Balcony House, Mesa Verde National Park
Laura Gilpin
gelatin silver print, Sept.10, 1924
© 1979, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Bequest of Laura Gilpin

Gallery · Bibliography · Essay

The Need for Design in Photography
by Laura Gilpin, 1926

Many articles are written in these days concerning design in art, yet how many photographers are there who make a study of design and its application to photography?

One essential problem, in addition to the all-important thought of what the picture is to express, is the placing and arranging of the subject matter to be used in such a way that it make a beautiful design, or pattern, in line, mass, light and shade. How are we to accomplish this?

How many photographers are there who use the entire area of a plate without having to trim away unnecessary portions in order to secure their picture? Of course, there are occasional exceptions when one must of necessity use a lens of too short focal length, or when a subject is conceived in a panel. Should we not utilize every particle allotted to us and make the most of it? To do this requires thought and skill. Almost anyone can go out, make a lot of negatives, and then when at home in the workroom figure out by use of rectangles what makes a composition, and what does not.

To my mind this is not creative work. Every time I fail to make use of my full plate I feel that I have made a failure. How are we to acquire this knowledge and skill? By careful study of still life for one thing. Making arrangements of objects of all sorts and descriptions, experimenting with all kinds of lightings, setting ourselves definite problems to solve. These are the five finger exercises and scales of composition. They need not leave the workroom, but what does go to the exhibition walls will be the better for the existence of the others.

One can spend hours hunting for fine pieces of design in nature. They do exist; it remains only for us to find them. Learning to see things is what everyone of us should practice daily. Often one finds fine compositions in line, or mass, but would they be better in another light? Wait and see. Go back at all hours of the day and find the time when the light helps the composition, for it is an amazing thing how different a subject can be at different times of the day. Light is one of the most important factors in photography. Do we even begin to utilize its vast resources?

Acquiring the habit of noting the changes of light and watching for designs, fits and makes us ready for those rare moments when unusual and remarkable things happen, which may last only a fleeting moment. These are the things that photography, and only photography, can catch if we are so well trained that we do our part.

How many of us make a true study of art as a whole? How many of us are intimately familiar with the works of the masters of etching, and the other graphic arts as well as our own? I do not mean that we should in any way imitate, for when a photographic print imitates another medium I think it is a failure. If the qualities of another medium are desired, would it not be better to work in that other medium?

Do we study and analyze the masterpieces of painting and sculpture? Is it not true that the more we know of other arts, the more that knowledge helps us in our own? Do we seek the beauties and qualities that are peculiar to photography and make the most of them?

Ours is a new art, a most wonderful art. It is just one hundred years old. Our background is light compared with all other mediums. It is for us of the living generation to add to what has been done as a heritage for the future.

Women Photographers and the American Indian

All text compiled by Peter E. Palmquist
Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls: Writings by and About Women Photographers1840-1930.
New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1989.