Grammar 1

Photographs tell stories. A writer might use cadence, sentence structure or even the sounds of words themselves to convey meaning. In a similar manner, photographers use light and shape, they make choices about where to stand or how to frame a scene in order to make meaning clear. Based on ideas suggested in two seminal writings on photography, John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye and Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs, this class will function as a primer of visual literacy for photographers. Through weekly shooting assignments, lectures and critique, students will learn about balance, tempo, ways of organizing space, the significance of geometric structure, and why the edges of the frame are important.

Far from being a list of rules to memorize, how we compose is an extension of the way we see. Slight changes in vantage point, framing and timing have a tremendous impact upon the content and success of a photograph. The exercises in The Grammar of Photography will make students more attentive to how we see what we see and allow students to produce stronger, clearer pictures as a result.

For information about upcoming sections of Grammar 1, click here.

For an overview of Grammar 2, click here.

For an overview of Grammar 3, click here.

Class 1: Introduction

Alex Webb

Alex Webb

This class is a survey of structural ideas for photographers. In photography, composition is generally understood as the arrangement of elements with the frame. There are many ways of structuring our images and one aim of this course is to give you a sense of the possibilities. Whether a composition succeeds or not depends upon how well it is used to express your vision and your ideas about the subject and how you see it.

  • Achieving Balance

  • Making Viewing an Active Experience

  • Survey of Photographer’s Eye Ideas

  • Overview of Previous Student Projects

Class 2: Vantage Point

Joel Meyerowitz

Joel Meyerowitz

A well-chosen vantage point can bring immediacy or intimacy to a portrait, a sense of a fresh perspective on the commonplace, and a feeling of being present in the scene for the viewer. Choice of vantage point also impacts the clarity of our pictures: the spatial relationships among foreground, middle ground and background change as our vantage point shifts.

  • Vantage Point Examples

  • Discussion of Project Ideas

  • Discussion of The Photographer’s Eye introductory essay

Class 3: Implicit and Explicit Grid

Marc Ribaud

Marc Ribaud

The frame is the basis of a photograph’s composition. Within an image, lines parallel and perpendicular to the frame have a special attachment to it. They divide the photograph into discrete units that in turn seek their own sense of balance within the larger whole.

  • Clear and Legible: the combination of Vantage Point, Frame, and Time

  • Gestalt Perceptual Principles

  • Tempo

  • Practicing Seeing

  • Implicit Grid, Explicit Grid and Golden Ratio

Class 4: The Edges of the Frame

Moises Saman

Moises Saman

When we look at the world, there are no edges which constrain our perception of it. But looking through the camera's viewfinder, there are. This week we're paying attention to what happens at the edge of the frame. The frame's edges can create positive and negative space shapes. The frame also divides the scene before us, distinguishing what is included from what is excluded. At the frame's edge, fragments of what has been cropped out of the image can inform the viewer about the world outside the frame

  • Positive and Negative Space

  • Fragments at Edges

Class 5: Shape

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Many of the compositional ideas that you might be familiar with from poetry, music and literature have application in the visual arts. In today’s class, we look at shape, with examples of how shapes can rhyme as well as contrast. In poetry or in lyrics, rhyme and cadence can create coherence or dissonance. Words fit together and one idea flows into another, helped along by the aural patterns. Shape and line can function similarly in a photograph.

  • Grouping

  • Dominant Element

  • Aspects of Shape

Class 6: Time

Ragubir Singh

Ragubir Singh

“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative” - Henri Cartier-Bresson

  • Time and the Shutter

  • Peak Gesture

  • The Decisive Moment

Class 7: Detail

Miyako Ishiuchi

Miyako Ishiuchi

As photographers, we don't have to show everything -- in fact, that would be impossible. Instead, our goal is to pick the salient parts which convey a story, making it interesting and believable. The details of our photographs can be the means to address more abstract ideas, not easily shown directly in an image.

  • Details as Subject

  • The Part as Symbol

Class 8: The Thing Itself

Nikos Economopoulis

Nikos Economopoulis

A photograph exists at the intersection of subjectivity and objectivity. As such, photographs are both representations and transformations of the subject. In The Photographer's Eye, Szarkowski makes the point that photography deals with the actual. As photographers, we need to honor that. The world as a subject is interesting enough. It is not necessary to invent or assemble in order to act creatively. Photographers should take pictures, not make them.

  • Pictorialism vs. Modernism

  • Detachment as a Strategy

Rinko Kawauchi

Rinko Kawauchi

Class 9: The Nature of Photographs


Focus gives priority to parts of a photograph. It concentrates the viewer's attention. As Stephen Shore writes in The Nature of Photographs, focus is the way we separate the subject of a photograph from its contents. Control of focus and depth of focus can make the viewer’s experience of looking active, drawing us through the represented space of the image.

  • Aspects of Focus

  • Active and Passive Frame

  • Opaque and Transparent Space

  • Depictive and Mental Space

Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Ellen Mark

Class 10: Review of Projects

  • Review of Photographer’s Eye Categories

  • Critique of Portfolios