Even in moments of quiet reading I am still haunted by the square.
I thought, and Michael Johnston thought, that I'd written a pretty clear and straightforward article for his "The Online Photographer" web magazine, yesterday. If you haven't read it, here's a synopsis:
In the film days photographers had many different aspect ratios to choose from. When digital destroyed film camera making we had most of our choices removed. We were mostly relegated to shooting with a 3:2 ratio in professional, 35mm style cameras, and a 4:3 ratio in "amateur" or "point and shoot" cameras. I made the argument that it's hard for some people to compose in formats they don't enjoy and, I expressed happiness and relief that electronic viewfinders have allowed camera makers to bring back the choice of seeing, framing and shooting in multiple image ratios. I also professed my personal attraction to the square, or 1:1 ratio while calling on people to experiment and find the ratio that was right for them.
Most people got the basic ideas just fine and either agreed or disagreed. But there were two camps that mystified me. And one of the camps highlighted to me how differently people's brains are wired from mine.
One group must have read too quickly or, perhaps had been multi-tasking at the time, but they came away with the idea that the whole of the article was a fierce defense of the square and a damnation of every other combination of geometric borders. Even though calm and patient editor, Mr. Johnston, posted several comments reminding them that the whole point of the article was, "Freedom of Aspect Ratio Choice."
But the group that disturbed me, and perhaps only because their thoughts seemed industrial, analytic, mathematical and process oriented while mine are not, was the camp that insisted that the whole idea that a camera need have a set aspect ratio was "absurd". I, we, everyone, should be able to look at a scene, figure out exactly what the future use of the image will be, capture it with sufficient space around it and then unerringly crop it just so in post production. Done, neat, finished. No muss, no fuss.
I imagine their universe is one of tight order and high cleanliness. Every decision perfunctory and binary.
I can't imagine that people don't understand the friction and momentum that tools create in a creative process. No matter what format camera you select there are two forces at work. One is the way you like to compose (your inertia) and the other is the implicit idea, perhaps very sub-conscious for some but not for others, that perhaps you should take the boundaries of the supplied finder into consideration as you try to decide what to include and what to leave out. (There must be a reason they made the finder this way. Right?). Even if you are a square guy and you know you want to crop square in the end, having to include more areas than you want, wrapped in configurations you're not comfortable with, means having to constantly choose and evaluate more parameters than you need. It's all wrapped up in the tyranny of choice.
I think artists (and we'll entertain the conceit that photographers count too...) establish formalist restrictions for themselves in order to cut down on an infinite number of choices, to remove paralysis, to help them get started. An amorphous or "hostile" frame is one that pushes on a photographer an infinite number of choices by dint of having to "float" some intended, future composition, unanchored in a framework that doesn't conform to character of the artist's intention. It's a fight from the start. The choice of a camera with a friendly aspect ratio helps one concentrate on timing and what to include. The form has already been chosen. It's like making a mathematical equation less complex. Less time consuming. Removing variables helps us narrow down with greater speed and certainty. Then again, it could just be the way my brain works and everyone is wired differently.
I don't care if you like or don't like squares but I don't understand why people think their choice of tools is meaningless to the empowerment of their best vision.
I had a funny thought, just now. People talked about cropping to the subject matter. But in all the years and years that people experimented and made art with Polaroid SX-70 images I never saw examples of cropped ones. Never. Nor have I seen Holga or Diana images cropped. What to make of that?
Just a few thoughts after reading the paper and drinking coffe on a bright, Sunday morning.