It’s very difficult to describe the perfect composition, even for someone who has been studying photos for years. But when you something that is perfectly composed, you know. I had such a gut feeling the first time I saw Cornered by Justin Minns. The compositional beauty behind Cornered is so very simple, but so very difficult to explain. If you were just observing it for your own benefit or pleasure, it wouldn’t matter that you couldn’t describe it. But as photographers, we often struggle to understand why a composition is so powerful so that we can fully realize such wisdom in our own works.
Justin’s composition is at its roots a simple vanishing point study, except that in the place of a traditional road or railroad tracks, we have a wooden dock floating in a body of water. Another key difference is the fact that the vanishing point is pushed way to the right thanks to the angle at which Justin has chosen to frame the dock. Simpler vanishing point studies exhibit what we call a single point perspective. In other words, the vanishing point is so very close to the center of the photograph – at least laterally – that you can really only comprehend the single point at which everything seems to point. In the case of Cornered, the most obvious vanishing point is pushed so far to the right that we are clued into something much closer to the truth: There is, in reality, far more than a single vanishing point. They are any point through all 360 degrees of the horizon, and at every vertical angle as well. Only through all of this would we fully realize the third dimension. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This photograph exhibits at least two vanishing points clearly. The first, as mentioned, is the one close to the right. The other is an imaginary point well outside of the frame to the left, which is demonstrated through the angles formed by the edges of the planks. There are several more, but not all are as plainly visible. So what does the vanishing point have to do with a composition? Well, we owe it all to one of our favorite building blocks: Line. Line ultimately clues us in to the vanishing points. Furthermore, the lines cause the movement of your eyes within the frame.
Back to the overall composition. We’ve already determined that line is an important aspect of this composition. Weight is another factor we often consider with respect to a composition. The nearest portion of the dock is compositionally heavy. It can be balanced with something equally heavy, but that would be boring. Justin has instead chosen to balance with the very long and slender form of the other branch of the dock. The length and the slender form serves to balance the view. Note that I’m speaking in terms of size within the 2D photo itself, not in reality. Of course the two branches of the dock – the heavy side and the slender side – create a partial frame within a frame. Granted, there’s nothing within that frame…or is there? That, perhaps, is the most compelling aspect of Justin’s photo: The water.
Water, as we know it, is rarely smooth, especially out in the environment. And even when it is very still, it’s mirror-like finish is painfully obvious. So when the water looks smooth and cloudy like it is here, we know that the element of time has been introduced into the shot. The use of a long exposure is always a curious choice for something like a stationary object. I suspect Justin chose the long exposure to smooth out choppy water or to get the wispy look of the clouds in the sky. In doing so, he has also simplified the composition, eliminating drastic textures so that the primary subject – the dock – is the center of attention. So as you can see, such a simple composition requires a lot of thought and work. Cornered is not to be taken lightly, for it requires every bit of planning on the part of Justin.
Justin Minns and his work can be found on Flickr, of course. Additionally, you can also find his works on his personal website. However you find his work, you would benefit from spending some time looking through his vast portfolio. His work in the world of landscape photography is mesmerizing and inspirational.