Something fascinating has invaded the frame. In an era saturated by more sophisticated visual expressions than ever before, a long established standard has begun to cede territory to a bold interloper. In myriad photographs, cinematic frames, advertisements, and more, the Rule of Thirds ain’t what it used ta be.
To be clear, nothing has changed. The schematic layout that defines the Rule of Thirds is imperturbable, like the speed of light. Styles may come and go, but the mathematics of the so-called “golden rectangle” cannot change. (Yes, the golden rectangle is not exactly the same thing as the RoT, but it’s close enough to make my point.) What can change, however, is the application of the rule to define what’s important in an image, and for centuries, the Rule of Thirds has been a reliable rudder for uncountable compositions.
Certainly there have been countless successful visual expressions that have employed different layout schemes, deriving their communicative mojo from other mechanisms. In fact, anyone who regards the Rule of Thirds—or any other foundational aesthetic guideline—as inviolable will inevitably succumb to derivative mediocrity. But bold experiments that tweak long-held compositional rules are not precisely what’s interesting here. What’s interesting is how the latest mode du jour has seized on a visual scheme that intentionally minimizes human subjects, adding an aesthetically brutalist quality to the physical world. That this trend runs counter to the Rule of Thirds as well as subtler strictures simply amplifies the point.
Breaking visual rules is only the beginning. Readily available tools have enabled so many to experiment so easily with so many kind of visual media that all sorts of long accepted tropes are getting tossed, sometimes with surprisingly effective results. A million monkeys actually have figured out Hamlet. With every modern cell phone sporting powerful photographic tools, including a digital darkroom and a means for global publication, an inherent Darwinian force has accelerated certain aspects of aesthetic evolution.
Here’s another one. Consider the idea of headroom. That’s the space that typically separates the top of a subject’s head from the top of a frame. To be clear, there is no hard and fast rule that headroom should be tight to the subject, that there should be limited space around a person’s face, but there is a long visual tradition that pushes artists to compose images without too much headroom in a shot, whether on film, video, or in paint or pastel. An excess of headroom traditionally—and, some would say, objectively— implies a lack of artistic clarity. That’s why a tightly framed image helps keep our attention where the artist wants it to be. This extends beyond people’s faces, too, with the same philosophy affecting how we depict inanimate objects in various contexts.
But lately? Surprise! Headroom is everywhere!
Years from now history will tell us if these new aesthetic schemes made sense, but already there’s evidence from compelling experiments suggesting that something interesting is starting to take root in the culture, and more experiments appear every day. It’s one thing if these new compositional style turns into short lived fads, like 70’s glitter or 20’s deco, but what’s particularly interesting is to consider why these experiments are happening at all. Artistic sensibility always reflects the times in which we live. These days we wonder if we can ever compete with the crush of stimuli and obligations surrounding us. Access to tools may be the enabler, but the reason, I believe, has to do more about a subtle, growing existential dread underlying modern cultures. Try as we all might to broadcast ourselves loud and large on social media, we’re also all trying to make sense of how to place ourselves in context to the unattainable ubiquity of celebrity presence, corporate hegemony, and relentless competition in all ordinary aspects of life. What happens? Faces get pressed down in frames. Images that used to simply appear one-third off to the left or right of an image now get pressed all the way to the edge as if being squeezed by everything else in the world, throwing overall pictures into precarious positions. Principal visual schemes recede relative to the total image area where they once might have sat in prominent, central locations.
As our visual schemes have changed, so too have our narrative arcs. Once we’re comfortable with main characters and objects appearing in diminished orientations, our storytelling pursuits change commensurately. They begin to take on attributes less attuned to traditional three act structures and more towards operatic, unpredictable, unexpected tales without easy summations. Narratives tilt into territory just as off-balanced as the images that now drive them.
Communicative styles are bellwethers of cultural mores. There’s a reason rock ’n roll emerged when it did, reflecting a bright, sexier attitude for the newly empowered, increasingly prosperous middle class of the 1950s. A few decades earlier the Surrealists discovered that clocks could melt and human faces could have two eyes on one side of a person’s face. It was inevitable, with artists reacting to the seismic transformative process of early global industrialization, complete with expanding national interests wholly different from the more localized political structures that had come before. The movement articulated their interest in exploring the subconscious, but what we think about below the surface shimmers with the reflected light of our waking days.
Here in the mid first quarter of the 21st century we’re fighting to understand how any of us fit in to a world that's increasingly unpredictable. Political certainties continue to evaporate. Financial uncertainties blow through hometowns from Detroit to Dusseldorf, Nairobi to New Orleans. There’s always something squeezing us for time, for space, for getting one more thing done in the already crowded day. Then, in fleeting moments, we snap a photo or two with our ubiquitous smart phone. We fiddle with our apps, tweaking pictures of our friends, our children, or our prized potted plant and share it with the world. What happens next presents a reflection of what we feel when we press the shutter.