A Brief History of Rules of Composition

amolitor

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 18, 2012
Messages
6,320
Reaction score
2,131
Location
Virginia
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
Composition is something that people have written about a lot over the centuries, and I have been amusing myself for the last few weeks reading some books on this. An interesting fact is that things like the "rule of thirds", the "golden spiral" and so on appear nowhere in nineteenth century texts on this subject. I decided to do a little research. While google's books archive does not contain all the books in the world, it contains a lot of them, and it is searchable. General trends can be derived with, well, with some degree of certainty, at any rate. Here's some interesting things about the various little rules that get trotted out that tell us where to put the subject.

"rule of thirds" - the one about putting the subject on the intersection of two lines - appears around 1940, possibly introduced in A new approach to pictorial composition and then pretty much vanishes until Feb 1970 when Popular Mechanics cites it in a "pep up your snaps by cropping" piece. After this point it pretty much ramps up in usage.

"golden spiral" doesn't really start turning up in references about composition in wide usage until about 2006, although as a mathematical object and a description of certain objects in nature it's a couple hundred years old.

"golden triangle" is especially confusing, since there are at least two of these things out there. The one about where to put the subject ("draw a diagonal, drop a perpendicular to one of the other corners") seems to follow a similar usage pattern to golden spiral, but it's hard to search for since "Golden Triangle" is also one of several places. It's possible this thing has been around for a while. Maybe.

"golden mean" turns up as early as 1938 in composition-for-photography texts, but not really before. This being the most general term here, it will tend to appear earliest. Claims that Leonardo da Vinci wrote about it are untrue, and claims that he deployed it in his art are both widely made and widely rebutted.

Actual composition as used by painters for hundreds of years is all about lines and opposing lines, balance of forms, overall shapes, repeated shapes, obtaining unity and variety simultaneously, and above all looking at a whole lot of good pictures to develop taste. There are, prior to about 1940, no rules at all given which take the form "put the subject here", there is principles and ideas instead: doing this will have that effect, doing this other thing will have this effect, you can balance this sort of thing with that sort of thing, and so on. Interestingly, rules of the "stick the subject here" sort are almost exclusively aimed at photographers, NOT at other artists.

In short, anyone who claims that (for instance) the "rule of thirds" (specifically: the one that says to stick the subject on the intersection of two one-third lines, not the other one) is an ancient rule used for hundreds of years by painters is simply wrong. You too can look it up.

When examined closely, you find that the rules of the form "stick the subject here" are all, basically, "don't stick the subject in the middle, nor at the edges, and pretty close to a corner-to-corner diagonal isn't a bad place to stick it" which can surely be said more simply than by drawing all these ridiculous little pictures.
 

KmH

In memoriam
Supporting Member
Joined
Apr 9, 2009
Messages
41,401
Reaction score
5,706
Location
Iowa
Website
kharrodphotography.blogspot.com
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
According to Living with Art by Mark Getlein, 7th Edition, page 139:
and I paraphrase -
The notion that numerical relationships held a key to beauty comes from ancient Greece and Rome.

The golden ratio/golden section/golden mean - or Phi (Φ) - has been used in various forms as a guideline for visual image composition and architectural design since it was discovered 2,400 years ago.

A Golden Spiral is made from a succession of progressively smaller nested golden rectangles. Golden spiral - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Living With Art
 

Designer

Been spending a lot of time on here!
Joined
Apr 13, 2012
Messages
18,505
Reaction score
4,852
Location
Iowa
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
Not having been around at the time of the renaissance, I can only imagine how frustrating it was for a budding artist to present his work, only to be shot down mercilessly. With no "rules" to quote, the critics had to rely on their reputation and connections to hold onto their credibility.

The art was either bad or good, and "explanations" were unnecessary.
 
OP
amolitor

amolitor

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 18, 2012
Messages
6,320
Reaction score
2,131
Location
Virginia
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
According to Living with Art by Mark Getlein, 7th Edition, page 139:
and I paraphrase -
The notion that numerical relationships held a key to beauty comes from ancient Greece and Rome.

This is certainly true. Numerology comes in and out of fashion.

The golden ratio/golden section/golden mean - or Phi (Φ) - has been used in various forms as a guideline for visual image composition and architectural design since it was discovered 2,400 years ago.

This is an often repeated remark with surprisingly little basis. There are many pictures with rectangles drawn on them, well, actually there are about 5, always the same ones. Usually two or three da Vinci's, a picture of the Parthenon, and a Mondrian. I own books which make this same claim, with the same five pictures. Wikipedia will point you to several excellent sources rebutting these claims.

All that said, it is a fact that numerology DOES come in and out of fashion. The Golden Ratio as a bit of numerology has been around for 2400+ years, so it probably has popped up from time to time. That it was a major influence in anything is, to put it mildly, disputed.
 
OP
amolitor

amolitor

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 18, 2012
Messages
6,320
Reaction score
2,131
Location
Virginia
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
Not having been around at the time of the renaissance, I can only imagine how frustrating it was for a budding artist to present his work, only to be shot down mercilessly. With no "rules" to quote, the critics had to rely on their reputation and connections to hold onto their credibility.

The art was either bad or good, and "explanations" were unnecessary.

I'm not actually sure where you're going with this, but composition as classically taught certainly does have rules and principles. It's perfectly possible to make more or less objective criticisms based on nineteenth century ideas of composition. It's just a bit more involved than "stick the subject here" rules which are, to re-iterate, a phenomenon of largely the last 70 years and almost exclusively present in photography.

ETA: I don't actually want to get into a big fight here. What I've said in the OP is pretty clear, and it's all verifiable. I used no magic powers at all to work any of this out. If you don't think it's true, go root around books.google.com for an hour or two.
 

Josh66

Been spending a lot of time on here!
Joined
Oct 31, 2007
Messages
14,593
Reaction score
1,238
Location
Cedar Hill, Texas
Can others edit my Photos
Photos NOT OK to edit
I don't actually want to get into a big fight here.

You should know by know that any discussion involving non-technical aspects of photograph will always result in a fight here. And most technical discussions, as well - btw.
Basically, an thread that doesn't lead off with a photo = fight.


I actually enjoy these types of discussions, so I am especially annoyed that for the most part they aren't possible here...
 

Josh66

Been spending a lot of time on here!
Joined
Oct 31, 2007
Messages
14,593
Reaction score
1,238
Location
Cedar Hill, Texas
Can others edit my Photos
Photos NOT OK to edit
Because just like the internet, if it's in a book, it's true.


---
Not necessarily saying that it isn't true, but I think everyone knows by now that half of what is in history books is bull****.
Certainly, you need to read more than one book on the subject before you make a conclusion...
 

cgipson1

TPF Noob!
Joined
Aug 18, 2011
Messages
17,143
Reaction score
4,350
Can others edit my Photos
Photos NOT OK to edit
Because just like the internet, if it's in a book, it's true.


---
Not necessarily saying that it isn't true, but I think everyone knows by now that half of what is in history books is bull****.
Certainly, you need to read more than one book on the subject before you make a conclusion...

At least it is a verifiable source... unlike much of what is often said...
 

Josh66

Been spending a lot of time on here!
Joined
Oct 31, 2007
Messages
14,593
Reaction score
1,238
Location
Cedar Hill, Texas
Can others edit my Photos
Photos NOT OK to edit
More accepted maybe, but a book is no more verifiable than anything on Wikipedia (for example) - unless you do your own research. Now if all the books say the same thing, it's probably safe to go with it, but the same can be said for online resources.

After-all, it's still just the point of view that the author has.
 

cgipson1

TPF Noob!
Joined
Aug 18, 2011
Messages
17,143
Reaction score
4,350
Can others edit my Photos
Photos NOT OK to edit
More accepted maybe, but a book is no more verifiable than anything on Wikipedia (for example) - unless you do your own research. Now if all the books say the same thing, it's probably safe to go with it, but the same can be said for online resources.

After-all, it's still just the point of view that the author has.

Well, if the books author is degreed, and reputable, and acknowledged by peers as knowledgeable in his field... and the authors references are listed, and verifiable, that would mean a lot more than a book from some JOE down the road, wouldn't it? Many authors do try to be objective... especially when they are writing professionally.

ANYONE can edit and contribute to WikiPedia so it is a source to be used with caution! Just like many of the other sources on the Internet... including posts, blogs, and other unverifiable information sources that are often nothing more than opinion. Books on the other hand require a financial and professional committment, and some books also require professional objectivity (like the one Kieth quoted)... so they are typically on a higher level of authenticity than most Internet sources! (Or they would not be accepted by those knowledgeable about such things.. and would get laughed off the shelves)

I believe that most of the books in the Google Archive are public domain, therefore old... and often the information in them is very dated, and no longer considered accurate. At least the book Keith quoted is modern and reflects modern thought and opinions (and the author apparently went to Juilliard, which would imply that he is knowledgeable at least in music and art. He also appears to write / contribute to college level textbooks which also implies some knowledge and responsibility!)

(DISCLAIMER: This is not pointed negatively at anyone, so hopefully NO ONE will take offense!)
 

Josh66

Been spending a lot of time on here!
Joined
Oct 31, 2007
Messages
14,593
Reaction score
1,238
Location
Cedar Hill, Texas
Can others edit my Photos
Photos NOT OK to edit
(DISCLAIMER: This is not pointed negatively at anyone, so hopefully NO ONE will take offense!)

You don't have to worry about me, haha. It wouldn't be much of a discussion if we all had the same ideas.
 

Josh66

Been spending a lot of time on here!
Joined
Oct 31, 2007
Messages
14,593
Reaction score
1,238
Location
Cedar Hill, Texas
Can others edit my Photos
Photos NOT OK to edit
Well, if the books author is degreed, and reputable, and acknowledged by peers as knowledgeable in his field...

Well, there's that... Sometimes it's hard to know the author's credentials while browsing the shelves at the book store though. I like to try to see things from multiple perspectives, then figure out which one makes the most sense to me - or maybe take a little of this and a little of that...

You could just go with a reputable publisher, but then you would always be reading books from the same basic school of thought. Maybe not the best way to get all of the information and develop your own opinion.

Anyway, I guess that's probably enough about 'books'. Back to the topic, lol.

I really haven't read that many books on composition (actually, I'm not sure if I've read any at all - if I did, they weren't memorable). The art books I read (I find "photography" books insanely boring because they're all basically just technical manuals) are focused more on the ethics side of art. A lot of interesting stuff, but it doesn't really relate to the topic of this discussion... Sometimes they touch on composition though, but only briefly, and they never really go into the history of it.
(When they do talk about composition, it's to discuss what the artist was saying by composing in that manner - not to discuss which 'rule' he was following.)
 

Gavjenks

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 9, 2013
Messages
2,976
Reaction score
588
Location
Iowa City, IA
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
Well, if the books author is degreed, and reputable, and acknowledged by peers as knowledgeable in his field... and the authors references are listed, and verifiable, that would mean a lot more than a book from some JOE down the road, wouldn't it? Many authors do try to be objective... especially when they are writing professionally.

ANYONE can edit and contribute to WikiPedia so it is a source to be used with caution!
* Anybody can write a book. The only qualification is the publisher thinking it will sell copies.
* Degreed and reputable people can and do write on wikipedia, which would mean a whole lot mroe than a book by some JOE down the road, wouldn't it?
* Authors on wikipedia usually try to be objective. Probably even more so than in books, since there is actually a central enforcement entity, which may or may not exist with books.
* References are listed and verifiable on wikipedia, usually with a much higher frequency than most non-reference books.


Anyway, @ the OP:
Interestingly, rules of the "stick the subject here" sort are almost exclusively aimed at photographers, NOT at other artists.
Just wanted to point out that photography is fundamentally different than every other form of art in that composition is mostly subtractive in photography (you need to get rid of the irrelevant clutter that exists in the world but is thematically unimportant), whereas painting, drawing, etc. are mostly additive (you start with a clutter free white sheet of paper, and you add only things that are important).

Thus, there's sort of a good reason why photographers would worry more about where to stick a subject in an often inevitably busier scene, whereas other artists can stick it anywhere and just conveniently fill in whatever the perfect lighting or angles WOULD be to make that particular location work (but which a photographer would never encounter and thus can't rely on)
 

Most reactions

ClickASnap

New Topics

Top