On the Edge By the Sea: ponderings on composition

parnu water close up with sun sparkles photo by sue wellington-web
On the Edge By the Sea by Sue W.

Reading a review recently of an exhibition by the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (german 1968- ), the author mentioned that Wolfgang thinks of his images as ‘calls to attentiveness’.

I know exactly what he means.

Being in a Straight-Jacket

Some critics have criticised Tillmans lack of composition. But composition can be a straight jacket.

You have all these conventional composition rules such as the rule of thirds, the golden mean, etc.

These are embedded in people’s minds. So much so, that they cannot see any visual image as harmonious, unless it is contained within these rules. Fair enough. And there is scientific truth to it... particular proportions are at the biological root of all life. So it’s unconscious to a degree.

But there are other levels of harmony - than the purely physical.

Sometimes you just want to emphasise what you find so fascinating. So beautiful. And the unexpected way it comes upon you in real life. It’s a magical, unexpected moment...and you want to express that.

Walking Along the Beach

Walking along the beach, suddenly you see a tiny piece of splintered wood, reflected on the sand at the bottom of the transparent shallows.

It’s no great drama. It’s a fleeting, fluid moment caught in the corner of your eye, while you’re looking somewhere else.

It’s just a tiny piece of a story that you wouldn’t even notice - most of the time- unless you were moving slow enough... and were open enough to allow yourself to be receptive.

A magic moment. You don’t want it embedded in a compositional straight jacket.

Because that’s the point. Composition focuses and hierarchises the elements in the composition. But everything's happening simultaneously.

Wholly Attentive

That piece of wood is almost not even there.

But for a split second you were there at this time, at this place, at this moment, at this wave, at this point - where the sun hits the wave and glitters and the tiny piece of splintered drift wood - which earlier had been part of some particular fishing boat and a hundred or a thousand journeys with a hundred or a thousand other fishermen - who knew a hundred or a thousand other people, who were born and who died like you will.

A composition, as nice as it is can be, can be a straight jacket.

The fragile little stick is not in a good place compositionally. It’s on the edge of a moment that you just caught because you were wholly attentive.

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