Musings on compostion in early photography

A comment on my last post, Divine Proportions, reflected on whether “big name photographers have followed this system (geometric composition) and whether it was a conscious decision or just a feel for composition. Maybe it depends on if they went to art school or were self taught.”

I answered the comment in some measure which I won’t repeat here – you can find my reflections on that in the comments for that post. However, it got me to thinking about some of the early photographers and whether or not they had had art school training.

I found these things in Wikipedia or other locations on the Internet:

Nadar was the pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (April 6, 1820March 21, 1910), a French photographer, caricaturist, journalist, novelist and balloonist.

There is nothing in the article that suggests he went to art school, yet look at these two images and you will see that they generally conform to a geometric balance of composition that was prevalent to the arts of the time.

Nadar\'s photo of Sarah BernhardtNadar\'s portrait of the artist Crode\'s familyi

Eyeballing these two photos (I haven’t measured to prove my point) they look like they conform. They also look like standard formats for portraiture painting of the period. So for this photographer, the jury is out. There’s no proof that he went to art school or had formal art training, but when I looked at the available photos on Wikipedia, the compositions all seem to conform to geometric compositional norms. Daumier’s drawing about Nadar which is available on the same post is very obviously using the Golden Mean compositional device.

Daumier\'s cartoon about Nadari

Nadar had his finger in many artistic endeavours. Reading his short history had peaked my interest to know more.

Next on my list to explore was Louis Daguerre, and here’s the link:

Daguerre was born in Cormeilles-en-Parisis, Val-d’Oise, France. He apprenticed in architecture, theater design, and panoramic painting. Exceedingly adept at his skill for theatrical illusion, he became a celebrated designer for the theater and later came to invent the Diorama, which opened in Paris in July 1822.

So this one is a died-in- the- wool user of the geometric theory of composition.

Here’s one of his first photos, the Boulevard du Temple:


William Henry Fox Talbot studied the classics and mathematics at Cambridge, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1822, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1832. He was also an MP, Biblical scholar, a Botanist and Assyriologist, making a contribution to the deciphering of cuneiform inscriptions brought to England from Nineveh. There’s more history on Talbot on the following link:

While he was quite inventive in the processes of photography, he was more interested in recording things than making pictorial compositions. Only his architectural work seems to compositional and it doesn’t exhibit much conformation to the Golden Ratio.

Here are some photos of his:


The first of these is just flowers and leaves. It’s an informational photo, not one where the composition has been particularly considered and thought about. The next two may be, but there’s nothing consistent in his photographs to show that he was much concerned about composition per se.

Though I’ve looked at some History of Photography sites as I was writing this, I don’t know which specific names to look up to see if they are using the classic proportions that I’ve been talking about, or not. If my readers can suggest some other early photographers for me to continue researching, I’d be happy to do that.

When I reflect on the dates of these early photographers, I realize that some of the photographs I have in my collection of family portraits could be considered as early photographs. Most were taken between the 1870s and 1910. The following is one that I find just delightful, of my grandfather and my uncle in Winnipeg.


So the jury is out. I found two who seem to strongly be influenced by classical geometric composition and one who seems not to be concerned about composition as well. The first two seem to have had some formal visual training and it’s just not clear about Talbot.

And on that note, it’s late and I’m turning in.


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3 Responses to “Musings on compostion in early photography”

  1. History of Mathematics Blog » Blog Archive » Musings on compostion in early photography Says:

    […] Irving H. Anellis: […]

  2. forestrat Says:

    I just came back from a few days in the Adirondacks and found that you had put up two new posts – Yikes.

    Flipping through my “20th Century Photography” I hit upon photographers like Irving Penn, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and of course the big kahuna, Ansel Adams.

    The studio type guys that did set pieces of course were able to better control the composition of their shots. The examples shown of Adams landscape work still seem to fit the pattern – at least to my neophyte eye.


  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    I don’t really know the Adirondacks at all so I went looking on the ‘Net and found this site
    There were some stunning photographs – and tons of them, once you enter into the photo galleries. What beautiful country! I hope you had some time to get out into the parks or some wilderness.
    I’ll take a look at those names you’ve given me.
    Like you say, studio photos can be set up to work to an ideal composition.
    It’s hard to move mountains when they don’t quite fit the geometric grid system!

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