David Brommer on Composition
David Brommer, manager of the B&H Event Space, has contributed to a recently published book entitled, "Composition: From Snapshots to Great Shots." I recently had the opportunity to talk with David about the chapter he wrote, and he provided me with some interesting and thought-provoking insights.
Chris: Tell us what your chapter in this book brings to the table.
David: My chapter brings topics that aren’t frequently discussed in the dialog of composition. A big one is history. I’ve found that many photographers lack a good background on art history, not to mention photography history. How this will actually help you make better photographs is questionable, but as a reference point, being fluent in art history can help you find inspiration for better image making. I also feel strongly that to move forward, you have know where you have been, and what better way to start than by looking at compositions by Giotto or Botticelli.
Chris: In the chapter, you talk a bit about Studium and Punctum. What’s that all about?
David: I am a fan of Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction. I feel that stripping down your image of all its trappings, all its subject matter, and delving into the essence of the image and the mechanics of how your viewers will judge or accept the image, is key to creating “better” images—images that garner more attention. This is illustrated by Roland Barthe in Camera Lucida, as he spoke about breaking down an image into two categories: Studium and Punctum. At the heart of any image, one or the other will dominate, and the more difficult to attain is Punctum. You will really have to read the chapter to understand this, but know that if you have deconstructed your image beyond subject, beyond technique, beyond intention or story, the image will hopefully contain a good measure of either Studium or Punctum.
Chris: In your chapter you also write about balancing negative and positive space. There are lots of people that may just be getting into photography (like students) who will have no idea what this means. Can you explain it in plain English?
David: Good design embraces balance of positive and negative space. Positive space is comprised of the subject and its supporting elements, while negative space surrounds the positive, almost like a frame. They are yin and yang—both working in harmony to make the composition more visually pleasing. When I make images, I seek a good balance of the two, and being cognizant of positive and negative space while integrating them is key to great compositions.
Chris: You’ve got some wonderful images in this book. Who, do you feel, were the main influences in your photography?
David: In the early part of my career I would get to my assignments early and pore over American Photographer Magazine while waiting in my trusty Dodge for the shoot start-time. An assortment of famous photographers of the 70’s and 80’s were my early inspiration, from Chip Simmons to Jerry Uelsmann to Dianne Arbus and Helmut Newton, and others. Richard Avedon was so influential on me that in Seattle, during the Suspect Photography years, I got a nickname, “Daviddon”. Funny you ask about influences. They can be risky, because they can absolutely influence your image making in such deep ways. For instance, I was obsessed with my subjects having an unfettered voice. I found the Hi-Key white background perfect to this end, a technique that Avedon was known for. A great photographer, and one who’s subject matter was very enticing to me, is Joel Peter-Witkin. His imagery is so complex and visually busy, it could be called an antithesis of Avedon’s style. My style was heading in the clean-and-uncluttered mode. Witkin would derail this and cause me “visual confusion,” so I avoided exposure to Witkin for years. I’m happy to report that now I have several Witkin monographs in my library and I enjoy him, because I got to where I wanted to go, photographically style-wise at the time. The lesson here is being careful of those influences—they can take you on roads that you may not want to travel, or they can be distractions. Heroes are good; just study the ones on your side of the fence until you feel your voice is being clearly spoken visually.