I enjoyed this recent post by Blake Andrews*.
It does point out a real source of inspiration: breaking rules. Doing what you're not supposed to do can be an excellent source of ideas. I wish there were more rules, so there would be more to break. Which is why Blake's post resonates, I guess, duh.
*I've been trying to create a short list of sites to visit regularly. It's hard. There are many worthy ones, yet I know if I let my list grow too long then I won't visit any of them. But how do you winnow all photography sites down to eight or ten? Not easy.
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Featured Comments from:
JL: "Do you know this painting by John Baldessari? Very famous in art circles: not sure if it is in photography circles too."
Benjamin Marks: "I don't know whether this will be helpful or not, but my general criterion when evaluating any artwork (could be photography, could be music, could be ballet) is, 'Does this touch me, distract me, or make me feel something?' If the answer is yes, the next question is 'why?' Sometimes that answer is a triumph of technique, sometimes it is independent of technique. Sometimes my response is caused precisely by a rule being trounced in a delightful way. And sometimes a 'rule' is really just a practice that all of us sheeplike nudniks fall into because it is the received wisdom. Man, is it great when someone shines the bright light of a creative mind on that state of affairs.
"I guess the distinction I would make is that when rules are broken—compositional rules, rules related to narrative structure, grammatical rules, whatever—is that the 'breaking' has to work. In all of the cases cited by Mr. Andrews they do. I'll note that Mr. Klien's successful prosecution of that image of the kid with the gun has not inspired a lot of copycats, at least none of which I am aware.
"The other thing about 'rules' is that their breaking sometimes comes during the act seeing the raw image and sometimes comes in the editing process. The genius of the Gare St. Lazarre picture has always seemed to me the ability to see the final image in the original frame. If I am honest with myself, I don't think I would have seen it. I might well have looked at the contact page in the loupe and said—in my 1/4 second evaluation, 'Too bad. The subject is out of focus,' and moved on to the next one. This is a great example of the difference between 'looking' and 'seeing.'"
Mike replies: Maybe this is the editor in me speaking, but I think we get into trouble in this argument because of the word "rule," which suggest a dictate by some authority with power. It's like the phrase "laws of physics," in which "laws" is simply and flatly the wrong word.
Street photography rules are actually rules of thumb. Wikipedia defines "rule of thumb" as "a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation." They suggest comparing it to heuristic, which means "experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that give a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal."
In other words, street photography rules are really...suggestions.
And in fact, when I read all the "rules" that Blake is lampooning, I think they're all pretty good guidelines. For example, it's true that a lot of street photographers are satisfied photographing peoples' backs, and this is probably because they're too polite or too reticent to confront their subjects and let their subjects know they're photographing them. If this is a constant (or at least consistent) in someone's work, it is indeed something he or she would be better off being aware of, hopefully to try to overcome.
It doesn't actually mean that anyone is prohibited from photographing anyone's back, or that photographs which prominently feature a subject's back can't be good ones (since we were just discussing Karsh, his portrait of Pablo Casals comes to mind. Google "Karsh Casals" if you don't know the picture. Of course that's not a street photograph).
Rules/suggestions are meant to be helpful, so if we dismiss them then it seems evident that we're cutting ourselves off from any help they might offer. Which might not be the best course, for those of us who are not geniuses.
The best overall suggestion might be "know the 'rules' and break them knowingly."
Marcus: "Start with TOP, see where it leads."
Mike replies: :-)
Jimmy Reina: "I think I have posted this before, but the issue of rules never seems to die. One evening at my camera club, someone showed a picture of a rowboat on a body of water, with the setting sun on the horizon in the background. As I recall, the image was well composed and exposed. As you would expect, the setting sun was pretty colorful, both in the sky and reflected in the water. Someone commented, 'you should never point your camera into the sun.' It was a picture of a sunset—where else could you point it?"