Rules should be thought of as speed limits signs in Montana, a suggestion.

All the so-called rules—the rule of thirds, color, composition, line, perspective, and even processing rules—are nothing more than a convention of accepted ways to assemble an image or form. These rules are based in craft and the kind that apply to commercial work for advertising or decoration, not art. They became ingrained because they provide a visual experience that is comfortable and accepted by most people in order to sell something or create an environment that isn’t disturbing or food for thought.

We have been trained from an early age to see in certain ways but these rules haven’t always applied to how we process the information in images. They were developed over time by people who didn’t follow the existing rules and they changed as society and our understanding of it have changed. Neither Robert Frank nor Fred Herzog, both of whom died last week, followed the conventions of proper images when they made their most influential work. They followed their own voice and vision and created a new way of seeing. While technology and society advance the notion of good craft along, the history of art is made by those who break with tradition and create new rules for what is next.  The conversation then moves forward and that is how a new perspective on old ideas or new ways of seeing emerges.

Rules need to be, if not ignored, then bent to fit the purpose of the work. They do have a place in making art but they must be there to serve the purpose of the artist, not to provide a recipe for making something. So learn the rules of your craft, what they are for, and then question them constantly.

Experiment and fail but never expect to do innovative work following a formula of what makes a good image today. A good image is one that serves your intent and message not one that fits in what is accepted as proper. If the conventions fit or work for the intent then use them but if you see an image differently and have an idea that goes against the rules, don’t even glance their way.

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