“Picture This: How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang

Very few art and photography books have had a profound effect on my photography education.  Some titles that immediately come to mind include Galen Rowell’s “Mountain Light,” Brenda Tharp’s “Creative Nature and Outdoor Photography,” David duChemin’s “Within the Frame,” and an understated art instruction book called, “The Simple Secret to Better Painting” written by Greg Albert.    Now, I can proudly add Molly Bang’s “Picture This: How Pictures Work” to my list of game-changing books.

Weighing in at a mere 96 pages and looking like something you’d pull from your child’s bookcase, “Picture This” is deceivingly simple, yet absolutely brilliant.   I first became aware of this title after reading about it on Thom Hogan’s website.  Now I can clearly see why he strongly recommended it.  Dare I say that this book should be required reading in any formalized photography curriculum.  The ironic thing, is that it really isn’t even specifically about photography—although the concepts and ideas are extremely relevant.

Written by Caldecott Honor Award-Winning illustrator and author Molly Bang, “Picture This: How Pictures Work” uses the popular children’s fairy tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” as the visual backdrop and illustrative premise behind this ingenious book.  While this book may not give you the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,” it does intelligently answer some pressing questions about how we emotionally perceive shapes, colors and other compositional elements within a scene.  But more importantly, how we perceive them within the context of our own experience.  In many ways, this book helps provide clarity to the often polarizing question of “what is art,” because it speaks directly to how people will emotionally perceive and react to our photographs at the most basic instinctual (and universal) level.

Using a few easy-to-follow principles demonstrated through the story of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Molly Bang shows us how different arrangements of shapes and colors on a page can be used to help build powerful, emotionally charged visual statements.  In the process, she helps answer questions like, “Why does a triangle make us feel stable, while diagonal lines make us tense?”; “How can the arrangement and size of shapes be used to create a sense of depth?”; “How do certain colors or color combinations change the way we react to an image?”; and ultimately, “How do the compositional choices we make affect how we feel about an image?”

Molly Bang takes this analysis one step further by delving into the psychological implications and impact of these compositional choices, even going so far as to include the insights of renowned art psychologists.  In one such passage, art psychologist Rudolf Arnheim writes:

“What is…so special and striking about the style of your book is that it uses the geometrical shapes not as geometry, which would not be all that new, not as pure percepts in the sense of psychology textbooks, but entirely as dynamic expressions.   You are talking about a play of dramatic visual forces, presenting such features as size or direction or contrast as the actions of which natural and human behavior is constituted.  This makes your story so alive on each page.  It gives to all its shapes the strength of puppets or primitive wood carvings, not giving up abstractness but on the contrary exploiting its elementary powers…You are (also) taking the prettiness of the nursery out of the fairy tale story and reducing it to basic sensations, taking the childlike-ness out of it but leaving and even enforcing the basic human action that derives from the direct visual sensation.  It is what remains of “Red Riding Hood” if you take the prettiness out of it and leave the stark sensations we experience when we rely on direct and pure looking.”

After reading “Picture This,” the only question that remains is, “How do the concepts illustrated in this book apply to my photography and composition?”  I suppose to some degree, this depends on where you are in your photographic evolution.  Undoubtedly, those with some foundational background in art design will find many of the concepts familiar, yet will appreciate how Molly Bang cohesively ties them all together in a way that is both illuminating and thought provoking.  Those who are new to photography will probably glean some nuggets from this book, although they probably haven’t had enough field experience to truly apply these concepts to their own compositions.  I think the sweet spot target audience for this book are those photographers who already understand how to use design constructs like lines, shapes, forms, textures, colors, tones and perspective to enhance their compositions.  They already know the “how.”  Now they just need to understand the “why.”

At the end of the day, one of the biggest challenges of photography is to translate the three dimensional world using an inherently two dimensional medium.  Through a better understanding and mastery of the emotional impact of shapes, colors and all the other compositional choices we can potentially make, we increase the likelihood that we’ll be able to compose with more intent, and do it in a way that not only makes for a more compelling photograph that directly speaks to our vision—but one that strikes a universal emotional chord among our viewers.

I have always said that photography is a somewhat different beast than painting, in that painters have the luxury of rearranging any given scene on a blank canvas to better suit their artistic vision.  Photographers are often forced to work within the confines of the scene as presented.  We may not be able to directly change a shape or color to elicit a different emotional response, but we can certainly utilize a variety of methods in order to present the strongest way of seeing—whether through lens selection, vantage point, scene extraction, subject prominence, depth of field, or even the time of the day we shoot (and the color/direction/intensity of the prevailing light).  Understanding the core emotional psychology that drives these compositional choices can only make us more effective photographers.

“Highly Recommended”

ps. This book is currently very hard to find and is on backorder in many places, although new paperbook inventory is expected from the publisher in 2-3 months time.  If you visit Molly Bang’s website, she still has a few hard copies for sale–although her quantities are extremely limited.