The Photograph: Composition & Color Design by Harald Mante

Publisher: Rocky Nook

Review by Conrad J. Obregon

Rocky Nook is a relatively new entrant into the field of photography publications. One of the niches that it has taken aim on is the translation of books into English that appear in European languages. One might think that in a global culture, where a digital camera is the same in Germany as in the United States, and Lightroom has the same interface in both countries, there would be little room for variation in theory, but this book seems to prove that thesis incorrect.

While I have not read every book on photographic composition in the English language, the theories of composition presented by Mante differ from most that I’ve encountered. When discussing composition, most authors speak about the rule of thirds, or where to put the horizon in a picture, or simplification. Mante on the other hand, discusses the importance of the point, or multiple points, or lines or shapes, or ground and field, or contrast. (At least one other author, Richard Zakia, has tried to deal with these same concepts, but his book is too idiosyncratic to recommend.)
The chapters of the book are organized to present a single concept, like a line of points, with text, several illustrative photographs, and diagrams. Frequently one is required to flip back and forth between text, photograph and diagram. The photographs by Mante are quite beautiful, although they bear a close resemblance to the self-referential. By that I mean that the content explicated by the form is the form itself. For example, those familiar with Albers color squares recognize that the content is the perception created by placing certain colors in proximity to each other. Mante’s photograph of a purple wall with a green beam in it is not about the wall, but rather about the relation of purple and green. Most current photography seems to be far more about the content, with technique explicating the content, then Mante’s pictures and instruction. Mante doesn’t disdain content. In fact he recognizes its primacy. But this is a book about form, and that’s what the photographs emphasize.

The text is quite difficult reading being quite dry and technical, and I suspect that many photographers will not be interested in following this theoretical line of the development of composition. Yet for those photographers who are given to a more technical, cerebral approach to the creation of images, this material, because of its different approach, may provide new insights into composition. It will also appeal to photographers who are searching for an approach to design different from the common wisdom.

Even though I was willing to consider a new way of looking at composition, I found that Mante stopped just short of where I wanted him to go. His final thesis seems to be that the photographer should direct the viewer to content through contrast in design. But I would have liked for him to explain how particular forms of contrast can direct the viewer’s inner eye to the photographer’s vision, or how “technique is discovery”. Still, the approach to design holds so much promise for a new way to compose photographs that I will try to apply Mante’s teachings to my own work.

In summery, if you are a photographer who is willing to consider broad theory in an effort to enhance the composition of your photographs and are willing to risk an investment of your time that may or may not be productive, this is a book for you.

This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Excellent. Very impressed by the balance, depth you brought to this piece. Despite the shortcomings that you mention, your review actually wants me to have a look at this book!

  2. While not directly related to this book, another author that does an excellent job describing composition and visual design is Freeman Patterson. See, for example, Photographing the World Around You.

  3. I purchased this book and The Photographers Eye by Michael Freeman. I immediately had vast improvements in my images and am slowly developing an eye for good composition and design elements photographically. The whole contrast point presented by Mante is presented in Freeman’s book as the basic elements of design that came from the Bauhaus school of design. There are some 20 or 30 contrasting elements. There are some fundamental reasons why some photos stick and others do not. Yes, there is Art, but there is also a basis that it rests upon. I found both of these books very useful.

    Great review on the Mante book.


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