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Focus on a Photograph: Andre Kertesz’s Fork

La Fourchette (1928)

La Fourchette (1928)

This is a great photograph.

Yes, the fork on the table is one of photography’s first masterworks in great composition.

La Fourchette, photographed by Hungarian artist Andre Kertesz, is a perfect opportunity to meditate on strong composition and what makes it so.

What is “good” composition? Many books and beginner’s art classes will give you metrics and tests that turn analyzing composition a checklist. Rule of thirds? Leading lines? Golden ratio? All extremely useful for throwing out jargon terms to show you’ve been paying attention (or for showing off).

But art isn’t a standardized test. There is no rubric.

100 MFA candidates will give you 102 different definitions for the purpose of art, so I’m going to stray into the personal rather than the absolute here. I especially appreciate art that elicits strong feeling. Does this?

 

It does for me, and now I’m going to try to put into words why, but the piece is successful because it managed to create that feeling, not because it checked enough boxes on someone’s composition rubric.

“Good” Composition

One of the most misleading concepts in photography is the premise of “good” composition. It implies that there’s one good, right, correct way to compose an image and everything else is broken. Not only is there very little evidence that there are hard rules about what make images good or bad, but visual artists have been using “bad” composition techniques deliberately for hundreds of years to create different emotional responses — like unease and confusion.

So I call La Fourchette a great example of strong composition . It’s secure, stable, solid. As unshakable as granite slab. Staring at it feels like giving my eyes a break from the disorder and chaos of daily life, and I can look at it every day (as I have been for the past two weeks) without ever feeling weariness or discomfort. There’s three reasons for this.

Banal Subject Matter

Yup, it’s a fork on a plate. It’s an intentionally boring subject in a setting that you’d expect to see it in. Unlike most works in photojournalism, then, I know that this photograph isn’t calling my attention to the subject. There’s no extra baggage, nothing being said about forks and their relation to plates. There is only…

Lights and Darks

Check out the histogram for La Fourchette:

 

Big spikes at the two ends, almost no mid tones. It is light and dark. Take another look at the photograph and notice how the whole thing can be split into something near white and something near black.

 

So, unlike many photographs, even those in black in white, there’s very little in the way of gradient. The forms are stark and easy to spot. That makes it easy for me to sense that they’re…

Balanced

Thanks to the stark lighting in the photograph, the subject matter is split into four components that are split right down the horizontal line of the image — a fork, a fork shadow, a bowl, and a bowl shadow. But neither is the symmetry so absolutely perfect that it looks unnatural.

One of the components that really fascinates me about this image is the thin black line at the top of the image. It’s a tiny detail, but it’s one that stands out to me because it seems like it’d be so easy to remove. I’d be tempted to crop it out if I had taken this shot myself (“It’s distracting,” I’d tell myself).

But then I look at the result of such a crop:

 

And I feel anxious. Especially because of the shallow focus plane, the background at the top of the frame seems to float away, taking away perspective and understanding of the environment. The light overwhelms the dark and, suddenly, the stability and balance disappear.

Why it Matters

We are living through the great age of banal photographs. Banal doesn’t necessarily mean boring in this case, but mild subject matter doesn’t help an image that’s missing special composition, color, or context. In this age of selfies, food pics, and backyard photographers, it’s easy to forget that a photo of something commonplace can be great, and what makes it so. When you find an image that meets that lofty standard, it’s worth sitting for a moment to dig deep and ask yourself why you like it, without relying on the cliches of art critique 101.

Then, the real test: can you do it yourself?

Adam GriffithComment