Thursday, 19 February 2009

Square Second Chances

Look, don't tell anyone I said this, but I'm a great believer in recomposing a shot at the editing stage. I even (I know I'm going to regret saying this out loud), I even change the shape of the frame. Sometimes quite a lot. There.

For years I followed that purist "no cropping" mantra. I even felt slightly annoyed that my enlarger would shave off a tiny part of the frame edge, and gave serious consideration to filing out the film holder's window (as purists used to do) to get that "black edge" look from the unexposed clear emulsion that says: bread with nowt taken out.

But it slowly dawned on me that I was rejecting pictures that could have been saved by cropping, and that there was nothing natural or morally upright about sticking to the "native" image ratio of any given film/camera combination. I had also absorbed a belief that it was "wrong" to mix images from different cameras or film stocks in the same sequence, because they were in differently shaped rectangles, or had different degrees of graininess. And as for mixing colour and black and white ...

It's a peculiar hangup, really, perhaps dating from those macho days when reportage and "street" photography were the benchmarks of photographic rectitude. Wildlife and sports photographers would laugh at the idea ("Oh no, I got that crucial shot of Maradona handling the ball, but most of the frame is useless out-of-focus crowd detail, so no-one will use it"). Photojournalists rightly get into trouble for faking photographs, but it's rare for any news photograph to make it into any publication uncropped. I suppose the fetish of "uncropping" in art photography may be in part a reaction to this indignity experienced at the hands of picture editors.

My downfall from the True Path, ironically, was after I had developed a taste for the uncropped square medium-format frame. Oddly, most people have always happily cropped their squares into rectangles, but I liked them just as they were. I enjoyed the challenge of composing in that difficult space. But when I moved to digital, I still wanted to use square frames, and thought, "Why not?"

I even started adding square-cropped digital images to sequences originated on film, most notably the set I have built over a number of years on the River Test at Mottisfont Abbey (variously called The Colour of the Water and Downward Skies). Not to have done so would, I concluded, simply have been evidence of neurotic tendencies, and not of "artistic integrity" (actually quite a hard distinction to make -- I have discussed to the way the "project" can shade into "obsessive compulsive disorder" in the post Pentagonal Pool).

The River Test at Mottisfont
Image scanned from square 120 film negative, Agfa Isolette II

The River Test at Mottisfont
Digital image cropped square, from Olympus C5050

This led to the obvious discovery that cropping gave you a second chance at a really tight composition (a "Duuh... Moment", perhaps, as opposed to an "Aha! Moment"). At your leisure, moving a cropping marquee over an image in an editing program, there's no excuse for not getting it right this time, or finding something interesting in an otherwise dull frame. And, after all, as someone once said, the real "decisive moment" was when Cartier Bresson looked at his contact sheets and decided which frames to print.

With scanned medium format negatives you have lots of scope for interesting crops, because you have a lot of real estate to start with. For a while, I liked to make "panoramic" shots this way.

Approaching snow storm, Llandrindod Wells
Image scanned from "6x4.5" 120 film, Fuji GS645

To illustrate my point, here is a new version of an image from a recent post (Dominus Illuminatio Mea) recomposed into a square. I think it's more economical and I prefer its balance this way. For whatever reasons, I'm in love with this image at the moment. It's something to do with the dark chair, and also the way it reminds me of the community hall where I used to do judo -- the illuminated shapes on the floor conjure tatami mats. As usual, it's a "conservative" crop, as I still prefer to preserve the full height of the shortest dimension (a) to give the biggest possible square print (a practical judgement), and (b) because I don't like to put pictures together which are visibly at radically different resolutions (an aesthetic judgement).

Dominus Illuminatio Mea
Digital image cropped square, Panasonic LX3

For an example of someone else who likes to crop digital images square, it's worth taking a look at Mark Hobson's blog The Landscapist. He puts up a series of what he refers to as Ku images, which at first sight look like they've come from a 120 camera, but are in fact digital. Mark writes:
"I crop to square from digital files - almost always from dead-center on the frame. The frame being primarily the 4/3rds format (Olympus E-3) although I also use an APS-C format camera (Pentax K-20D). I crop to square for basically the same reasons you do - I have always liked the square/medium film format because I just like the shape - it "fits" my way of seeing."
He goes one step further than I would choose to, and also routinely burns in the corners to give that vignetted look that comes with the fall off in light intensity you get with older / cheaper square format film camera lenses. Interestingly, "burning in the corners" was a routine procedure in the black & white darkroom, as it was thought to concentrate both the image and the viewer's attention, but you see little evidence of it in most contemporary digital images, perhaps because the effect is rather more noticeable in colour.

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