Sometimes ideas come from unexpected places.  I was commenting on a photograph on Facebook at the request of the photographer, and another member disagreed with me.  The composition ideas I had were completely shot down by this member.  As we discussed our ideas I realized I was looking at the image and thinking of it like a documentary photograph.  The other member was looking at it as pure abstract.  Then it hit me – we may both be correct.

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Ballantyne Village Night Lights

The question I asked from this experience was whether abstract and documentary photographs would look the same if taken at the same place and time.  No, I am trying to get metaphysical and suggest the photos are identical but different.  More, I am trying to determine if a photographer might introduce different elements of composition for a different artistic outcome.

For example, in the image above, would a better abstract photograph only contain the wires with the lightbulbs that form an ‘X’ with the clouds as a background?  Do the buildings take away from an abstract composition?  Conversely, are the buildings important for documentary work because they give a better setting for the image?

Below is a different image.  A reflection from a retail window in Main Street in Rock Hill, SC, there are several composition details in this image.

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Double Vision

The image clearly has some part that is artistic.  Yet, the vanishing point of the lights, while leading you into the image, doesn’t end on another compositional item.  Instead, this diagonal just ends.  The double vision lends to an artistic value, but does any aspect of this image lean towards documentary work?  How about the image below?

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Art Center Clouds

This image of a building clearly has some documentary compositional items – the large square Windows and the dividing line between them. Yet, what is the purpose of the clouds in the window reflections?  The clouds can cause pause while someone tries to figure out more artistic values or the documentary angle.  Here maybe a tighter cropping would allow only the Windows and clouds to show.

The bigger point is as a photographer should decide the compositional type before shooting the image.  The results of this decision affect how the photographer looks at the subject.  It can help determine what objects might be more important.

In the end, two people can still analyze the same photograph looking for different compositional items they believe are necessary and both can be right!

About The Author

David taught film photography and development for 3 years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1989-1991). He began using Leica cameras in 2000 and still shoots 70-100 rolls of film through a Leica M3 and Leica MA while enjoying the challenges of the Leica Monochrom and the new Leica MD 262. David has written about photography and is working on several volumes documenting changes and artistic merit throughout Old Town in Rock Hill, South Carolina, USA. His full-time job is as a CPA, but spends free time with a camera at the ready.

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