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Painted lodges - Piegan. Edward S. Curtis

[Detail] Painted lodges - Piegan. Edward S. Curtis

Photographic Composition

In his essay "Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) and The North American Indian," Professor Mick Gidley says that Edward Curtis "kept abreast of national, even international, trends in photography — and in the visual arts more generally." In the second half of the 19th century, many photographers were concerned that photography be considered an art form. Taking what has often been called a "painterly" approach, they were at times more concerned about the visual effect of the finished photograph than about the subject matter.

Curtis was obviously interested in the subject of his work, as he devoted decades to photographing Native Americans. However, he also sought to make his work aesthetically pleasing. One way he did that was to stage the photographs (a strategy that also allowed him to manipulate the content or message of his photographs). Staging the photographs allowed him to control their composition, the way in which the elements of the picture are arranged to create a visually appealing image.

Examine the picture to the right as you consider these elements of composition:

  • Balance. Formal balance involves showing objects of equal size in a picture. Formal balance can create a boring or uninteresting image. Informal balance involves using small objects to balance a larger object.
  • The Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds has to do with where the main object of interest is placed in a photograph. Using the Rule of Thirds, an image is divided into thirds vertically and horizontally, creating a tic-tac-toe grid on the image. According to the Rule of Thirds, important objects should be placed at the intersections of the grid; also according to this rule, the horizon should be either at either the one-third or two-thirds line on the grid (rather than in the center).
  • Line. Lines created by objects help to hold a picture together and imply certain meanings. Trees, mountains, or other vertical objects can provide a sense of strength or dignity. A flat expanse of land, a lake, or other horizontal objects can convey calm or peacefulness. The slope of a mountain, a person on horseback who is leaning into the wind, or other diagonal objects imply force or motion.

Locate ten photographs from the Curtis collection that you find visually appealing. Closely study the photographs you have selected, answering the questions below in your analysis.

  • What type of balance does Curtis use in these photographs? Do you prefer formal or informal balance? Why?
  • Does Curtis apply the Rule of Thirds in composing the photographs? Try cropping one or two photographs by placing a white piece of paper over the top, bottom, or sides of the photographs. Does cropping change the attractiveness of the photographs? The content or meaning of the photographs?
  • What types of lines are depicted in the photographs? Do the lines convey the meaning described above? How does combining two or three types of lines in one photograph influence the viewer of the photograph?
  • Do you think Edward Curtis was more concerned about the artistic quality of his photographs or the information they conveyed? Explain your answer.