Interview with Bruce Percy

I recently had a very enjoyable, extended photographic conversation with Bruce Percy. http://www.brucepercy.co.uk/

It was interesting to hear about Bruce’s methods, thinking processes and to contrast them with my own, so, I thought I would share some of the topics that came up.

Spatial Cognition and Intuitive Composition

We have both noticed (and been told by our photo-holiday customers) that we seem able to identify good starting compositions, almost instantly, upon arrival at a new location. Up to now I have been calling this “intuitive composition”. However, following our conversation, I wonder if a large part of this “intuition” is actually an ability to use our spatial cognition, even as we approach the location. By spatial cognition I mean an ability, to easily picture the viewpoint, arrangement of elements, parallax, etc., from another position based solely upon what we are seeing from our current location. I am not talking about small differences in position but starting to imagine the scene from several miles away (assuming an open field of view), then iterating towards a final composition as we get closer.

We are building compositions in our minds long before we have actually seen them. This will include, rejecting some locations, on the basis of what we imagine the composition will be, as well as driving us towards other potentially good locations.

In doing this, are we unusual, amongst photographers? Surely, everybody has these abilities but does everybody use them to the same degree? I can imagine that someone skilled at flying model aircraft or remotely controlling a vehicle must have similar abilities that are likely even better developed than our own.

Consequently, I now believe that Bruce and I are using our spatial cognition as we approach our location and that this accounts for our ability to go directly to a point with a potentially good composition. Perhaps, the remaining “intuitive” part is in our being able to relate our imagined composition to other locations, images, experiences, etc., that we know have worked in the past.

Emotions and Narrative

After our first meeting, I had decided that my key compositional driver was narrative, using metaphor to encourage viewers to create their own stories. However, Bruce’s key driver is emotional. He uses tones, shapes and graphical elements to create dream-like images and evoke emotional responses in the viewer. Stories versus emotions appeared to be very different motivations.

Following our discussions, I am now persuaded that narrative and emotion are not discrete characteristics. Instead they are just different points on the same continuum of “story”. An image narrative is based upon consciously creating stories, in the present, that are external to the self and based upon the knowledge of the viewer. An emotional response to an image is unconsciously created, from internal stories (memories), that result from the viewer’s personal history and experiences.

Consequently, both the narratives and the emotions created by an image are just different forms of “story”, one consciously created and the other unconsciously.

Unicorns and Space Ships

As Bruce was discussing simplifying compositions, he paraphrased one of his photo-holiday guests, by saying:

“I like dew on the grass, that river here and that cloud there. This rock is good and I must include that unicorn. And, there’s a space ship.”

I know exactly what he means. I have often seen multiple elements, all of which, I want to include in the image. Each element probably has its merits but including them all in one image is unlikely to create the best composition. Not thinking deeply enough about what to include, and why it adds to the composition is, for me, one of the most difficult things to do on location. But waiting until later is too late to achieve the best compositions.

This is why I particularly like fog, snow, overcast skies, calm days, anything that reduces the complexity of a scene for me. Photography is all about simplification. We should be eliminating everything that does not directly add to the narrative or emotional content of the scene.

Bruce Percy vs. Myself – a comparison of methods

I have just finished reading 2 of Bruce Percy’s e-books, “Simplifying Composition” and “Tonal Relationships”. I greatly admire his beautiful, apparently simple, compositions and wondered what I could learn from his techniques.

By the way, both books are excellent, well laid out and easy to understand. Their details are at the end of this article.

What I quickly realised is that, although Bruce and I have a love of the same locations (Iceland & Scotland) we have very different approaches to them and very different aims when photographing them.

I am always trying to convey a narrative in my images. A narrative that is usually concerning some human interaction with the landscape. Whereas, Bruce is primarily concerned with the artistic qualities of the scene, shapes, tones, visual flow, etc. His images do not have any narrative qualities at all. You may disagree with this statement but, from my perspective, any scene requires some element of human (or, at least, animal) construct or traces if it is to have any narrative potential.

Examples of our differences are:

Bruce’s landscape elements are almost always entirely “natural” (as opposed to human constructs) whereas I always include human constructs as the key focal point in my images.

Bruce looks for coherent arrangements of elements, where the eye is encouraged to wander around the image by the shapes, positions and tones of its various component parts. I look for quirky juxtapositions, where the human constructed element stands out from its background landscape because of its colour, shape, etc. Bruce looks for coherence. I look for incongruities.

A specific example of difference is in our uses for the sky in compositions. I use the sky as a tool of scale, often allowing it to be the largest single element. I do this to emphasise the insignificance of the human elements. I also use the sky to suggest repression. Dark, overcast skies being a favourite for implying a vulnerability and that this landscape is a hard place to survive. I am trying to convey a sense remoteness and isolation. In both cases the sky is part of the narrative but not deliberately part of the visual flow of the image.

Bruce uses the sky as yet another visual element where tones and shapes in the sky are included in the flow of the image. To quote him:

“By forgetting that one is sky and the other is ground, you force yourself up to notice relationships between them.” (Simplifying Composition, P15)

He is abstracting all reality from the various scenic elements so that they can be integrated into an artistically satisfying whole.

I can understand this but it doesn’t work for me. Even when looking around Bruce’s beautifully crafted images, trying to follow his ideas of flow, I often completely ignore the sky. It is there in my peripheral vision and I am aware of the sky’s mood or emotional context but not of its flows or shapes as they relate to the image as a whole.

Bruce actively looks for “compositional devices” in the landscape. Elements that will aid the visual flow around the image, diagonal lines, S curves, etc. I also use lines in my compositions but not to the same extent and I often use them to impede the visual flow rather than aid it. I mean that I will use lines that cross the image and form barriers between the viewer and the focal point. In this case I am using the line to separate foreground and subject to intensify the isolation of the focal point. Again, I am using the line as an element to aid the narrative rather than the visual flow.

Bruce’s compositions contain details but these are usually restricted to the focal point areas of the image whilst the rest of the composition is made up of relatively smooth, undetailed tones. His images are abstractions of the reality. Conversely, my images tend to be highly detailed throughout.

Am I missing a trick here? Do my images need to be detailed from front to back, with every blade of grass clearly visible? Would I be able to achieve Bruce’s artistry, whilst also being true to my own goal of celebrating the human habitation of remote, unforgiving environments? I need to think about this.

Looking at Bruce’s very practical, on location, tips in “Simplifying Composition”, I am pleased that most of them are second nature to me. However, it would be good if I was applying them more consciously rather than just intuitively.

With Bruce’s help, I can now articulate more photographic techniques, that are part of my intuitive processes, but of which I was unaware. They are:

  • (P36) Using the viewfinder to view the scene in 2D rather than directly viewing it in 3D. However, I think it might be better still viewing the scene, with one eye closed, and through a piece of card with an appropriate cut-out. Then I would be better able to engage with the scene, away from the distractions and constraints of the camera itself.
  • Making tripod movements of just a few inches up or down or side to side to change the scale relationships (P40) or parallax relationships (P56), respectively, of foreground and background elements. However, today, I do this intuitively and I believe I need to be more actively conscious of what I am seeing and trying to achieve in order to get better results.

Bibliography

Percy B. Simplifying Composition, E-Book published by Bruce Percy 2015

Percy B. Tonal Relationships, E-Book published by Bruce Percy 2016

Both available at: http://www.brucepercy.co.uk/books/