Composition and early photographers

In a recent post, I was looking at whether early photographers were using the Golden Section/Divine Proportions/The Golden Ration in their work and whether or not they might have been introduced to geometrically based composition through their attendance at either Architectural school or Art School.

One comment I received suggested the following photographers

Irving Penn:

Les Bouchers (The butchers)

Irving Penn was born in 1917 and studied at the Philadelphia Museum School. He had a decidedly traditional visual education. That is not to say that he stayed with it his entire career. Some of his work fits the Golden Ratio quite well, but he obviously experimented with other means of composition that are quite interesting. There’s a good biography on Wikipedia and some of the references at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry give sites to visit to see his work.

Edward Steichen

The Pond, Moonlight

Edward Steichen was born in 1879 was an American photographer, painter, and art gallery and museum curator, born in Bivange, Luxembourg – I’ve taken this info from Wikipedia also. He most certainly would have known about the Golden Ration and he uses it. Of the few pieces I was able to view on the Internet, all showed a strong use of this compositional device.

Albert Steiglitz

Alfred Stieglitz, born 1864, died 1946 was an American photographer and promoter of the arts. He had a gallery in New York City in which he showed avant garde work. He was determined to raise photography to Art status and his success in this has been a boon to all photographers ever since. Again, more information about him can be seen in Wikipedia. Nothing indicates that he went to art school, but he had studies in Mechanical Engineering and he would have been aware of the Golden Rectangle and the Golden Ratio from that training. His early pictures demonstrate a strong use of this compositional device.

Edward Weston

Edward Weston, born 1886 and died 1958, was an American Photographer from Illinois. From Wikipedia, it seems that he was truly self-taught and/or mentored. While his early photographs demonstrate affinity with the pictorialism of photography and image making in art of the time, he rejected it and opted for straight photography which emphasized realism without any manipulation of the object being photographed neither by artificially setting up composition nor by technical manipulation. His subject matter focused on images of natural forms – the human figure, seashells, plants, vegetables, and landscapes and with exception of his early work, does not try whatsoever to use the Golden Ratio as a compositional means.

On his web-site maintained by his family, at www. I found these two images that illustrate work that appear to not have used the Golden Ratio.

Ansel Easton Adams

Ansel Easton Adams was born in 1902 near San Franscisco. He died in 1984. He is best known for his nature photography in the West of the United States. He was home schooled for much of his education and originally worked towards a career in music. His abilities in photography developed through mentoring, self study of photography publications of his time and a diligent documentation of everything he was doing in the production of photographs.

I’m not including photographs of his since I couldn’t quite tell if it would be transgressing copyright to reproduce his work here. The Ansel Easton Adams web-site provides lots of images, if you are interested, at:

Despite his lack of formal education in the arts, whether consciously or not, his photographic images carry the stamp of 19th Century emphasis on Divine Proportions, the Golden Ratio and geometric composition.

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3 Responses to “Composition and early photographers”

  1. forestrat Says:

    You’ve gotten several posts ahead of me again. All good stuff.

    The flower art looks like fun. My son is a nut for flower gardening. He wasn’t content helping us around the house; he needed his own plot which is constantly expanding.

    The Edward Abbey book sounds like my kind of stuff. I’ll see if I can get my hands on a copy.

    Speaking of Ansel Adams… I was at a showing of his works at the George Eastman House last year. There were the usual Yosemite pics, but there were also many portraits that he had done – mostly of friends and other artists. It was news to me.

    Just yesterday I saw a program on TV about the lodge at Yosemite (I can’t remember the name right now). It seems that Adams was in the habit of giving evening piano concerts whenever he stayed at the lodge.


  2. fencer Says:

    I’m sure you must have seen that Pictorialist show at the Vancouver gallery…

    Quite inspiring now that we’re on the other side of Modernism from it. I really want to play with the same kind of esthetic in Photoshop… been researching a bit. Pictorialism became a dirty word because of some of the sentimental excesses, but I really like that painterly feel achieved in some of the photos.


  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    I did see the Pictorialist show at the Vancouver Gallery. I thoroughly enjoyed it and spent a lot of time reading the curator’s blurbs a the side of each picture grouping to understand what it was that I was looking at besides just good photographs.
    I’m just now rummaging through the effects of my Mother’s Estate, in particular the hundreds of photographs of family – both formal studio portraits and home made ones – from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
    I’ve never heard of photography spoken of as a revolution but it really was. Only a few have been recognized for their amazing work, it seems to me, but there were mid-size town photographers doing equally interesting work and their photographs got scattered about the world and never recognized in the same way that the giants of early photography have been.
    Thanks for stopping by.

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