Monday, December 19, 2011

Mondrian and photographic composition

As a young high school yearbook editor in the 1970s, I learned to make layouts based on the style of art created by the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. I had never heard of him before, but soon learned to appreciate the interplay between vertical and horizontal lines. My mentor Jim Palik taught me that in composition vertical lines create tension and horizontal ones create a relaxing effect in the viewer. Put the two together and you have an interesting composition. In music you might say that's how Schubert created interesting compositions by modulating between major and minor keys in interesting ways.
My photographic eye has been trained to take notice of  Mondrianic patterns and these horizontal/vertical compositions.

The ugly building next to our grocery store is a motorcycle supply store. From the side, however, it is fairly interesting. Whether horizontal - like the layout of a book - or vertical, the eye whizzes along the lines, looking for a place to rest. The door and window here provide focal points for the wandering eye.

Even without Holland's national color in the scene, the opposition between vertical and horizontal lines - together with the organic line of evaporating rainwater at the bottom - creates an interesting, if minimalistic, composition. One might be tempted to think of the architecture in a Japanese zen garden.

After going out to capture beautiful bokehs at the Christmas market in Stuttgart last week, I was on a photographic high, having trained my eye for a couple of hours to pay attention to the background in the photograph. This picture came out of that stroll:

Of course, this is completely different, and yet my yearbook training also taught me that there has to be a dominant element on each double-page spread. A photograph or painting should also have something that grabs the viewers' eye, giving it a starting point before wandering across the rest of the canvas.
As I was waiting for the tram to take me home after that trip to the Christmas market, my camera was still hungry. As if knowing that my color-sated eyes needed a rest, it led me to a seemingly boring corner of the underground. As a father who is often on the go with a child in a stroller, I am familiar with the elevators in town. However, I had never thought of them as being worthy of a picture. On that evening I did.

The partitioning of the rectangle into strips of gray tones is soothing. Turn one on the side and you have something like a Rothko.

Rothko's work provided inspiration for the following composition of gradations, too - or at least my appreciation for this picture is strengthened by my appreciation for his work.

Sony A77, Minolta 50mm, f3.5, ISO 400, 1/640 sec.
One more picture seems to fit into the grouping, though it was taken above ground and consists mainly of vertical lines. Yesterday at the zoo the sky was overcast but all at once a beam of sun hit these columns and gave me a million-dollar lighting effect! The rose bush in the corner gives the eye a place to start. I just love the smooth gradations of light and hues in this! I'm fairly easy to please!

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