Everybody and their cousin has ideas about the “rules of composition.” Even me. But only one man—William Mortensen— created a system that starts with what looks like three simple rules and then expands each of them into many corollaries and sub-rules and concepts that was explained in his 1937 book “The Command to Look.” Long out-of-print with ratty copies selling for $200 or more, Feral House has published a new edition with a different cover but close in size (small) to the original. It has an introduction and afterward written by scholars and I’ll get to them at the end.
If you’re curious about the three rules, here they are (and this is not a spoiler.)
- The picture must, by it’s mere arrangement, make you look at it
- Having looked—see!
- Having seen—enjoy!
I know you’re probably saying “huh?” And keep in mind that Mortensen differentiates between photographs and “pictures” which is something that has been thought about from concept to execution. This concepts is not far off from Ansel Adams’, who called Mortensen the “anti-Christ,” “previsualization.”
The bulk of practical information is found in subsequent chapters where he delves into each rule, sometimes writing a second chapter based on corollaries to this rule. Thankfully and while you may get tired of this after a while, Mortensen begins each chapter by summarizing all the rules to this point. And it bothered me until I realized that if it weren’t for this repetition I wouldn’t remember all that had gone before. Keeping in mind that while this is a small book, it’s a slow read but take your time and read it slowly and watch (almost) everything you ever though about photographic composition go up in smoke.
The first half The Command to Look is technical with some illustrations but very few photographs. The second half Mortensen uses lots of his photographs to explain exactly how all of these rules, concepts and ideas apply to his images, or pictures as he would have preferred me call them. These images range from the naive, to charming, to grotesque, to mind expanding. You will either love or hate (as Adams did) these photographs but even if you don’t like them there is much to be said for, at least, exposing yourself to a genuinely unique American visionary.
About the forward and afterward: The forward by Larry Lytle explains the evolution of The Command to Look and how Mortensen came to write it. It places the text in wonderful context. The afterward by Michael Moynihan is about how some people adopted the book for occult purposes. Interesting from a historical perspective but adds nothing to the enjoyment of the book.
I’ve always considered Ralph Hattersley’s book Discover Yourself Through Photography to be important reading for photographers. I now include The Command to Look in that short list of indispensable reading about the art and craft of photography.