Monday, 30 July 2018

Arachnophobia II: Pictorialist design breakdown






I recently re-read The Command to Look, a brilliant book on photography by William Mortensen. The book was published in 1937. It is well written, Mortensen had a wry sense of humour, he understood people much better than I ever will, and as for the photography...he was well ahead of his time. If he had written the book today, he'd still be ahead of his time.

When I read something I am really interested in, I often make a breakdown of the major points, and how they relate to each other. Sometimes I create a mindmap, at other times, I scribble notes on a large sheet of paper.

With The Command to Look, I took the scribbling-on-large-sheet-of-paper route.





Early in his career, Mortensen photographed movie stars in Hollywood. The only trouble was, he wasn't happy with his own photos.

Mortensen set out to discover how to take a really good photo. After a lot of hard work, and going down a number of blind alleys, he constructed a simple formula for how to make a memorable photo:

  1. The picture must make you look!
  2. Having looked - See!
  3. Having seen - Enjoy!

Fortunately, he elaborated quite a bit on that, and that is what The Command to Look is all about.

In Arachnophobia II, I have used several of Mortensen's ideas about how to construct a picture.

To make people look, I use a large, dominating mass. Mortensen's idea was that a large mass draws attention, because it is instinctively perceived as a threat. The large mass does not have to be threathening, it just has to trigger the instinctive response.

Getting people to look is not enough. Once people look, there has to be something there to see. Mortensen defined three broad categories of pictures that are of interest to most people:

  1. Sex
  2. Sentiment
  3. Wonder
Sex is any picture that has a sexual component. A seductive smile falls into this category. So does porn, and a lot of things in-between.

Have a look at ArtStation, and you will see a lot of contemporary art with a strong sexual component, without having actual sex in them. For a classic painting, do look at the beautiful Le Sommeil by Gustave Courbet.


Sentiment is probably the most popular category. All the cat, dog, and sunset pictures you see on Facebook have a strong sentimental component, at least in the mind of the photographer.

Personally, I do not like overly sentimental pictures. They tend to be bland and boring. The biggest problem is not with any single picture. The biggest problem is that there are so many of them, and that they are nearly all boring.

I have never understood why it is a great thing to be bored out of your skull, but apparently, I belong to a rather small minority.

Wonder is where imagination and creativity lives. Pictures that  show you things, creatures, people, and worlds that exist only in the imagination. Here you will find pictures of John Carter battling four-armed giant apes on Mars, H.R. Giger's Alien, majestic starships by Chris Foss. The limit is only the limit of imagination.

The Arachnophobia series of pictures belong squarely in the Wonder category. Unless, of course, you live in Australia. (Don't look if you really have arachnophobia.)

So, it is my hope that a picture of two medieval warriors fighting a giant spider will be strange enough to create a sense of wonder in you when you look at it.

The third part of Mortensen's recipe is enjoyment. He was rather specific about what that meant: Create a path for the eye to follow, guiding the viewer from discovery, to discovery, with the occasional obstacle to keep things interesting.

This is definitely something I need to work more on, and I will, in pictures to come.

If you haven't seen Arachnophobia I, click on the link to check it out.