Number 10: Toward Composition: Via Landscape Via Figure Group

(The Evolution of a Making Pictures Article)

Published September 2005

The more I look at and think about photographs the more I think that in the end it all boils down to composition.

Here is a masterful one by Piero della Francesca

And here is another by Garry Winogrand.

In each, how many appearances, how many images of things—how much of the visual world—is put into order! Cleanly and cleary seen both as themselves—that carved marble throne, that wheel chair-- and as pieces of a seamless whole whose specific nature, in turn, depends on the shapes of those pieces, and on how the pieces are put together.

Compose, from the Latin, poneo, ponere, to place, to put (something someplace) and com, “together”.

As though Piero’s throne room and Winogrand’s Hollywood Boulevard had been made up of precisely those scattered pieces which the artist put together (as a child, say, builds things out of Lego blocks). Whereas the truth of the matter is that Piero and Winogrand drew the pieces, one with a brush, the other with a lens, to look and fit together exactly that way.

Lest we lose sight of that, here are a painting by David and a pastel by Degas.
and here are their tracings, to remind us of how peculiar are the shapes, in paintings, that we read and feel as human bodies: a man dead in his bathtub, a woman crouching to wash in hers.

It is the same in photography. In a medium that contains so many strangely drawn and/or proportioned figures like these by Bill Brandt...

and August Sander... such as this by Brandt, made with an extremely wide-angle lens...

...and pictures like this one, by Andre Kertesz...

...made not of the model but of her reflection in a fun-house distorting mirror--which can be seen in this picture, which shows both the mirror with its image and, below it, the model in her pose....

...figures like these seem a natural, or at least a logical development of photography’s image of the human body.

“The photograph ,” said Garry Winogrand, “isn’t what was photographed. It’s something else. It’s a new fact.”

If we change “photograph” and “photographed” to “picture” and “depicted” the statement holds for the works of Piero, David and Degas, above, and for paintings generally.

But what is the fact that Winogrand refers to? What kind of fact does he mean?

It beings in in composition: in an order created out of exactly and precisely the right number of pieces (images of appearances) each one exactly and precisely the right shape, each one put exactly and precisely in the right place.

It’s the composition that arrests us and holds the eye long enough for us to contemplate the picture. Doing so, we imaginatively join the world the picture represents. Imagining it, we create a new world of the imagination, which, in turn, completes the “new fact”.

Toward Composition via Landscape

I had planned to make this column about landscape photography. “Good idea,” said photographer/writer Sean Reid. “Enough of the building blocks for a while. Why not look at some whole constructions?” And why not, I thought, look at constructions based on nature after so many months’ concentration on photographs of people?

I knew how to start: with a definition of landscape.

Not all photographs of nature are landscapes. Paul Strand’s 1920s pictures of a mushroom cap and a dew-covered cobweb...

...and Edward Weston’s picture of a rock formation in California and Minor White’s Snow Blowing on Rock, Rye Beach, New Hampshire...

are not landscapes but studies of natural things and/or events in their respective natural contexts.

However, Edward Weston’s study of rocks...

...and Minor White’s White Sun in Rock Devil’s Slide, 1947...

both of which lack sky but express enough depth, (and strongly enough) to imply a horizon, seem to me to be on the borderline between study and landscape.

(The more I read of artists’ personal and critical writing the more I see that for any given work the good artist knows exactly what kind of work he/she is making. And this reminds me of T. S. Eliot’s statement that bad poets are frequently unconscious where they should be conscious and conscious where the should be unconscious.)

The word “landscape” (from the Dutch “landschap”) entered the English language around 1600. Spelled “landskip,” “landschape,” etc., it meant both a specific tract or reach of land, “a view or prospect of natural inland scenery such as can be taken in at a glance from one point of view” [OED, emphasis mine] “together with the things that can be clearly seen in it” and a picture representing such an area.

In a landscape picture, then, the edges and horizon define the breadth, depth and limits of that single glance. The picture presents this specific piece of land whose beginning is as the bottom edge indicates; which extends left and right as far as (but no farther than) the picture’s sides; and stretches out before us as far as (but no farther than) the horizon.

Sky, a critical element in landscape art, is understood to be the specific piece of sky above the land at the specific moment represented by the picture. It can be anything from a thin strip of whiteness, as in the Timothy O’Sullivan photograph, below, of the Shoshone Falls of the Snake River, Idaho, made in 1868

to a cloud-filled extravaganza in which the land is the narrow strip, as in this photograph, made by Paul Strand in the Outer Hebrides in the 1950s.

Within a landscape picture’s boundaries, under its sky, are certain clearly seen specific natural objects (trees, hills, valleys, meadows, streams) with specific details (leaves, blossoms, plants, waves, clouds etc.). These things, considered as natural objects or evidence of man’s existence on or use of the place, together with their relations to each other, give the pictured land its character , what is often called the spirit of place. Considered as forms (mass, shape, light, color, tone) they create the composition, which includes the sky as the source of light informing the land, and as either a color or a color with clouds—in either case,. a form, or a passage of forms.

The composition, in turn, creates the mood, of the picture, the feelings it provokes, (of calm, or of turbulence, etc.) the meanings it contains.

Our response to the land represented by a landscape picture--what we call the beauty and meaning of it—is really our response to the composition and its poetry.

Consider the landscape photograph below, made in France by Paul Strand in the 1950s.

Within the boundaries of this landscape we see a number of highly specific particulars: a gnarled bare tree in the foreground; small fields, separated by rows and stands of trees; a gently curving horizon, a few farm buildings, and lowering clouds. Sometimes there are also man-made things, e.g., houses, farm buildings, roads, canals, railroad tracks, telephone wires and poles. All these things stand in precise physical relations to each other. Together they inscribe a precise geometrical figure onto the land.

Yet these relations of tree to field to horizon to cloud, and the resulting geometry, are nothing more or less than the composition resulting from where Strand put his camera.

For example, it was Strand who saw that the tops of two trees in the middle ground, when seen from a certain point, seem to touch a stand of trees farther on, forming an arch—a gateway to the higher land. Likewise, it was Strand who saw the largest and nearest stand of trees, with its rough “U” shape, as an inversion of the smaller distant arch.

What we see when we look at this picture is not the land but Strand’s composition based on the forms of the clearly visible things within it.

In this light, consider the Civil War photograph, below, by Timothy O’Sullivan, when he was working for the photographer/entrepreneur Alexander Gardner’s picture agency, which covered the war from 1863 to its end. (The pictures were reproduced as line drawings in Northern newspapers.)

It is plate 80 of Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1866) and shows a flour mill, “one of the several large establishments,” the accompanying text states, “which the city of Petersburg [Virginia] boasts for the manufacture of flour. At the height of the grinding season, we are informed, it is capable of turning out about three hundred barrels daily.” It was taken by the northern army during the siege of Petersburg.

No picture can express the strategic importance to an army of capturing such a site or of turning its productivity to the army’s advantage . Nonetheless, as the site of an important incident of the war it had to be photographed. Moreover, to compete with other picture agencies, Gardner’s photographers had to make strong and interesting pictures. It’s obvious that O’Sullivan responded to this challenge by seeing the mill as only part of a reach of land containing woods, river, a dam and distant buildings: as only one of the many forms he worked into this elaborate landscape composition.

It all comes down to composition in the end.

Toward Landscape via Figure Group

A Discussion Forum dialogue with Mr Scott Kirpatrick begun September 9 led to an interesting exchange (numbers 5 through 14) concerning figure groups and composition. With references to both painting and photography, we discussed how a figure group large enough to dominate the frame also structures and designs the frame and thus forces the photographer to compose in relation to it. We called this “determining the composition” or “forcing the composition.”

By dominating or governing the frame I do not mean filling it, as does the group of boys in the painting, left, by Caravaggio, or the photograph, right, by Weegee:

By the same token, Mr Kirpatrick and I were not talking about photographs in which figure groups are worked into a composition: along with other forms and motifs.

In photographs such as the one below, by Helen Levitt,

the beautiful little figure group at the top of the arch, lending the picture a poetic allusion to the classical frieze, is only one of this picture’s three variations on the human figure:

And these variations, in turn, are only one set of forms worked, together with other forms, into the picture’s composition, roughly indicated by the tracing, below.

The same is true of the Gary Winogrand composition at the beginning of this column:

in which Winogrand merged the three women in the center with two figures behind them to form this graceful and dynamic group,

Considered together with its shadows, it is a virtuosic performance. Yet it is only one of the picture’s three variations on the human figure, one of them being also a figure group, but how different! Whence comes some of the picture’s drama.

Here is another Winogrand photograph showing equally brilliant handling of, and composition with groups that are only part of the frame, do not dominate it. In pictures like this, the composition determines the place and handling of the group. It is not the other way around.

The painting reproduced below, The Artist in the Character of Design Listening to the Inspiration of Music (1782) by the late eighteenth-century painter Angelica Kauffman illustrates what I meant by a dominant figure group and its affect on the composition.

The size and placement of the group have left six sections into which Kauffman had to fit the sky, a landscape, architectural details and some sense (sections F and D) of décor. Within the scale of the painting, these sections can hold only fragments of décor, architecture, nature and sky.

Similarly, in John Singleton Copley’s well-known Watson and the Shark (1778),

the placement and size of the figure group, together with the placement of the endangered youth (who is perceived in relation to the group), have left room for two fragmentary views of the harbor (A & B), the form of the shark (C), and the sea (D). The area in each of these sections in part determines size, form, and emotional content of the imagery in them. Given the small section for the shark’s image, Copley could draw the shark correctly with respect to its size and still have it seem enormous. Given the picture’s scale, how many ships can the top left quadrant contain so that left and right corners become a set of variations on the motif of ships and water, masts and sky? In abstract terms, the contention between many and few?

A number of other photographs come immediately to mind, especially those by Levitt, one of the twentieth-century’s great masters of figure-group composition.

Both picture and tracing show not only how the group structures the frame but also – and this was the main point of Mr Kirpatrick’s and my discussion-- how the placing of so large and commanding a group into the picture, so that it dominates the frame, also determines the forms of the sidewalks, cars and people around and beyond the boys...Determines, also, the places where Levitt could put this imagery.

We see this effect of a group on its frame and composition more vividly in the Levitt picture below. The first tracing shows only the group and it’s relation to the frame. The second indicated how it draws the street beyond the girls, and forces a composition made up of large, irregularly-shaped blocks of light and dark, line and surface.

Buildings, sidewalks, vehicles, the road... Everything receives its place in the frame because of its relation to the large form of the two women. Moreover, everything except the buildings and seated figures along the right edge shares a contour line with one of the women...In other words, many of the picture’s shapes are, in part, drawn by one of the women.

A woodblock print by the great late-eighteenth- early-nineteenth-century Japanese artist Utamaro is another example of how a dominant group draws and forces a kind of drawing on adjacent forms.

The first tracing shows merely the group. The second, below, shows how the placement of the group within the scene has led to semi-abstract drawing of those parts of the seated woman’s costume seen behind the verandah’s railing. In the third, red lines indicate where the women’s contour lines also become the contours of other forms, turning shapes which, in life, are made up of straight lines, into singular shapes with some lines straight, some curved.

In Mr Kirpatrick’s and my discussion I called one of his photographs a version of the composition of Delacroix’s painting The Women of Algiers.

“I see what you mean,” Mr Kirpatrick replied. “His stage setting is much more subtle than the triptych formation with regular objects often seen when store windows or parts of buildings define the space. And the picture leads you from the two women at the right to the slightly downstage single women at the left...There is one rectangular piece of the frame, the orange window or shutter that spaces things apart in the center of the picture.”

Yes, and having decided how large each of the four women was to be, and what parts of the frame they would fill, Delacroix had only what was left of the canvas for all the other objects, and to design his picture he had only light, shadow, the orange doorway Mr Kirpatrick mentions, and the curtain.

Mr Kirpatrick likens the painting to a stage, and indeed, the seated woman at the left, together with the column of wall behind her, and the standing woman at the right are like the sides of the proscenium arch. One of their functions is to keep us from imaginatively entering too far into the pictured space. They refer us back to the picture’s surface where the women and the objects are also forms.

Yes, But What About Landscape?

I have found that looking accurately and consistently at one thing leads to looking accurately at others. We’re familiar with figure groups by now. But we’ve been looking at them for themselves: for the specificity of the group itself and for the specificity of each figure within it. Here we’re looking at them with respect to their function within composition. My hunch is that if we look at a few more in this way we’ll be able to see their counterparts in landscape and in this way enlarge our sense of what composition is...

Here is a series of paintings and photographs in which a large figure group dominates the frame and strongly influence the composition.

First, Gustave Courbet’s famous Burial at Ornans (1849-50)

in which the figure group determines where the cliffs and grave must be placed, and so determines the size of each (so that they be immediately visible).

The figure of the densely-packed group extending edge to edge has challenged photographers throughout the medium’s history. In the one below by Garry Winogrand,

as in the Courbet painting the decisive task was the passage above the people’s heads: how much of it would echo the forms of the group and still represent New York’s tall buildings? How much or little of it is needed for it to reinforce the intensity of the group’s packed forms and intense emotions?

Many pictures with a wide figure group of many people come readily to mind, both in painting, as in the picture below, also by Courbet,

or in the photograph, below, by Paul Strand, made in Mexico.

But again, here it is not the group that determines the frame. Instead, the group is part of the larger whole whose terms come from the photographer’s allegiance to much more in the scene than the people in it.

The following series of pictures is to emphasize the kind of form I mean and to show the various ways it both dominates the frame and determines what areas are left for the surroundings: where images of things must go and work with the dominant form(s) to conclude the composition.

Paintings first:

Ingres, Odalisque and Slave

Degas, The Orchestra of the Opera

Daumier, Third Class Railway Carriage

Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party

The composition of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers so fascinated and haunted Pablo Picasso that late in his career he made over forty large oil-on-canvas variations on it. To the right is the Delacroix painting paired with one of Picasso’s variations:

Now for a few more Winogrand photographs in which the size and/or placement of the group is the factor that the rest of the composition must work with.

From Picture Group to Landscape

With landscape photographs, the task is to see the subject matter in terms of its forms and to conceive of the picture as a composition. And as with figure group compositions, landscape compositions are often dominated by one single form. Below is the Paul Strand landscape which began this column, together with its tracing, which discloses all the trees and hedges—all the dark leaved foliage—to be part of one continuous form that designs the frame and determines the composition.

Notice that within the composition the fields are not the rectangles they were in life but irregularly and oddly shaped forms, variations on the motif of the light shape within the dark border.

Notice as well, that perspective, the orderly progression from near to far to beyond the horizon, is accomplished by Strand’s having so placed his camera that this small reach of land seems to extend toward the horizon by a series of over-lapping vertical planes. The same is true of innumerable landscape pictures, including the view of Rome, below, by Corot:

and the view of English farmland by Constable:

The ability to see and handle the trees, meadows, bodies of water, buildings, walls, roads, etc. of the actual landscape in front of the camera as vertical planes and forms is crucial to the task of creating a picture that is at once a representation of solid objects in realistic, deep space, on the one hand, and, on the other, as flat forms within a composition. The ability, in short, to turn the objects, space and sky of the piece of land that we find beautiful into the forms of art within a picture that is first and last a composition.

In John Constable’s cloud study, below, in which the original scene apparently had few trees or walls to give a sense of vertical planes nearby, there is just enough imagery of the land along the bottom edge to express the distance to the horizon,

But not enough to so that the land couldn’t also be handled – in its abstract form -- as one small vertical plane among many before the land gives way to the enormous upward thrusting plane of the sky.

This way of handling a long stretch of flat level ground so that it at once gives an impression of depth yet remains a form that can work with the picture’s vertical planes was also known by Paul Strand in his landscape work:

From the beginnings of landscape pictures, painters have known how a slightly elevated vantage point can compress depth so that things like roads and bodies of water on the land’s surface (on the “floor”, if you will) can be more convincingly handled both as features of landscape and as forms on the surface. A good example is the painting, below, by the nineteenth-century English painter J. M. W. Turner, whose tracing discloses how vertical the horizontal body of water actually is in the picture’s over-all design.

In the Paul Strand landscape, below, made in Egypt,

the canal is horizontal enough to represent a flat body of water on the earth’s flat surface. At the same time, the “single glance” of this landscape includes both the canal’s right and left banks. These, together with their shadows and reflections, contain the flat-seeming water within two vertical planes. Consequently, the canal itself seems to participate in the orderly progression of vertical planes from the beginning of the right canal bank (bottom right) and the shadows (bottom left) of the long vertical grasses, to the horizon and its stand of trees.

We saw, earlier, that a dictionary definition of “landscape” included both “a view or prospect” of natural inland scenery such as can be taken in at a glance from one point of view” and “the things that can be clearly seen in it.” [Emphasis mine.]

That word, “clearly” is crucial if a landscape picture is to give an account of the specific nature of a place. But clarity is also crucial to the composition, for it is the things in the landscape that complete the specific and precise geometry of the frame

Below is a Paul Strand photograph taken in the Gaspé Peninsula in the 1920s, and a tracing showing its chief forms.

And below is the picture again, with a tracing that shows how some of the “clearly seen” features of this piece of land come together in a composition that traces across it a form, a composition, of lines and shapes, lights and darks, single forms –and, indeed, groups, made up of structures, now, instead of human figures.

In another Gaspé photograph (reproduced below) Strand clearly saw houses both as individual figures and as members of groups:

Below, two John Constable landscapes and their tracings, England, early nineteenth century, and two more Strand landscapes and their tracings from the early -and mid-twentieth century.

Yes, but what about composition?

True, it’s not been discussed directly. My hope is that these series of articles will make us progressively stronger at seeing all images of appearances, and their details, within a photograph as form, which will prepare us for the more difficult task, in future columns, of looking and talking about composition itself. This is one reason there are so many pictures in this month’s column.

Ben Lifson, who teaches the history, theory and practice of photography at the graduate and undergraduate levels at the University of Hartford (CT), also conducts private photography tutorials on three continents. For more information please visit his website, For information about the University of Hartford's photography programs, please visit the website

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