Skip to main content

Observations on composition - Pieter Bruegel

In this article I am reprinting a critique I published on photoMENTORIS.com regarding the painting entitled 'Census at Bethlehem' by famed painter Pieter Bruegel, who was born in what is now the Netherlands in the 1520s.



The first point I would like to say is that you first need to consider both the medium and the time frame of this painting. Being a painting, the artist has a certain advantage of being able to carefully direct the large amount of content presented to the viewer, unlike, say, a photo of opportunity of the street photographer (I strongly believe Pieter would have been the 'street photographer' of his time). Even a studio photographer, with the luxury of space and time, would have a hard time justifying creating such a complex composition. Where you would see this type of visual composition today would be in modern cinema. In particular, period pieces that rely on background elements to "sell the era".

 Secondly, the era in which this was created was a much slower time. People had the luxury of spending very long periods of time to contemplate a painting, unlike the average 15 seconds an image has to grab your attention in social media today, though this is an unfair analogy. Visual appreciation is not what it used to be but because of that time luxury artists imbued their works with a lot of meaning. In this case this is an allegorical reference to a passage from the bible denoting the mandate for a census from Rome. Not to mention that most artists would have created artwork that pandered to their patron. This would obviously sway the content and meaning of their creations.

On Inspiration

Taking this painting in reference to modern image making there is a strong lesson in inspiration. In this case Pieter took a passage from the bible and made it his own;
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered... So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. — Luke 2:1-5
With 'Census at Bethlehem' you can see all the elements of this passage clearly represented in a modern (for his time) interpretation. Historically, this is nothing new. Many artists of all types have pulled reference from the bible for inspiration, but what the takeaway here is in the reinterpretation. If ever one has a mental block about what to create... just pull a passage from the bible and reinterpret it photographically. I can see Piet Francke and Dave Chinn getting inspiration from this. :)

On Composition

The beauty of this painting, for me, is the thematic use of tableau vivants throughout the entire scene. Everywhere you look there are carefully staged scenes of everyday life (snowball fight, chafing the wheat, bringing goods to market) while coalescing into the overall theme of census taking and the pilgrimage of Joseph and Mary into Bethlehem. To be honest, I am not a religious person so I completely missed the titular reference and the obvious depiction of Joseph and Mary at first.

If you are one that has settled on the Rule of Thirds and have not wandered far from that compositional rule you will be hard pressed to analyze how this scene is arranged. There are two very strong compositional elements (rules?) used effectively here; the Dynamic Symmetry and the Gestalt theory of Proximity or Common Region. This is the principle where groups of elements are seen as a whole. In this case, the assembly in front of the census building at lower left is the main focus point because of the mass of grouping and the intersection of points based on Dynamic Symmetry.

That doesn't mean the Rule of Thirds isn't there. On closer inspection you can clearly see elements purposely conforming to that principle. Take a look at the horizon line created by the row of buildings in the background and the row of travelers making their pilgrimage to the census house at bottom. Then notice the two trees with their strong dark color and vertical placement equidistantly left and right. It's just happens that other rules take precedence.

Another Gestalt principle in use is the principle of Contrast. In this image pay close attention to the light area of snow covered ground coming in at a diagonal to the census building. This use of color, along with the carefully placed leading lines within that space, all comes together to pull the eye into the scene, down the path and to the congregation in the lower left corner.

Speaking of leading lines... This entire painting is just riddled with all kinds of leading lines. Some are very obvious, like the trees and the paths, while others are more subtle, like the progression of the travelers leading into the town center or the direction of view from the majority of the people in the scene.

Overall, on first impression the composition can appear as being intangible. Specially if all you know is the basic Rule of Thirds. Hopefully you have now come to understand the brilliance of Pieter's use of complex compositional decisions to direct an otherwise overwhelming scene. This last diagram simplifies the composition and hopefully allows you to see the painting in a new way.

Comments

Most Popular Posts

Large DIY Diffusion Scrim

One of the most commonly used tools in my photographic arsenal is the all purpose diffusion screen. I use it to soften light, create gradients and light fields or as a background. One of my current favorites is a metal framed 4' x 4' foot scrim with thick white artificial silk made by Matthews. I didn't think I would use it so much, being so large, but having borrowed it from a friend I really came to love it. The downside for me is the price. At just over $100 I couldn't really justify the cost, considering I want at least two of them. Time for a DIY alternative.

5 qualities images need for online shopping

As online shopping grows, competition for new business gets harder. Customer loyalty is a thing of the past. People will shop for value and convenience above all else. Part of that convenience is good photography.

One of the problems with online retail is the loss of tactile interaction with the products you're looking to purchase. There is no picking up, weighing, testing and trying on a product to get a sense of quality, of fit or just to get that emotional feedback.

Online shoppers have to rely on the images retailers supply on their web sites to help them make their buying decisions. Frustratingly, many of these images fail to provide the needed information so customers can make an informed buying decision. The results is a loss of revenue to the seller, and what's worse is the seller may not even realize their images may be a major reason for the loss.
Sean Barger, CEO of Equilibrium, says there’s been a number of studies showing that people are more likely to buy a produ…

Sunburn, big boobs and sexy cops

Yesterday Diane, her friend, Dolores, and I went to Coney Island with the Mid-CT Photography Meetup Group for the 30th annual Mermaid Festival. Sue Fenton was our hostess and did a marvelous job in organizing the meet up.

Having seen photos from the previous year's event I knew I did not want to miss thie event this year and I''m so happy I went. The event was threatened with bad weather in the days leading up to Saturday. With a nasty thunderstorm just the night before. As it turned out, the day was clear and the sun was out. In full force. Not the greatest for a photographer as it makes for some very contrasty images. Not to mention the burned skin.

But the best thing about the event wasn't the crazy costumed participants, the sexy cop (I'll tell you about him later) or the throng of people. It was Massimo, Sanjeev, Marla, Sue and all the other members who came out to share in all that craziness.

Tips for aspiring models

Not many people know this but back in my youth I used to model. Yep, that image on the right is me when I was in my twenties. It surfaced recently when I was doing some attic cleaning. Handsome guy, wasn't I?

For six years I was an active model-for-hire for the Barbizon Agency of New Haven. Sadly there are no more Barbizon schools in Connecticut. I was also an instructor, teaching their Major Modeling curriculum. As you can tell, teaching has always been in my blood. But that's not what I want to address in this post. This article is directed to those who are looking to model. If you are a photographer looking to work with models you might want to read this too, but primarily I am targeting models here.

There are many young people (mostly young girls) who still fantasize about becoming a model. Maybe one of those is you. While I don't want to discourage you from that dream I would like to address some very important and serious points about pursuing a modeling career. So, …