Joel Meyerowitz on framing and composition

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This topic contains 11 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Ian McNab 5 years, 10 months ago.

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    Ian McNab

    I just came across this 5 min clip from an interview in which Meyerowitz talks about his approach to composition…

    His idea is that the frame connects and holds together for an instant elements in the world that, seen without the frame, might not appear related. But placing them in the frame together establishes a new configuration of things that is full of creative tension and visual possibility.

    He says that the way photographers normally compose – framing a particular object or grouping of objects – makes photography a sort of collecting, and each photograph a copy of the objects that is added to the collection. In contrast, he is interested in the ephemeral relationships between unconnected things, and the visual possibilities, interactions and energy that these juxtapositions create.

    It’s a fascinating and profound analysis. I’d be very interested to know what you think of it.


    Pete Robinson

    I’ve just seen the video and this is getting a bit heavy for a simple soul like me! I don’t know if I dare to disagree with him when he says the rangefinder camera enables you to view the full scene with your ‘spare’ eye compared with a SLR which blocks your spare eye. Most of us usually view the panorama before deciding on where to put our frame so we can place the elements as we choose. I think he’s saying when we photograph a scene we can only include part of it so we have to choose the elements carefully and show a relationship between them. Is that right?



    Fear not! He is only describing his style. Martin Parr worked like this too, capturing unconscious relationships between people in a street (or beach!).

    The Leica rangefinder has always been cited as enabling better contact with your subject too (should you be taking such pictures) because he/she can still “see” you.




    WHAT DO I THINK–  UTTER   THEORETICAL  RUBBISH. Dear Lord   ask the pro”s what they think stood in the pouring freezing rain while waiting for some celeb. to snap!!!


    Ian McNab

    Pete >>> He’s drawing attention to two things:

    1) The frame is not a real boundary – all the stuff going on outside the frame has a bearing on what’s happening in the frame. You can use that to dramatic effect.  (And a rangefinder camera, such as a Leica, lets you keep seeing all that stuff while you’re framing, which makes it much easier to take account of and use.)

    2) The frame places disparate, unrelated things together. It creates relationships, captured in the moment of the shutter release.

    He then goes on to say that making photographs of these fleeting, ever-changing relationships is quite different from photographing ‘things’ (a person, a group, a mountain scene, a bird, etc.) He describes photographing ‘things’  as ‘making copies of  objects in space’; he says that there are many great photographers who do this brilliantly, but he wants to do something different: to make images that suggest fleeting tenuous relationships, moments of possibility that arise and disappear.

    I think what he’s describing are two quite different approaches to making photographs that produce very different kinds of images. The two sorts of images have to be looked at in quite different ways. And this difference underlies why people who like street photographs and people who prefer landscape, nature, portraiture, etc often can’t see the point of each other’s preferred images.

    For the first type of photography, the frame doesn’t really matter – the world extends outside it, and we have to remain aware of that as viewers, not bothering that people and objects get cut off at the edge of the photograph, nor where in the space of the photograph the action is taking place. For the other type of photography, the frame is all important – it’s the basis of the whole composition: you can only have ‘Thirds’ in relation to a fixed rectangular frame of particular size; diagonals have to run between the corners of a frame that has sides in a specific aspect ratio, and using the diagonals places the picture elements in relation to the sides of the frame.


    Examples of the first sort of photography:

    Winogrand - At the Texas State Fair, 1964

    by Garry Winogrand


    Meyerowitz - New York

    by Joel Meyerowitz


    Examples of the second sort:


    Lanting - Desert Shadows

    by Frans Lanting


    Steve McCurry - Duststorm

    by Steve McCurry



    Ian McNab

    Ken >>> I’m not sure exactly what it is in Meyerowitz’s discussion that you think is ‘utter theoretical rubbish’. I’ll take a guess – is it the idea that what’s going on outside the frame affects what’s happening in the frame in important ways?

    A good example of this is the following famous photograph taken by Cartier-Bresson in the early, ‘surrealist’ phase of his career:

    HCB Valencia, Spain 1933

    Henri Cartier-Bresson: Valencia, Spain 1933

    What we see is a photograph of a little boy, beautifully separated by figure-ground contrast from the dark band of paint on the wall, gazing heaven-wards, apparently in a paroxysm of ecstasy. A strange, surreal image.

    What we don’t see is what was actually happening: that the boy has been playing at throwing and catching a ball, and that Cartier-Bresson has just seen him throw the ball in the air, and is watching with his left eye outside the viewfinder to see that the ball has started to descend, while framing, in the viewfinder, the boy’s anticipation of catching the ball, which has not yet entered the frame. What’s outside the frame is having a critical effect on the events in the frame, and is determining the final picture.

    I think that’s what Meyerowitz is getting at.


    Pete Robinson

    I think I’m starting to get the idea now. It’s a different way of thinking an seeing. Different from what we’ve been taught for many years on how to frame a photo.

    I have an example that I didn’t even realise! The little girl was playing with her mates who are outside of the frame and I caught her in isolation.


    Ian McNab

    Pete >>> Brilliant!!! (And just look at the energy, which wouldn’t have been there if not for what’s outside the frame! Great example.)

    You’re absolutely right that it’s a different way of thinking and seeing.



    Whats more important Peter  -(and who am I to  comment on a masters photo) have you thought about bringing those trees and bushes down to conceal the fencing??????????


    Ian McNab

    Ken >>> Forgive me, but I honestly can’t tell whether you’re teasing. (I can’t see how the fence is detracting from what this image is about.)


    Pete Robinson

    Thanks for your comments guys. I hadn’t thought of that Ken. I’ll have to take my chain saw with me next time!

    It would be interesting to see if other members have some photos one this theme that illustrate the concept.


    Ian McNab

    Pete >>> Mmm… why don’t you add this as a suggestion for a ‘Monthly Theme’ Topic – something along the lines of ‘The pull of what’s outside the frame’?

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