10 Points on Dynamic Symmetry
And Why It's Not "Really Boring Art Academic Stuff"
I came across the video above on YouTube and thought it was important to clarify some facts for those that want to learn Dynamic Symmetry.
I introduced Adam to the Barnstone Studios DVDs on Dynamic Symmetry back in 2009, and he was ecstatic about what he had discovered. So much in fact that when I had dinner with him and his girlfriend in NYC, she commented on how much Adam had memorized all the information from Myron's teachings. Ironically speaking, Adam fully understands the value of learning Dynamic Symmetry and uses it in his own photographs. More importantly, Dynamic Symmetry forms the backbone of all his teachings on classical skill-based art, including all of his Udemy videos as well as his photography workshops.
Dynamic Symmetry is most certainly not "really boring art academic stuff," and any artist, photographer, or instructor that believes this nonsense is not qualified to teach classical art techniques - yet alone charge thousands of dollars for a photography workshop. Dynamic Symmetry is design, and without design art cannot exist. So, if you think Dynamic Symmetry is boring, you also think creating masterful art is boring. Dynamic Symmetry is a 2500-year-old tradition that has been handed down from master to apprentice for a very long time.
If the viewer were to take this lecture on Dynamic Symmetry at face value, Adam is clearly stating that composition "exists" but isn't important enough to learn. For example, when he talks about the native architecture of the rectangle you're designing within (the "super boring" stuff), that is, by its very nature, composition. So, if the artist doesn't understand how to use the armature of the rectangle all the other design techniques Adam covers in his lectures and workshops are meaningless - this includes figure-ground relationship, the arabesque, "the "dominant diagonal" and so on.
"Without design, there may be representation, but there can be no art."
- Kenyon Cox
No, Henri Cartier-Bresson did not use the golden section rectangle, which is a 1.618, because he was shooting 35mm film - which is a 1.5 rectangle. However, what Adam failed to mention is that Cartier-Bresson uses the basic armature of the 1.5 rectangle and overlapped root 4s. This design technique is how trained artists compose in a 1.5 rectangle. A lesson that Myron Barnstone taught all his students many years ago. Also, I don't ever recall Henri Cartier-Bresson using the term "Dynamic Symmetry" in any of his journals or interviews and to assume he used a "shorthand" approach to explain the decisive moment is a poor way of connecting the dots.
Adam is merging two distinct design concepts into one, thereby misleading the audience into thinking that they can't use Dynamic Symmetry in photography. In other words, the 1.5 rectangle is actually part of the Dynamic Symmetry system of design even though it's not a golden section rectangle. These two rectangles are not interchangeable. The Dynamic Symmetry system of design also contains the root 2, 3, 4, 5, and the root phi.
Adam does not teach composition in his lectures, but rather design techniques. These concepts are not the same and shouldn't be treated as such. For example, figure-ground relationship is not composition, but a method that is used in design to help the viewer separate their subject from the background. Additionally, all the "classical art techniques" Adam teaches in his YouTube videos, Udemy classes, and his workshops are directly taken from Myron Barnstone's DVDs on drawing and design. This is also true for the website Canon of Design as well as my site, Dynamic Symmetry Art. The three of us were taught by the same art instructor - Myron Barnstone. Because of this fact, there is virtually no difference in all of the classical design techniques that the three of us teach. You can download a free list of all these techniques here.
If the Rule of Thirds is the visual equivalent of flushing a Japanese toilet and Dynamic Symmetry is "super boring" what options are left for the photographer to compose their images? Adam never answers that question in any of his videos. Furthermore, why would you tell your audience (hundreds of thousands of photographers on YouTube) that composition falls within the arena known as Dynamic Symmetry and then persuade them not to pursue this knowledge? This approach to teaching is illogical and counterproductive to taking better photographs.
Solely focusing on the dominant diagonal in a design, as Adam suggests, is no better than using the Rule of Thirds. In other words, because you're not considering the diagonal's reciprocals as well as the vertical and horizontal divisions in your composition, there won't be any relationships between the individual elements in your drawing, painting, or photograph. More importantly, teaching classical art techniques by cherry-picking a few easy to learn and easy to sell concepts does not give the photographer a complete understanding of how to create a work of art. The artist and photographer must always consider the whole picture when designing their compositions, otherwise, more than likely, it will fail.
The Da Vinci Initiative teaches their 5th-grade art students more about composition than Adam does in any of his videos. Their approach to teaching art educates children (K-12) on the fundamentals of visual literacy. Unfortunately, most artists and photographers don't know how to read a work of art. In fact, in a Time magazine article written in 1984, the respected art critic Robert Hughes stated that 99% of Americans could not read a drawing. If an artist can't read the visual language, it's incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for them to progress in their work. This is why I modeled my site based on atelier training principles regardless if you're an artist or photographer.
The classically trained artist (the atelier student) is taught the skills they need to become an accomplished artist. The photography student, who often only learns the technical aspects of photography, is not. So, to properly close the knowledge gap between art and photography, photography instructors need to present information accurately (instead of misleading their audience by withholding valuable information) and refrain from dumbing down their presentations to increase workshop attendance. After all, if a 5th-grade art student can learn Dynamic Symmetry principles, I have no doubt that photographers can as well.
Rolling your eyes and emphasizing certain words to present a negative view of Dynamic Symmetry isn't going to inspire anyone to learn more about this system of design. Enthusiasm for the subject matter you're teaching is required. With this in mind, opening the presentation with "Dynamic Symmetry is really boring art academic stuff" was clearly a marketing tactic to persuade the audience not to learn real design. Additionally, there are not "loads of books" written on the topic of Dynamic Symmetry. In fact, there are only a few - and only one that I recommend (The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry by Michel Jacobs).
Photographers that want to produce a high-quality body of work will have to learn real design. It might be an ugly fact, but it's a fact nonetheless. However, for those that think Dynamic Symmetry is super boring, I challenge you to read Michel Jacobs' book The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry. It will cost you nothing but a few hours of your time. If after reading Jacobs' book you still feel it's not something you want to pursue, rest assured, you haven't wasted your time. At least you will have a full understanding of composition, and you might find a way to incorporate Dynamic Symmetry principles into your photographs later on down the road.
I have always enjoyed watching Adam's videos in the past and have recommended them to other photographers as supplemental material. I thought his first two B&H videos were terrific. However, I found this latest installment incredibly hypocritical, bizarre and insulting to those trained in classical design. As someone educated in classical art and having a full understanding of Adam's background in Dynamic Symmetry, it's quite evident that this segment on composition was nothing more than marketing propaganda. In summary, it was a travesty.
The reality is, a photographer should never have to spend thousands of dollars on a photography workshop to learn classical art techniques. All of the information taught in these classes can easily be found in a few art books and videos on composition. In the past, I have taken several workshops (with master photographers Constantine Manos and Mary Ellen Mark) that only cost four hundred dollars each. And even though I didn't learn much about composition, at least I was able to meet my idols and purchase a few signed books. More importantly, these master photographers have a substantial and respectable body of work that further qualifies them as legitimate workshop instructors. I've yet to see these qualifications and expertise in today's generation of YouTube photography bloggers.
If you're a photographer that has a genuine interest in learning composition, you should at least have a desire to step into the "arena" known as Dynamic Symmetry and understand how it works and how it applies to art, regardless if you decide to use it or not. Regrettably, most photography workshop instructors will not train you to be an artist regardless of how much money you spend to take their class. This video is proof of that fact.
The image below, from a Da Vinci Initiative lesson plan, demonstrates how Chardin might have designed his paintings. In my experience, these lesson plans are far better than anything I've seen on most photography websites and are taught to students starting in the 3rd grade. And even though photographers don't have the time to compose their photographs like an artist that draws and paints, that's not a legitimate excuse not to learn Dynamic Symmetry - all the same design principles still apply.
Photograph above by Adam Marelli demonstrating the application of Dynamic Symmetry using the 1.5 armature of the rectangle