harold cazneaux

I endlessly bitch about lackadaisical composition so here’s an example of a photograph with fucking impeccable composition to balance things out a bit.

A loose rule of thirds is at work here. The young woman ostensibly nude modeling for a life drawing class stands inside the central-vertical third of the frame while the central-horizontal third of the frame starts at the top of the standing man’s head in the left foreground painting and extends to somewhere between echoed elbows of the two young women—one sketching, one sitting—in the right-hand mid-ground.

To the right of the standing man in the foreground and seated young woman there is a break the guides the eye toward the center of the frame; everything in the center, however, is stationed just inside the third-lines. This has the effect of pushing the viewer’s gaze outward.

What is fascinating is how that outward tension is then countered by the fact that all the eyes in the room are on the model—which immediately draws the eye back to her. Also, Cazneaux strategically positions the pencil held by the seated sketching woman toward the model’s mons pubis.

Unlikely everyone else, whose attention is focused on her, the model seems to be aware of the camera, facing it directly with head bowed and hands raised to cover her face.

One might say something about the constant framing and reframing the eye does on the fly when confronted with this photo. More interesting, perhaps, is the way the composition both insists on itself at the same time it cancels itself out.

Truth be told, there is never an instance in everyday life where a group of people could stand so picturesquely without direction. Thus, the image is inherently stylized. But it does not appear that way—and appears instead an authentic glimpse into an art lesson.

I can’t help drawing a correlation to the Zen tradition of koans, specifically the notorious: what is the sound of one hand clapping?

Victor Hori offers one of the best commentaries on the purpose of the question:

…in the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself. In a kōan, the self sees the self not directly but under the guise of the kōan… When one realizes (“makes real”) this identity, then two hands have become one. The practitioner becomes the kōan that he or she is trying to understand. That is the sound of one hand.

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