The Rule of Thirds gets more derision than admiration–probably rightly so. With origins in landscape painting, and hackneyed application in portrait painting, its gridlines somehow wound their way onto the ground glass of focus screens, and onto digital LCD displays. The lines are a seductive framing element, and often end up dictating the composition instead of informing it. The result of misapplication is worse than none at all, with subjects often placed between lines, or at intersections, with no consideration of the other elements in the frame, much less the conditions of the moment itself.
We propose that it would likely be best to throw out at least 2/3’s of the Rule’s history, and reinterpret the remaining 1/3 from the more useful perspective of Proxemics. Combined with Proxemics, the Rule becomes an insight.
In The Hidden Dimension, Edward Hall set forth his observations about how humans use both public and private space. Hall is very clear that observations are just that—patterns which exist within a subjective group. Different groups have different patterns, and there are no hard rules which can be applied. Instead, Hall’s theory of Proxemics is a method to evaluate and interpret a new situation. For the artist, it’s also a way to make sense of, and improve, composition.
To provide a framework for discussion, Hall sets forth four general concepts of space: 1) Intimate distance (contact to eighteen inches); 2) Personal distance (1.5-4 feet); 3) Social distance (4-7 feet); and 4) Public distance (twelve feet and beyond). In each of Hall’s Distance categories, the issue is how an individual interacts with, and reacts to, both the space around the individual and invasions into that space. These concepts are intuitively understood by anyone, and can be observed merely by witnessing two people approach one another in a public space like a bus stop: strangers keep a certain distance, while familiars have a different distance. The level of familiarity is very often obvious by the bubble of space (or lack thereof) between two people.
Hall’s discussion of each Distance concept is fascinating, and we highly commend you to read them. For our purposes as photographers with specific subjects, however, we are only concerned with the common thread in every distance: the soul. To put that thread in relief, we’ll limit this discussion to portrait photographs, where the Rule of Thirds most often fails.
The key to Proxemics is interaction. Interaction apparently requires at least two participants, but the unspoken understanding is that each participant is an individual with individual responses to the environment. While Proxemics is most easily observed when two people interact, the underlying psychology is present in an isolated individual in any space.
In his book The Painter’s Eye, Maurice Grosser provided a precursor to Proxemics when he wrote about how a painter sees an individual subject:
At more than thirteen feet away . . . twice the usual height of our bodies, the human figure can be seen in its entirety as a single whole . . . . [W]e can look at a man as if he were a shape cut out of cardboard, and see him . . . as something as having little connection with ourselves. . . . Nearer than three feet, within touching distance, the soul is far too much in evidence for any sort of disinterested observation. . . . [A]t touching distance, the sitter’s personality is too strong. The influence of the model on the painter is too powerful, too disturbing to the artist’s necessary detachment, touching distance being not the position of visual rendition, but of motor reaction of some physical expression of sentiment, like fisticuffs, or the various acts of love.
That an 85mm lens is considered a “portrait lens” is the practice of Grosser’s point: to get head and chest with an 85mm, the photographer has to be more than six feet from the subject. This distance eliminates the personal-space interaction of subject and photographer, and puts it into at most a social distance. Unless the photographer carries on a conversation, the subject’s personality is likely to slowly expand to fill the intervening, unoccupied space. (Think of being in an empty space—no matter how large, we eventually feel like the whole space is ours.)
And this brings us to what we would offer as a Fifth concept of Proxemic space: the soul.
The soul is the essence of a person. It’s the part of a human that drives observable action. Not merely thought, personality, emotion, or attention, it’s a combination of all of these and more. Probably not articulable, it’s the kind of thing that you know when you see—it’s why we give space when we can see someone in thought, or avoid someone who is angry, and why strangers don’t sit next to each other when other public seating is available.
While we can observe the operation of soul when it’s already taking place, we can also seek to create the conditions to invoke it. When there is appropriate space around a person, the soul will emerge and sometimes some of it can be captured in a photograph.
Soul is subtle, however, and just as it needs space within which to emerge it also needs space to be seen. Which gets us back to the Rule of Thirds.
If we consider the Rule of Thirds from a Proxemic perspective, we have a helpful framing tool that suggests the following simple approach: Because the mind dictates to the body, work from soul first and then to the body when composing an image.
Shifting our artistic attention from the subject’s form to the subject’s thoughts allows us to give an appropriate space to a person’s emotions, and to then better understand how those emotions are being physically reflected. Think of it as mood and focus: to feel certain moods, we need a certain kind of physical space for our thoughts. Attention requires sensory input, and since it’s the eyes and hands that feed attention, our bodies need a different space for that.
Accordingly, this Fifth concept of Proxemic space requires two considerations in framing: an appropriate amount of space for the subject’s mood, and a different space to reflect the need for sensory input. Balanced, we hope to achieve a framing space in which the spectator can more easily perceive the subject’s soul.
The soul is hard to perceive, but the body is not. Turning back to Hall, his concept of Proxemic distances is based upon the human form: an arm’s reach is roughly half a person’s height, which defines a circle of physical action. Although we rarely photograph a subject with outstretched arms, the mind engages in different activities when such a space is secure, and the soul is able to project into a larger sphere. (“Body language” is a symptom of this process.) The body is confined to a set of ratios that the soul is not, but how a person engages with, and occupies, physical space reveals the shape of the soul.
In practice, fractional thirds work better in reflecting soul space than they do bodily space. It may be that the senses that inform our mood—such as sound, smell, temperature—work better on a ratio of thirds. (This may be one of the reasons that three-seat couches sell better than loveseats or sectionals.) The trick is to use empathy over observation in framing the moment.
By this, we mean that the artist needs to ignore the conventional wisdom and practice of using the lines and intersections of a grid to place the subject’s body, and look toward using the cues of the grid to emphasize soul space by allowing room in the frame, or creating tension by reducing soul space. Acknowledging space for the mind and soul invites the spectator to look less at the structure of the body and more at the essence of the person.
These are observations, and the application of them is an artistic decision. However, if we consider the concept of the Rule of Thirds from the perspective of the mind, it can help to better reveal our subject’s soul.
With the invaluable assistance of Dr. Ramesh Bakhtiari.