Seeing 'Outside the Box'

“Thinking outside the box” is a phrase that the Apple Computer Corp. likes to feel it invented. While it’s doubtful that Apple was the first outfit to advocate it, innovation has been prized for a long time and most people, at least think they do it.

For us shutterbugs the equivalent phrase is “Seeing outside the box” and the box is not hard to define. We’ve become aware that there are many distinct styles of photography like photojournalism, advertising and even the nebulous style of self expression found in galleries and some photo magazines. Then there’s the camera club style, easily spotted by people in other branches of photography. They can spot camera club images because they obey all the rules. The space in the frame is carefully and fully used with the subject placed to be in harmony and balance. All distractions are eliminated, even possible storytelling interplay between different elements is frowned on by reductionist judges, who’d rather dwell on one element. The overall effect is a certain degree of formality.

The result is at first quite pleasing, but then ultimately somewhat boring simply because everything in the picture becomes predictable. There are no surprises and beyond the veneer of superficial perfection there are very few ideas. You know that you’re totally in the “box” when you don’t question the rules and find most of the other styles of photography to be without merit.

The rules for judging portraits seem to have been pushed to an unusual extreme --- facing into the larger space – catch lights in both eyes – eyes centered (some judges even define how much white should surround the irises and where it should be) – the head at least half the height of the frame – clothes with subdued color and patterns – and so on. That leaves the photographer to obsess mostly about the lighting and propping. It all seems like a narrow box to fit in but when the shooter gets the hang of it and gets good scores the tight fit seems acceptable. The problem is that the photographer will find not all his or her productions are winners at first. When they do figure out what characteristic the winners have, they’re likely to repeat it and narrow their style further – and wind up in a still smaller box.

It’s a real shocker to look at a broad range of portraits in the “outside world” from sources as diverse as medieval art up to current advertising and realize that the eye placement alone rarely fits the “rules” (and that’s when they’re visible at all). They’re all over the map (or face anyway), expressing every emotion from surprise and joy to wariness and terror. In fact it seems that most emotions can only be expressed by letting the eyes cut loose. Also you’ll find subjects almost anywhere in the frame and the face smaller, or sometimes larger, than what we consider correct.

Photographer Arnold Newman has developed a powerful style of environmental portraiture which often puts the famous subject near the edge of the frame and facing out. Is it okay only because it’s a Newman photo and not okay for the rest of us? Well it certainly would be shot down by the average judge if any of us tried it ---- even if we took the same care that Newman did, to fill the space behind the subject with highly relevant subject matter. In the case of his image of the young Senator Jack Kennedy, even though Kennedy is staring into very little space at the edge, behind him the space is filled by the typical classic columns of a government building. As you stare at the image, and when you get beyond the violation of the “rules” you begin to see that these details represent the senators background or even his thoughts or mindset. It really works. By seeing outside the box Newman has created his own effective style and placed much more meaning in a portrait.

Here are some of the disadvantages of letting yourself get trapped into a rule defined box. First, the box is going to become more limiting as you become proficie
within it. Secondly, while you’re working this particular style you might miss the chance of doing much better at something else. I’ve occasionally run into past members of the OC Camera Club and the talk usually gets around to why they left. It’s surprising how often the answer goes something like, “been there, done that”, and that’s often caused by the fact that they’ve sort of beaten their own specialty to death and failed to get out of the self imposed box to try something really different.

Now we’re not talking about just shooting other subject matter here, though that would not be a bad move. The idea is to entertain radically different ideas about what makes pictures worth looking at, and this exploration might require suspending the rules. The change can be a refreshing eye opener. Looking back over lots of years I’ve realized how fascinating scenes of everyday life become – things as ordinary as streets, cars, storefronts, groups of people. The fact that the scenes contain many elements makes them more, rather than less interesting (as in the work of Cartier-Bresson). The absence or presence of tight composition can be so secondary or subdued, as to be unnoticeable

Those personal styles we see in galleries may elicit our scorn, but think of the challenge of creating your own kind of photography and then, the tough part, making it meaningful to the viewer.

Will these “outside the box” experiments in personal vision earn you a higher score. Most likely not but they might lead to unintended professional involvement, more satisfaction with what you’re doing or finding that your photography is a route to involvement in community projects. At least you won’t feel like you’re going stale.

Here are some picture making projects that I’ve gotten into that require a little loosening of the rules, I love shooting patterns and textures. Quite often there’s no “center of interest” but I find the harmony of repetition to be quite satisfying and the textures look really great in large prints when they positively glow with high image quality. The actual composition should be understated in order to not distract from the fine image. Probable score would be 6 (but I did get an 8 once)

I’ve also done shots in the extreme macro, like shots of the wavy grooves of old time records, crystals by polarized light or micro close-ups of computer chips. Interesting stuff but abandon all hope of competing with such images.

There is another “box” which I’ve been in for a long time and that’s stock photography. It’s a fairly loose style covering almost any subject, but usually in a clear and storytelling style. That means the image can have quite a bit in it but the emphasis has traditionally been on the sharp and well lit approach. Or anyway, it used to be that way. Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of limited sharpness and personal expression here too. Maybe I’d better scramble quick, to make sure my own “box” isn’t smaller than the rest of the field.