Tuesday, February 20, 2007

John Rosenthal and Composition

In one of those weird tumbling chains of ideas, my mind was led this evening from a pre-mythic community of the ancient world to the modern community of New York City. I read the latest on-line posted chapter of Healing Knowledge and from there went to the author's blog. There he had a post about Sean Overbeeke and a link to a "mockumentary" called "Skip Rogerson Extreme Walker" which was great fun. But while watching I was distracted by the narrator's voice, because I've met him and heard him on NPR. It was John Rosenthal. My eldest and I spent an important and deeply satisfying half hour in his Chapel Hill home on the latest Orange County Artist Guild Studio Tour, looking at many of his terrific black and white photos and talking with him about the situations, his work, and (most satisfying) about the compositions.

I often feel, when I am painting, like I am speaking this bizarre foreign language that most people don't hear. Even artists don't always speak it - their work might not be about composition; there are many other preoccupations in art that are just as absorbing.
Sometimes I see a painting and I'm caught up breathless because it's like finding a message scrawled on a wall. They have said something clear and wonderfully personal in that language I love. I sometimes look around at others near me, wondering if they are reading it or not. Do they see the language there?

I've learned to speak about composition in English, but it's odd to translate. Composition scratches some very deep itch inside me, pushes buttons as deep and primeval as hunger, fear, sex. But to give you maybe a glimpse of the start of this fascination and obsession, this way of seeing EVERYTHING, this constant play and editing of reality, rearranging every scene two dimensionally in my mind's eye, looking for the next visual epiphany... I'm going to talk about some of the beautiful rightness of Mr. Rosenthal's photos. I hope he won't mind.

Most of reality is arranged randomly or by laws of nature or physics. There is a rightness to that, too, but it's different than the deliberate arrangement that says, "A mind came this way." Just as you can learn to tell writing in the sand from any other kind of random markings (like seagull footprints), even if the characters are unfamiliar, and just as you can learn to tell arabic script from Cyrillic, you can learn to see composition and recognize individual artists' styles.

So let's start with one of the first photos that caused me to open the conversation with my son and then with Mr. Rosenthal. After reading this post, he suggested I copy the photos here, which I appreciate. The links or the photos will open larger images if you need them.

This first photo is called Tomkins Square 1976. Let's start nice and easy. The rightness in this photo is made of many complex things, but you can put your finger on just about all of it by asking yourself just one question. Look at the photo for a while - explore it with your eyes - and then ask yourself, "Would it be as wonderful if I moved the dog's form ANYWHERE else in the photo?" I stood very still that afternoon and looked for several timeless seconds asking myself that question. It was deeply satisfying to ask because I knew at first glance that the answer would be, "No!" I played the game and moved it all over. The most fun was moving it just a tiny bit to one side, or up or down just a little bit. You might get away with that, but you can't really improve this photo that way. I smiled from ear to ear and sighed. And the miracle here is that this isn't a manufactured piece - the dog was serendipitously in that spot at that moment, the camera was ready, and the artist understood the moment and caught it. No editing or arranging were done. I asked Mr. Rosenthal about this photo and the perfect placement of the dog, and he smiled and said he actually had several shots as the dog ran along that path. This was the best one. Oh yes.

Then look at Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005. Here there are layers and layers of intentional artistic arrangement. First there is the beauty and composition of the sculpture. Then there is the deliberate placement of the statue in the architectural world around it. The white of the statue contrasting with the darker forms of EVERYTHING else. Look at all the squares and circles repeated in playful and regimented ways, from the squares in the pedestal to the square tiles of the floor. Next we have the placement of the chairs, perfectly aligned with the square floor tiles, and not just for neatness - another human message without words, waiting for us to notice. Then serendipity and the photographer add the next layer of intentional human meaning. The elderly man ignoring the youthful and bashful pose of the nude marble and the photographer capturing it. Finally there is the editing of the photo, either in the photographer's position in the room, in the view finder, in the darkroom, or likely all three, to arrive at this final image, where, again, you can't move things aroung because they are already all in the best spots. All of this unravels and tells it's separate layered tales to me when I see this photo. It's triggered by the composition, a hint that there is MEANING here.

Please check out more of Mr. Rosenthal's wonderful photos and perspective on his website.

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