Studying of photography usually starts with learning technical site of it - camera, Photoshop, color management, printing. And then we proceed to shot masterpieces. This process leaves a glaring gap in development called 'COMPOSITION'.
Arguably the best teacher of composition is completely unknown in US Russian photographer and writer Alexander Lapin whose book on composition "Photography as..." is bestseller in Russia but was never translated in English which I consider a big loss to American public.
I'm fine art photographer and I'm Russian and English speaker. With permission of Mr. Lapin I've translated bits and pieces from his book, mainly his reviews of photographs where he expresses his views on composition. I have his permission to publish them on the Internet and Mr. Lapin promised to take part in discussion and answer questions.
Mr. Lapin was one of the Soviet underground photographers, one of those who being highly educated used to do manual labor for living and in free time take pictures that showed the real life as it was at the time. After the crash of the Soviet Union he became educator, teaches photography in Moscow University, published bestselling book that was never translated in English.
Review of "The walk to paradise garden" by Eugene Smith
Reader: I know well this photograph, many times saw it in the books. Doesn't it seem to you that it is very simplistic? Eugene Smith has much more interesting works. The photograph with the children - this is rather a poster, which is completely single-minded.
Author: For a long time I thought so too. But at the same time I could never let go this photograph, I felt in it some mystery, hidden meaning. And it was very recently that I had resolved it's mystery.
R.: So tell me what is the secret here.
A.: Not so fast, it took me almost 40 years to find solution. So be patient. For the first time I saw this photograph on the exhibition “Humankind” by Edward Steichen whom the Americans brought into Moscow in the 60's. Later I was introduced to other works of Eugene Smith and it is 20 years now that to a question “who your favorite photographer?” I always answer: “Eugene Smith, unusual person and terrific photographer”.
“The walk to Paradise Garden” - one of the most surprising photographs I know. With all its seeming simplicity it has extraordinarily deep content. In any case, this is not a simple photograph of the children walking in the forest, but parable about the fate of humanity, such depth opens in this at first glance simple photograph. By metaphoric nature and force of philosophical generalization it is comparable perhaps with paintings by Pieter Bruegel .
It is necessary very carefully examine this magic photograph and to perceive composition as it is. Cut out by black leaves of foreground white negative space comes out forward and becomes a figure. This is helped by the fact that black leaves (also as spots on the ground) practically do not have texture. Furthermore, the white form outlines resemble the tree bent by wind.
And here happens the most surprising: black masses step back and become background.
R.: Even so, what does it change? Children walk along the path, they left the shadow for the lighted area.
A.: If we perceive the image only logically really nothing has changed, information on the surface is still the same. Children go from black into the lighted area (from the Darkness to the Light). However if we trust our purely visual, subconscious perception then we will get the following picture: children really go to the illuminated trees far away, black masses from above and from below create foreground. But simultaneously white negative space becomes foreground and black masses again become the Darkness which awaits poor children. Moreover the very black figures of children are perceived in front of the white negative form and at the same time behind it. They are the parts of the black area. They came to the lawn but simultaneously already they passed “through” the white and again they proved to be in the black Darkness.
This photograph is made in 1946, the war has ended, people were tired from it and came to believe that this will never happen again. The people dreamed about bright future for their children, hence the poster like enthusiasm of photograph. But the content of it is considerably deeper.
Being in Hell we dream about Paradise, but after getting there we again move into the darkness of Hell. And so endlessly. This is quintessence of human history.
R.: After your explanations I actually perceive something like this. But why it took you 40 years to understand how photograph works?
A.: To perceive photograph adequately, not as window into three-dimensional reality, but as flat image with its special features of the sensory perception of space, become aware of subconscious sensations is extraordinarily difficult. At fault is the head which always selects the simplest version corresponding to the ordinary logic of the three-dimensional space of our existence and does not allow other interpretations.
What is more objective, the usual perception of this photograph or my version? Visual perception is always objective, even if its language is not words but images or sensations which are based on the objective laws of psychology of the perception of space in the flat image.
There is the simpler explanation - look carefully at upper half of photograph “Walk to Paradise Garden”, there are no doubts - black leaves on top are perceived further than white “tree”, they are no longer leaves even, but black sky afar. This is the manifestation of the heterogeneity of depictive plane, its top and bottom.