Thinking about closed and open form pictures; or how old art history terms can still be useful

Sep 10, 2016

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

Thinking about closed and open form pictures; or how old art history terms can still be useful

Sep 10, 2016

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

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School of Athens, Raphael
Raphael’s School of Athens uses strong horizontal and vertical lines. It feels very contained. (Image courtesy of HarshLight on Flickr and used under Creative Commons terms.)

If you were to mention the term ‘formal analysis’ to an art historian today, you’d probably be told it’s passé. No one really tries to objectively compare one painting against another using formal concepts anymore. However, formal analysis—or the concepts that it identified—does still present some interesting ideas, especially for photographers.

Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin was a key figure in formal methodology. He devised a system that compared opposing artistic concepts so that they could be applied to paintings and used to analyse them. In particular, Wölfflin was interested in trying to characterise Renaissance and Baroque art.

One pair of comparators used by Wölflinn was closed form against open form. While I’m doubtful you’re set on recreating Renaissance or Baroque pictures, knowing what the terms mean, and how they can be applied to your photos and make your audience feel about them, is useful.

Closed compositions

If you’re looking for examples of closed compositions, Renaissance art works will provide you with an abundance. They have a sense of self-containment and are typified by a strong feeling of balance. Consequently, closed form images frequently feel calm and somehow complete.

The sense of solidity at the top of the post is usually delivered by the structure of the picture, which can rely on a prevalence of strong vertical and horizontal lines. As Susan Woodford says in her book Looking at Pictures: ‘The closed form conveys an impression of stability and balance and there is a tendency towards a symmetrical arrangement…’

Reading this, I’ve probably give you the impression that these are boring, dull, staid pictures, and sure enough, they can be. But if done right, their innate stability is a valuable thing.

And of course the closed form isn’t restricted to Renaissance paintings. All the talk of horizontal and vertical lines will likely make you think of architectural photos as being obvious examples of closed form images. And they are often great examples. But closed form images are more than just pictures of buildings. They can make your audience think about your subject in a specific way.

The strong verticals together with the inward leaning stances of the young monks makes this a self-contained, closed image.
The strong verticals together with the inward leaning stances of the young monks makes this a self-contained, closed image.

Closed compositions make you think ‘stable’, ‘reliable’, ‘dependable’. If you’re looking to convey a sense of stability, reliability, and dependability, then compose your frame accordingly.

Strong horizontal and vertical lines contribute to the feeling of confinement in this photo.
Strong horizontal and vertical lines contribute to the feeling of confinement in this photo.

Try shooting a portrait against a building, and bounding your subject accordingly. Look for any environment with strong horizontal and vertical lines, think about their placement and you’ll be away. Or in.

Open compositions

The opposite of closed composition is, naturally enough, open composition. Where open form is about stability and balance, and relies on the horizontal and the vertical, open form is about movement, energy, and dynamism and makes use of diagonal lines.

There’s no sense of containment in an open form image. Instead, it’s unbound and unfettered by the constraints of the frame; you can feel it bursting outwards. Its movement and energy is uninhibited. You get the sense that there’s something lying beyond the frame, and that anything is possible.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard's The Swing follows a strong diagonal line from top right to bottom left. The sense of motion could leave you feeling the swing might burst through the canvas at any moment. (Image in the public domain.)
Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing follows a strong diagonal line from top right to bottom left. The sense of motion could leave you feeling the swing might burst through the canvas at any moment. (Image in the public domain.)

If you’re looking for examples of open composition that Wölfflin would have described as typical of the form, take a look at the Baroque period.

For action shots, the diagonal line is a valuable tool in the photographer’s arsenal. They bring a sense of urgency to the scene. If you ever feel that strong horizontal and vertical lines might be holding you back, try to introduce a diagonal. They have the power to negate the sense of static and stability and instead create something altogether more freeing and dynamic.

It's relaxed, but the diagonals create a feeling of movement.
It’s relaxed, but the diagonals create a feeling of movement.

In any shot where you want to suggest that someone is a free spirit, aim for an open composition to reflect that.

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Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

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One response to “Thinking about closed and open form pictures; or how old art history terms can still be useful”

  1. Alice Avatar
    Alice

    Wow just loved your article! Thank you Daniela.
    I’ve been studying oil painting in renaissance recently so just curious, what is your favourite painting from that era?