Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Vanishing Vertical?

All sizes of negatives and printing papers are arbitrary, and determined by the manufacturer. The real shape is the circular image by the lens. I have to compose within that circle. It is easy to compose a horizontal or vertical image within a circle. I do not allow the proportions of the paper to dictate my composition. I change the proportions if they do not fit my idea of what the picture should be. - Philippe Halsman

Back in college I realized an experimental film making course quickly sealed my career path. You see, during a class editing session when it became painfully clear that my accidental vertically shot footage didn't qualify as art, all the professor could mutter was "still photographer". Since then I've never made another movie but I still continue to enjoy, and almost prefer, using my camera with a vertical orientation.

Now let's flash forward a couple of decades to the electronic age and a disturbing trend I've been noticing more of lately -- the proliferation of the horizontal image. Perhaps it's an adjustment forced by the computer monitor's landscape proportions where all digital photos are edited and viewed and verticals can't be seen full-screen without scrolling up and down. Maybe it's a sign of the times, reflecting the shift from printed newspapers to on-line versions where space is a premium. Maybe it's just compositional apathy or laziness. But whatever the reason, the days of big, deep vertical photographs seem to be disappearing.

Even I've fallen into this trap. After a recent flight to cover winter flooding in Portland, Oregon, I discovered the majority of my shots were horizontal. But I also determined that the verticals, though fewer, were much more dramatic. Looking back this makes perfect sense, considering horizontal lines are synonymous with tranquility while vertical lines exude strength.

The lesson learned here is simple: make the effort to turn your camera and look beyond the obvious -- the newspaper may be slowly vanishing but that doesn't mean the vertical photo has to fade away too!