Larry Fink on Composition and Improviation is the second (I think) volume in Aperture’s Photography Workshop Series,* the second one I acquired, and didn’t initially find much it in to apply to my own practice. But after spending a few months with it, I find some of his ways of looking keep popping into my head as I shoot, and I see now that his sense of composition and timing are almost unparalleled, and if I can pick up even a tiny bit of it from him, my work will be much better for it.

Larry Fink, the photographer, not to be confused with the Blackrock executive, has been a professional fine art and editorial photographer for nearly half a century. His sense of timing and ability to see things coming and orchestrate all the elements, the detritus of the world, into a coherent composition, while simultaneously preserving the mood, the emotion of the event and inserting his own sense of narrative, adding a sense of drama or intrigue, celebrating, scandalizing his subjects, and he shares his tricks and tips with us.

… as photographers we fit the world into the box in our hands, into a box at the end of the viewfinder. We perceive poetic and practical life in a box. What do we leave in? What do we leave out? Can we make silence or sound fill the box? Can we fill it with heartbreak? If a face passes through our box, how do we capture it without smothering it? How do we live inside this box and yet live outside of it as well? (10)

This is as close as a perfect way to approach photography, to step up to the camera, as I’ve ever read, and Fink is full of excellent and emotive insights. After several trips through this book, he feels like an wise old friend.

He exhorts us to create tension within the frame, have enough whatever going on in the center to make the picture about something, while also leaving enough stuff at the edges to compete for the viewer’s attention and make it obvious that the picture came from the real world, of a real moment. Strong composition leads the eye, but it also distracts.

Nuance and movement are primary:

The difference between a good photograph and a great photograph is the difference between here and there. One inch this way or that way determines whether you’re going to put a pole through somebody’s head or whether their head is going to contribute to a circular synergy with other things in the frame. (44)

Layer your compositions. Feel the moment. Allow for chance. If you have even the remotest interest in candid photography (birthday parties, family gatherings, social events, and the like), you could hardly find a better instructor.


Overall, I give it 4.3 stars.

Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation remains available direct from Aperture, and at fine used bookstores everywhere. If you pick up a copy, I hope you learn from it, and I hope I learn too. Fink’s insights are incredibly valuable, and worth fitting into my—and maybe your—photographic practice.

Oh, and by the way, thanks to @kristenwithacamera, who clued me into on Composition and Improvisation some many months ago on Twitter.

*Three of the four came out in 2014. Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Street Photography and the Poetic Image was the first (I believe). Then came this Larry Fink book and Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment appeared in 2015, and is, at time of writing, the last in the series.

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