Experiments in Composition

Composition, like plot and melody, is the most difficult part of visual art. In photographing the objective world you must work with the structures you are initially given. If you choose a random field of smaller objects, like a forest floor covered in leaves, sticks, nuts, decomposition, etc., you effectively remove all the comfortable geometries and inherent meanings of landscapes, portraits, buildings, flowers, weather etc.

In the random field, how do you find something to photograph? One has to be open to the unusual, the quirky, the questionable. “What is that?” One stares and is perplexed. It could be sudden geometry or color. Or a smooth curve. Or the deep decay beneath it all. The question, and the doubt as to what you are seeing, are key. Because the conscious mind reacts badly to new things, and because you are fascinated by something you don’t understand, you are touching the unconscious. And having given up the reliable subjects of photography and concentrating on the random or chaotic field, you are now essentially photographing the angels and demons of your own psyche. Because projection is a natural consequence of looking at a random field, it is personal. Because the language of the unconscious is metaphor, and you have dipped into it, the image will also exhibit metaphorical properties. You may not see these things in your image until later. And the psyche is attracted to beauty. Beauty can be a misdirection used by the unconscious to slide deeper material into your seeing. It moistens the pathways for easier delivery. Like the way melody and lyrics work. The music transfixes you with beauty while the lyrics deliver their information. How responsible is a film score to the success of a film?

When examining your own dreams, it is said one should befriend them. That is, not analyze them, but amplify and add newly discovered meanings and connections. It can be the same with images. Consider conceptual art. Because the work is initially based on an idea, once the idea is revealed, the picture, or whatever media is used, ceases to give new ideas.

The one idea it is built upon is it. It was consciously arrived at and is consciously absorbed. But metaphor from the unconscious can be an endless well of meaning. It is a spring of waters upwelling and refreshing. Or distorted and shocking. But its origins are from the deep, and integration of this material is always good for the soul. But most importantly for image making, metaphor spawns fascination.

As I would walk in the woods, slowly inching along, the two questions I would ask myself were “what is beautiful” and “am I losing my mind?” The second one a result of actually staring at thousands of leaves. Try it. It’s maddening. What I had to think of as an organizing principle of nature or what I later called grace or synchronicity, would give rise to images that would appear fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, complete and confoundingly perfect. At least to me. And these images were so unusually satisfying that my desire for them filled me with enthusiasm. But while there were periods of great productivity, there also came long stretches of frustrating nothingness. Practically years without a significant picture. What phenomenon was this? I was looking but not seeing? Was it me, or a particular field that was exceptionally random. As paradoxical as that sounds.

In search of answers, I would read James Hillman’s voluptuously dense books on depth psychology. As he explains, Chaos, what I equated with randomness, is inseperable from creativity. And from the god Eros. This god has a real attraction for the holes in our soul. The formlessness, the randomess, the chaos. I came to realize that the photography of chaos was a work of psychology, not photography. As Hillman says “beauty is the first attribute which draws Eros to Psyche.” The awakening of the soul, that of Psyche, “is a process in beauty.” And that “implies [that…] aesthetics–unity, line, rhythm, tension, elegance,” all the components of composition, “may be transposed to the psyche.” So finding these images might parallel a process of movement of Eros toward Psyche. Every new picture was a balm to the soul. But why the long periods of dry, empty failure when my camera saw nothing? Apparently, as Hillman suggests, “Eros is born of Chaos…and will harken back to its origins. Eros will attempt again and again to create those dark nights of confusion which are its nest.” Back and forth. Movement towards Psyche and away from her.

I had long thought that it was Aphrodite, the “shining face of things” as Hillman calls her, that was pulling me forward towards beauty. One of her children is Harmony, and that can lead to prettyness and equilibrium. What I liked was the tight ligaments of composition which kept a kind of hermetic enclosure which prevented the image from collapsing and crashing into the bounds of the frame. But it was the longing that indicated Eros rather than Aphrodite. The longing to fill those gaps in my soul. The longing for that new picture. That’s why they were so satisfying. When Psyche would appear, it was by grace, and when she vanished I would look around like a dumb lover without a clue.

A dream fades in the morning into the dark fairytale forest. The image refuses to come out of the chaotic field. This is the nature of the unconscious. But the never ending interior journey is, in the end, what is important. New images will alway come. They alway do. It seems for me, yearning for that next picture is a path to Psyche, soul. But the more I think I understand, the more mysterious this all becomes.