Accidental Renaissance – Chris Schultz

Hi Chris,

have you come across the concept of accidental renaissance?

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See this article for examples: https://www.buzzfeed.com/lynzybilling/19-photos-that-accidentally-look-like-renaissance-art

I don’t think the golden ratio or the spiral is essential to the concept, it’s more a style, or a look.

I think  that the lighting is important, often dramatic with highlights and dark areas.

I suspect gesture and pose are also important.  The interplay of subjects is enhanced with compositional elements like the direction of gaze, or outstretched limbs.

Sometimes the subject appears to float effortlessly.

A lot of the images will align the heads of key character over circular background features, imitating halos.

You’ve taken a heap of street photography.  Have you got anything that fits this category?

What do you think? Do you like it as a style? Is it worth the effort? Is it just a flash in the pan?  Do you think that it happens accidentally, or are these images all concocted?

I’m interested in your opinion.

James

James asked me if I had come across the concept of Accidental Renaissance (https://www.buzzfeed.com/lynzybilling/19-photos-that-accidentally-look-like-renaissance-art)

I’ve come across the idea before – just not with that terminology.

It’s an interesting idea – but is it a function of our brain fitting the image to the shape?

As some of you may know I work in medical imaging, and in that speciality we utilise pattern recognition for our diagnosis of various morbidities. It’s a process that our brain is very good at due to characteristic appearance. The medical specialist performing the diagnosis will use their knowledge of disease and the way it appears to report the image. That is partly based on how the image appears in the disease that they have previously seen. There are now computer aided artificial intelligence diagnostic methods that are challenging imaging physicians at identifying abnormalities (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer-aided_diagnosis, https://www.aimspress.com/article/10.3934/mbe.2019326/fulltext.html, ) – but it is still fitting a shape to a library of known features.

But back to photography and James’s question. The Golden Ratio, Rule of Thirds and a few other ideas like it were observations that have been largely debunked (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio#Art and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_thirds) – and many seem to be based on the idea of Vitruvius and his ideal proportions (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvius).

Some of you may recall at the club that we once had a long discussion about breaking the compositional rules as the judges were following rules that seemed inappropriate and dated. That ultimately led to some changes in judge training at SAPF level and hopefully my fellow judges are less constrained by rules and more concerned with the image and its story.

However, like every rule (like they said in Pirates of the Caribbean “They are more guidelines than rules” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GMkuPiIZ2k) they should be understood and broken where appropriate. That is where the photographic judges demonstrated an inability to reward creativity.

We can fit spirals and dividing lines to any image like the Golden Spiral or Fibonacci Spiral or the Golden Mean. These are mathematical constructs, but are rarely an exact fit (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_spiral#Spirals_in_nature). The problem with the Golden Spiral is that you can change the centre of the spiral and make it fit almost any image! Have a look at one of my street images below with 8 different Golden spiral overlays ie from different corners and clockwise/counter clockwise (click on the image to view full size):

Which one fits best? To be honest they all fit in some way.

The Golden Spiral on a 16:9 image may be harder – that is the ratio used in movies – but it is still possible.

Other spirals occur in nature – like logarithmic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logarithmic_spiral) or Fermat’s spiral (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermat%27s_spiral) – once again not exact but you can apply it to any image.

Applying Golden Means or other rules to the same image is again subjective – the same image with each of the standard ratios is reproduced below:

Patterns

I didn’t set out to use any of those lines, but the image fits them all in some way. It was certainly not by design, and the crop of the original image was minimal – I just straightened the image and used a 16:10 ratio.

So the issue is that many patterns in nature occur and we recognised them (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patterns_in_nature). But the pattern we see is often a function of chemistry and physics and the efficient use of energy and resources.

Consider for example why the honeycomb in bee hives works so well (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honeycomb) – it’s the most efficient use of energy and the materials the bee has to build the hive. Therefore apportioning some special meaning in artistic interpretation or execution is rather presumptuous if the rules of thermodynamics are applied.

More importantly we need to look at the style of the image – many of the images in the article demonstrate the lighting characteristics of the Renaissance artists. That is where the Renaissance is of value in our photographic pursuits. The images in the article emulate the light and form of those paintings. That is a completely different discussion and I think we can learn a lot from how those artists used light and form and contrast.

As photographers we play with light to create an emotion or effect. We use form to draw our viewer into our image and share our emotion. Contrast allows our images to emphasise an aspect we consider important or to remove distraction. It’s our way of communicating a specific message.

In street photography many aim to generate emotion in similar ways – use the light, the arrangement of people, the contrast of the subjects and objects to evoke the feelings we perceive.

Many of my images are observational and therefore unplanned. As a street photographer I react to a scene and capture it. Subconsciously I’m probably seeing a composition that works based on the images I have taken or seen such as all those camera club comps I witnessed or judged, the Renaissance or Impressionist paintings I have enjoyed, and the countless other images from old (and new) movies, art and photography books etc. It’s recognising that pattern or lighting feature and exploiting it. I personally like to use contrast and texture in monochrome, and have probably got to the point where I see it as I capture the image, then enhance it when processing.

I certainly think that street photography seeks compositions that please the eye and tell a story. But what pleases my eye may not please yours – hence all of the robust discussions we had about judges whilst I was at the club.

Ultimately original images, like original literature, music and any other creative pursuits are building on the shoulders of giants. That is the history of our world and how we have progressed. The secret is to keep moving on, experimenting and trying to develop as well as encourage new ideas. Don’t be constrained by a rule.

So in answer to James’s question – I don’t believe we are concocting the Accidental Renaissance – but we are doing what the human mind does so well – seeing patterns and lighting and communicating with our audience. We are probably echoing those images that have influenced us as it is a common language – most people have seen those images and understand them. Therefore similar images will generate similar emotions.

As for my own images that might fit within the Accidental Renaissance, have a look at the images in my Flickr stream (https://www.flickr.com/photos/chris_schultz/) and some of those James has included below.

How many fit the Accidental Renaissance? How many don’t? Some fit the criterion be it Golden ratio or Golden spiral and others do not. You can make anything fit any rule if you bend the rules. More importantly do the images generate an emotion or a reaction (good or bad)? Many of the people I follow and the best street photographers have a similar sensibility.

The key to good photographs is to find the most effective composition to tell your story. Don’t get hung up on rules and fitting your images to them.

Chris Schultz

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