Like Adding a Bucket of Water to a Flood

I’ve been reading a book by Hayao Miyazaki recently, where amidst many other things he questions the necessity for creative work in an environment flooded with it. He writes:

[…] whether it’s necessary for someone to add a bucket of water to a flood, just because it’s particularly good water.

This sentence left my mouth agape for a while because it’s something I’m feeling very heavily these last few months, and here it was, so perfectly said in a few words, just decades ago. Then fortunately Miyazaki continues:

However, I can justify doing so by saying that even in the midst of a flood we still need to drink good water once in a while.

My platform of choice is definitely Instagram, where I mainly post nature and landscape shots, with the occasional small-Italian-city stuff.

I follow dozen of accounts of very talented people, sharing many pictures and art I wish I’d produced, and in a sense this drives me forward, in a direction where I can get nearer and nearer to the work of these people, but I can’t help to ask myself what’s the point if these people… well, already exist?

I didn’t start shooting pictures or draw because I was after a grand dream of artistic pursuit, I just did because it was a way to document my life and my surroundings, and at the same time to make sense of them. But the further I ventured, the more my mind told me to dig deeper, and dug I did. Further and deeper. What makes a picture interesting? How can I use this tool, this grammar, to tell my story? An equal mix of documentation, of story and of course the inevitable style.

Some people say that landscape photography is all about lenses and filters, but few talk about a different kind of tool, a mind filter. A mind filter is something that helps narrowing your focus to a specific subject. I think getting out to shoot anything is a terrible practice, and I’m a fond believer of projects for this very motive.

I can’t recall who said this, but I remember someone pointing out a very simple truth, that poets use the very same words we use, and that they’re all in a big book called a dictionary, so it could be said that Poetry is all but arranging words in a precise order. Couldn’t the same be said for photographic vision? What makes a photo of landscape mine, and what make it another’s if the land I’m shooting is the same, as is the camera and lens?

I think the answer is again that mind filter. Start by asking yourself why you are doing what you’re doing in the first place, what you want to communicate, to whom and how. Your motive needn’t be a grandiose one, it could be something as simple as making a beautiful piece of work to make a loved one's day a little better.

That’s what the mind filter is about, framing your mind to see the end result in your intention. Because if you let your mind loose to capture anything, you’ll just end up with a collection of irrelevant nothings.

Do you want to make the world a happier place? Do you want to make people reflect on an issue you care deeply about? Do you want to grant a lighthearted laugh?

Now put on your mind filter, and go do your work.


rule of thirds

If you know a thing or two about photography you’ll have heard about the Rule of Thirds. If you don’t, the short story is that it’s a visual aid applied by dividing the composition in 9 equally-spaced boxes, by drawing 2 equally-spaced lines, both vertically and horizontally (as shown above). But Why should one do such a silly thing? Because this rule (as in “rule of thumb”) is supposed to make your composition look more dynamic, less flat and overall more interesting to the eye.

As I’ve been dabbling more seriously with photography these last few years I’ve come across people swearing by it, and people frowning at just hearing the word. But that’s a matter for another time, if you really want to get into the heated argument, this article by Cambridge in Colour and this one by Petapixel should give you a nice overview of the two point of views.

Back on track. A few days ago I was discussing with a friend about this, and I started thinking where this rule originated, surely artists must have used this principle as an unnamed aid for centuries. Above’s an altarpiece by Konrad Witz dated 1444. I think something like the rule of thirds must have taken place in the artist’s mind to plan the composition. Look at the clear line dividing the hills from the mountains, and the line cutting the Christ in two.

But when did this intuitive aspect of composing an image clearly became a “rule”? According to Wikipedia:

The rule of thirds was first written down by John Thomas Smith in 1797. In his book Remarks on Rural Scenery, Smith quotes a 1783 work by Sir Joshua Reynolds, in which Reynolds discusses, in unquantified terms, the balance of dark and light in a painting.

The so-called rule doesn’t look at all like a rule in Smith’s book:

I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two-thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives.

Which led me to a question: how often do we try to distill an artist’s soul into rigidly boxed rules? And how often following them makes our lives easier, by adhering to a standard rather than thinking, really thinking, about the problem at hand?

As we go about learning a craft, the first level is improvising with little knowledge, usually getting pretty bad results and some unexpectedly decent works here and there. The second step is learning all about the rules, then starting to apply them. Lastly, we are left free of exploring our or reasoning, free to apply rules that are so much ingrained in our mind we don’t even regard them as solid things anymore.

This line of reasoning made me ask myself the utility of learning from others in a non-practical way. There’s a clever "little" piece of writing in the fan-fiction book Harry Potter and the Method of Rationality (which is a great read at 2000+ pages) called The Interdict of Merlin, this caveat warns magical users that a spell can only be taught from living mind to living mind, it cannot be learned by reading it up on a book.

In real life there’s nothing preventing us from learning these rules from books, but when I do I always get the feeling that something gets lots in translation, and as an avid doodler I’ve got multiple a-ha moments about principles I’ve read about dozens of times, but that never oiled my brain gears very well, until stumbling and stumbling again, I decided to try these on my own, until they finally made intuitive sense.