more thought that breathing or digesting a meal and the only way to achieve this is practice, practice and more practice. A photographer has to be able to frame a shot without giving a single conscious thought to any of the rules listed earlier – at the time it either works or it doesn’t.
Put simply, the more instinctive the composition process is, the better the photographer. The good news? – I think that anyone can learn composition to the point where it becomes instinctive but it does take a lot of practice and a lot of mindfulness.