Matthias Photography Weddings » San Francisco Wedding Photography by Matthias, Where Fine Art & Photojournalism Collide

Seeing: Musings on Composition and Interpretation

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

-Antoine de Saint Exupéry

“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”

-John Berger

“The decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event its proper expression.”

-Henri Cartier-Bresson

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time over the last several months thinking about design and composition as it relates to the photographer and his or her camera. Photographers Henri Cartier Bresson and Dorothea Lange and philosopher John Berger  have fueled my desire to further process the interpretation and design of photographic images. Specifically,  how does the photographer focus and limit interpretation of an image? What one includes or doesn’t include in any given scene directs how the observer understands an image. For example, a playground full of children playing tag conjures up a very different set of feelings than that of the same playground empty. The picture of the empty playground might actually have been taken when the children were present but had moved out of the frame. A decision was made. And in photography it is the endless number of such compositional decisions that set great artists apart. In a good image each element of the frame should tell the story that conveys the heart of the message. Distracting elements are thus the best way to ruin great pictures, while complex juxtoposition or extreme minimalism can carry great weight in furthering the desired effect of any given image. Here, my image’s title serves to confuse the observer, because the lack of children, the harsh lines, and the wet ground each contradict our expectations of what “children at play” might look like. Would the title, “Windows” (whose rectangular shape, along with a full wall dominate the scene) make more sense to you?

Children At Play

Children At Play

It is not only what is included in an image that matters, but how each element will be interpreted by the viewer. Understanding is based on association. This is maybe most easily understood visually by contrast. On the cover of John Berger’s book “Ways of Seeing” is Surrealist painter Magritte’s image “The Key of Dreams.” Here, we see objects that Magritte has renamed. An image of a clock is subtitled “the wind,” a horse “the door.” Magritte successfully confuses the viewer by naming and connecting images that have no apparent connection. Standing in any given place with a camera the photographer has a limitless combination of choice in regards to subject, color, angle, and focal length, and perhaps most importantly the time of exposure (when the shutter clicks). The photographer can confuse (as Magritte), clarify, intrigue, or anger the viewer based on what elements he includes. But something that angers one person may have no effect on another. For example, each of us has seen a picture of ourselves that another person took which we hate. Our gut reaction is “delete it! delete it!” While a friend or family may be thinking, “that’s really funny, let’s put this on facebook.” The content is the same, but based on our experience our reactions are diverse. Our relation to the image and the context of its display determine how, and how strongly, we react.
Magritte

Magritte's "The Key of Dreams"

Now for some application, how does this affect the way I take pictures? Great photographers have the abilities to consistently capture what Cartier-Bresson has famously named “the decisive moment.” This is done by combining a knowledge of the desired viewers context with a composition that draws this viewer into an interpretation of the scene according to the photographer’s aims. In documenting people my goal is to tell the story of a set of relationships, and capture the essence of certain events. Below are two pictures which I believe do just that. Both the Father and his daughter have in different ways waited for this moment their whole lives.

Expectations

Expectations

In my mind the layers of focus and motion carry the dynamics  and some juxtoposition in elements of love, delight, independence, and protection.

Paul, Mariah & Corrina

Paul, Mariah & Corrina

The composition of each image however can either serve to tell the truth, or distort it. If you were asked to charachterize the father’s relationship with his daughter from this image, you might instead of thinking “protecting, proud” come up with “distant, removed, jealous.” Based on the actual relationship of this family I can attest that the first options would be true, while the latter are utterly false . How well you know the family would affect your interpretation.

Thus as I shoot weddings it is my privalege to capture the moments that tell the truth about a relationship, while at the same time relating the truth in a way that celebrates the joy between each couple. I am looking for the decisive moments that capture feelings and emotions that will frame the way each couple and their family remember the wedding event for the remainder of there lives. From the moment I press the shutter to the day I deliver the pictures I am asking myself, “is this true, unique, and does it tell the relational story of the actual beauty that each individual couple holds between themselves?”

Finally, here’s a couple more pictures of the weekend, which I’ve spent a little less time thinking about, but enjoy none-the-less.

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