Category Archives: Part 1: From that moment onwards…

Project 3 – decisive moment debate


Before you go any further, give some careful thought to the ‘decisive moment’ debate and note down where you stand (at the moment, anyway) in your learning log. You’ll come back to this in Assignment Three.


I admit that I admire the art of Cartier-Bresson. There: I’ve said it. His best photos contain elements of composition and humour which make them attractive and easy to understand. There isn’t the harsh banality of (for example), Paul Graham’s work The Present, which risks the viewer thinking “I could do that”. The problem with being “decisively indecisive” as Pentall (2012)  points out is that “we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for”. If this is the case, then boredom and confusion are the most likely result rather than interest.

Ghazzal (2004) argues that ” … there are less and less decisive moments, and more repetitive urban landscape[s] …”, but I simply don’t agree. Have human interactions stopped? Have people stopped making the bodily gestures that Ghazzal talks so much about? Of course not. Carter-Bresson said that what matters is to look.  He didn’t say it was easy.

Wells (2015) paints a picture of the master’s method:

Henri Cartier-Bresson lay in wait for all the messy contingency of the world to compose itself into an image that he judged to be both productive of visual information and aesthetically pleasing. This he called ‘the decisive moment’, a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder.

I think this very well describes both the intuition and patience that Cartier-Bresson had. My own experience of looking for and capturing these moments has given me a whole new respect for those people who can do it on a consistent basis.

So, where do I stand regarding the decisive moment debate? I think there’s life in the old idea yet. I can’t do it myself, but that doesn’t prevent me from admiring people who can.


Ghazzal, Z. (2004). The Indecisiveness of the Decisive Moment. At: [Accessed 02 April 2016]

Pantall, C. (2012). The Present. At: [Accessed 02 April 2016]

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23.09.15)


Part 1 – research point – surface & depth


Read the reviews by Campany and Colberg and, if you haven’t already done so, use them to begin the contextual section of your learning log. Try to pick out the key points made by each writer. Write about 300 words.

If you wish, you could add a screengrab of an image from Ruff’s jpeg series, and one or two of your own compressed jpegs (taken on auto mode of course!). You can achieve the effect quite easily by re-sizing a photograph to say, 180 x 270 pixels, and saving at ‘zero quality’ compression. If you use Photoshop’s ‘save for web’ you can see the effect immediately without having to save, close and reopen the file.

jpeg ny02, 2004 - Thomas Ruff

jpeg ny02, 2004 – Thomas Ruff


David Campany: Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel

Campany points out the fact that all images available online are electronic even if the original was on film. He points out that “Ruff has done a great deal to introduce into photographic art what we might call an ‘art of the pixel’, allowing us to contemplate at an aesthetic and philosophical level the basic condition of the electronic image.” According to Campany, this kind of recognition of the fundamental nature of these images isn’t common.

Technically speaking, the blocks in Ruff’s images aren’t pixels at all but blocks of multiple pixels that are a side-effect of the JPEG compression algorithm.

Campany notes the historical recognition of film gain as somehow “a sign of the virtuous materiality of the image and of the virtuous, embodied photographer”. The presence of grain in photos has often been noted as a sign of authenticity – possibly with an image of a harassed newspaper photographer in mind. Pixels don’t have quite the same meaning, although Campany states that there are signs that this might be changing.

In the final part of the article, the author observes that  “we switch from looking at figuration to abstraction and back again”.  Thomas Ruff (2010) himself points out in a video that from a distance, the (large) photos appear to contain considerable detail (i.e. figuration), but as the viewer gets closer the JPEG blocks become more visible and give a “painterly” effect (i.e. abstraction) (from 6:43 in the video).

Joerg Colberg: Review: jpegs by Thomas Ruff

Colberg is far more critical in his review expressing his “unease” with the images pointing out that “the tremendous beauty of some of the images notwithstanding, the concept itself seems to rely a bit too much on the technique itself.

He makes the interesting point that “now’s the time to move beyond form” which I interpret as a plea to move beyond formalism (i.e. “prioritisation of concern with form rather than content. Focus on composition and the material nature of any specific medium.”  (Wells, 2015)). In this sense, Colberg sees Ruff’s form as a focus on form rather than content and this explains his (seemingly exasperated) statement that “the medium is the message”.

Colbert makes similar statements in his blog entry (Colberg, 2009) where he suggests that Ruff’s work is a “shtick” (or gimmick). In this article he makes the point that there is nowhere for Ruff to go and that impression was reinforced by a second exhibition that Colberg saw of Ruff’s work. He sums up his impressions as follows:

I’m probably overly critical of Ruff’s jpegs, but when his second series looked just like the first one, I thought that the whole idea had turned into some sort of shtick (or gimmick if you prefer that word), where the medium – or the shtick – really is the message.  

My own images

Cudrefin, Lac Neuchatel, Switzerland 2011 Abondoned Car, Tel Aviv

Learning Points

Campany chooses to focus on the aesthetic of the photos while Colberg focuses on the form. I find it interesting that actually the photos contain both views at the same time. You could think of the distant view where the blocks are not visible as the aesthetic view – what is obvious is that they are dramatic and often beautiful images. The closer view could be thought of as the “form” view where the patterns of the building blocks become obvious. In effect, we have “aestheticsism” (that’s now officially a word!) and formalism in the one photo.

The “battle” between Colberg and Campany serves to highlight the important point: make up your own mind and try to look beyond the obvious. But sometimes there is no “beyond”. What sticks in my mind is the drama of many of Ruff’s images and it occurs to me that they work anyway, with or without the JPEG trick.

A point which does come to mind relates to some of the images: some are dramatic, even frightening. The huge forces in these images are usually man-made, but some of are of nature. They could be said to invoke the sublime (Alexander 2014) due to their overwhelming effect.

The images which contain these huge forces have an air of unreality about them – we are not familiar with such forces and events in everyday life (happily). Perhaps the unrealistic JPEG effect reinforces this sense of unreality i.e. the forces are so immense that we as small humans simply can’t imagine them in their detail – the best we can do is some sort of rough approximation.


Alexander, Jesse (2014) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 29.09.15)

Ruff, Thomas (2010) Thomas Ruff on JPEGS and Previous Key Series. At: (Accessed 12.10.15)

Colberg, Joerg (2009) When does a shtick become a shtick?. At: (Accessed 12.10.15)

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23.09.15)

Part 1 – exercise 1.4 – frame


The final exercise of this project makes use of the viewfinder grid display of a digital camera. 

Take a good number of shots, composing each shot within a single section of the viewfinder grid. Don’t bother about the rest of the frame! Use any combination of grid section, subject and viewpoint you choose.

When you review the shots, evaluate the whole frame, not just the part you’ve composed. Take the same approach you used to evaluate the point and line exercises: examine the relationship of elements to the frame. Composition is part of form and formal analysis will be a useful skill for your exercises and assignments as you progress through the course.


Set 1

Ex 1.4 - Set 1

Set 2

Ex 1.4 - Set 2


I found this exercise a little awkward as I’m not used to just looking at a small part of the frame and ignoring the rest.

Set 1 has as its subject the no-parking sign. The top row works the best for me because there is some sense of a leading line – either the top of the hedge or the road. The middle row works less well because there is less of the leading line to assist the composition. Finally, the bottom row looks just plain strange. Therefore I should enter this row into a competition immediately 🙂

The 2nd set focuses on the bronze sculpture. The top row again works the best for me with a preference for positioning the sculpture top-left as this makes the stone plinth much more visible and I think the contrasting textures and colours also work. The middle row looks “cropped” – that is, like we’re missing something useful from a larger frame. The bottom row doesn’t work at all and just looks poorly framed.

The top-left image of the 2nd set nicely shows the effect of balance as described in Poore (1977) where a relatively small object near the edge can balance a relatively large object which is positioned more centrally. This effect becomes much weaker as the bronze is positioned in different places in the frame.

Individual Images / Set Exercise

The final part of Ex 1.4 asks the following:

Select six or eight images that you feel work individually as compositions and also together as a set. If you have software for making contact sheets you might like to present them as a single composite image. Add the images to your learning log together with technical information such as camera settings, and one or two lines containing your thoughts and observations.


Ex 1.4 - Set 3

In this case, I did a tour of a local apple orchard. As in the earlier part of this exercise, I composed around just a small part of the grid and ignored the rest. It was quite a surprise that they actually work as a set (in my opinion). There are common elements such as colour, textures and subject matter which are enough to bring the individual images together, while I think they will work as individual photos.


Poore, Henry Rankin (1977) Pictorial Composition – An Introduction. Dover Publications Inc.

Part 1 – exercise 1.3 – line


  1. Take a number of shots using lines to create a sense of depth. Shooting with a wide- angle lens (zooming out) strengthens a diagonal line by giving it more length within the frame. The effect is dramatically accentuated if you choose a viewpoint close to the line.
  2. Take a number of shots using lines to flatten the pictorial space. To avoid the effects of perspective, the sensor/film plane should be parallel to the subject and you may like to try a high viewpoint (i.e. looking down). Modern architecture offers strong lines and dynamic diagonals, and zooming in can help to create simpler, more abstract compositions.
  3. Review your shots from both parts of Exercise 1.3. How do the different lines relate to the frame? There’s an important difference from the point exercises: a line can leave the frame. For perpendicular lines this doesn’t seem to disrupt the composition too much, but for perspective lines the eye travels quickly along the diagonal and straight out of the picture. It feels uncomfortable because the eye seems to have no way back into the picture except the point that it started from. So for photographs containing strong perspective lines or ‘leading lines’, it’s important that they lead somewhere within the frame.

Images (1)

Ex 1.3 (1) Ex 1.3 (1) Ex 1.3 (1) Ex 1.3 (1)

Images (2)

Ex 1.3 (2)


Lines, lines, lines! Once I started seeing them, I couldn’t stop!

The first set of four images were shot to create a sense of depth. This is enhanced by getting closer to whatever it is that forms a line. The 2nd image (the wooden bench) gets a little soft in the distance due to the medium aperture (f/5.6) selected in auto mode – normally I would have selected a much smaller aperture to increase depth of field. The last image (the reflection in a safety mirror) is a bit tongue-in-cheek but still shows the effect of depth. In all cases, the eye is led along a line and ends up not so much as a destination, but a border – typically a dark bit of foliage. In this way, the eye isn’t drawn out of the frame.

The second set of images have a much more abstract feel, depending on how identifiable the subject is. Horizontal lines seem stable (photo 030). Pure verticals (e.g. photos 036 and 041) seem dynamic, but perhaps also a little unstable. A mixture of lines (photos 031 and 046) gives, as you’d expect, a mixed result and both may be as much about texture as they are about lines.  Freeman (2007:74) has this to say about such mixed images:


Together, horizontal and vertical lines are complementary. They create an equilibrium in the sense that their energies are perpendicular to each other; each acts as the stop to the other.

The jumble of lines given by the rooftops in photo 048 were interesting while I was taking the photo, but the end result is actually confusing because the lines don’t go anywhere, so it’s easy for the eye to be led out of the photo, especially by the left to right rising line of the rooftop which intersects with the chimney.

Diagonal lines (e.g. 042 & 050) have a sense of energy and movement. Freeman (2007:76) states that “of all lines, diagonals introduce the most dynamism into a picture.” It is quite obvious that there’s a vast difference between the shots with a diagonal element and those which consist of only horizontal lines or verticals or even a mixture of the two.

Learning Points

Lines are powerful dynamic drivers in a frame. The eye naturally picks up “leading lines” and follows them. They can be used to direct interest in a frame and to encourage the viewer not just to look, but to explore. Care must be taken, though. If a line just leaves the frame, so does the eye and somehow something seems to be unresolved.

Framing vs. Cropping

My Definitions

Framing = the choice of what to include in the photo. Governed by lens choice and camera position in relation to the subject. Chosen by the photographer when making the photo.

Cropping = selection of part of the (framed) photo perhaps to exclude something or to focus attention in a certain way.

If/when I come across a copy of American Photographs, I will be sure to check the preface to see what Leonard Kirstein wrote.


Freeman, Michael (2007) The Photographer’s Eye Lewes: ILEX

Part 1 – exercise 1.2 – point


  1. Take two or three photographs in which a single point is placed in different parts of the frame.
  2. Take a number of images in which a point is placed in relationship to the frame.


Set 1

Set 1

The first set of images are kind of trivial, but show a point-like object (a handy ball from my neighbour’s kids) in different parts of the frame. Dear centre is predictable and boring, as expected. Freeman (2007:66) suggests that ” … placing a point right in the middle of the frame may be logical, but it is also status and uninteresting, and is rarely satisfactory”. Slightly off centre somehow has a dynamic to it which makes it more interesting (but only relatively!). Placing the object right at the border looks unbalanced and unstable and I can’t help but see the connection more with the frame.

Set 2

Set 2

These photos shows what happens when another point is added. In the first case, the 2nd object is placed on the intersection of thirds in the square frame (see also my Golden Ratio posting). In the 2nd case, I wanted a more extreme view. In both cases, there is an implied connection between the two – your eye just wants to draw a virtual line between then. Präkel (2006:41) points out how ” … we create shapes from simple group of objects and that this is described by psychologists as ‘closure'”. The 2nd photo seems more unbalanced and less harmonious to my eye than the 1st, however the connection between the two is still there.

Set 3Set 3

This set shows the effect of leading lines – straight ahead in the first and obliquely in the second. In these cases, the point takes in a much bigger role in the photo than if it was isolated as in Set 1. The overlaid arrows trace the route that I believe that my eyes follow in scanning the image. The 1st image is quite obvious. The 2nd image has an element of following the diagonal on the left extreme of the paving, but there’s also a very prominent diagonal which starts in the lower middle of the frame which, if followed, means my eye then heads left at some point to meet the ball. Interestingly, when my eye reaches the ball, it stops as if the ball is itself a barrier. The somewhat dark hedge behind also helps to stop the eye, in my opinion.

Other Traced Photos

Tracing Example 1

Photo by Darryl Godfrey

Tracing Example 2

Photo by Michal Iwanowski – Rioviniu Gatve, Vilnius, Lithuania, 2013 from Clear of People (referenced in Jesse Alexander’s book Perspectives on Place).

The first photo is a series of points connected by a line. My eye traces right to left rather than the more conventional left to right. This may be because the twig intersects with the frame. The darker area top-left holds my eye within the frame. The 2nd photo has a clear, large “point” (the house) in the extreme right, but my eye starts at the lower left and proceeds along the path to the intermediate point, the person walking, before continuing. In this way, it seems that it’s possible to take the eye on a journey between points along a path.


  1. Freeman, Michael (2007) The Photographer’s Eye Lewes: ILEX
  2. Präkel, David (2006) Composition Lausanne: AVA

Part 1 – exercise 1.1: exposures of the same scene


Take three or four exposures of the same scene. Don’t change anything on the camera and keep the framing the same.

Preview the shots on the LCD screen. At first glance they look the same, but are they? Perhaps a leaf moved with the wind, the light changed subtly, or the framing changed almost imperceptibly to include one seemingly insignificant object and exclude another. Time flows, the moment of each frame is different, and, as the saying has it, ‘you can’t step into the same river twice’.


Set 1 – indoors

Set 1 - image 1 Set 1 - image 2 Set 1 - image 3
Set 1 - hist 1 Set 1 - hist 2 Set 1 - hist 3

For the first set, I set the camera up on a tripod, in full auto mode and used a cable release. I took the sequence of three just a couple of seconds apart. The differences in the histograms are very minor, which I put down to noise – certainly nothing is different visually, so only the camera can tell!

Set 2 – outdoors

Set 2 - image 1 Set 2 - image 2 Set 2 - image 3
Set 2 - hist 1 Set 2 - hist 2 Set 2 - hist 3

The second set was setup much like the first, but this time an outdoor scene. This time, there are actually some differences in the histograms – small, but they are there. There was a very small amount of wind movement and some cars in the distant background – not much, but obviously enough so that the histogram shows the differences.

Learning Point

My learning point from this short exercise is that even under quite controlled conditions, the world insists on changing! The differences may be subtle, but they are there.

Golden Ratio

In my research for the exercises in part 1, I came across the idea of the Golden Ratio. It’s one of those things that I’d seen in books before, but never paid a great deal of attention to.

The Wikipedia article explains the concept nicely in terms of the division of a line into two sections. For our purposes, perhaps the division of the frame is more useful. The following diagram shows the division of a rectangular frame (read the excellent article for the details).

"SimilarGoldenRectangles" by Ahecht (Original); Pbroks13 (Derivative work); Joo. (Editing) - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons -

“SimilarGoldenRectangles” by Ahecht

The idea of the golden ration comes from both mathematics and art. For us, the application often shows up in the so-called “rule of thirds” since the proportions of the golden ratio are close to 2/3:1/3.

I’ve been using this approach for years because I often find that a photo is more “balanced” that way. The “point” exercise suggests that the “right place” in the frame should be “not too obvious” and “clear and easy to see”. For my taste, applying this golden ratio idea is an excellent way to put things in the “right place” – certainly as a starting point. Beyond that, of course, we have to accept that there are no rules.