No Room for Squares
4 Jun 2013
Photo essays such as this always begin with a puzzlement. It is not enough to know that something has specific attributes, at least not for me. I always want to know the why of it. I suppose that's because when I do the math and look at the answer, I want it to add up. When it doesn't, I'm on the hunt for the missing information.
At a glance, online photo recognition seems random at best... something most of us never quite get a handle on. So I dug a little deeper and was surprised and intrigued by the math of it. I started by looking at the statistics of the first 20 pages of JPGs published images. There are 21 images per page, so 420 images total used for this project. Of that total, 85% were rectangles. Horizontal rectangles made up 66% and vertical 19%. The poor little square squeaked in at a paltry 15%. This seems to suggest that if you want to be published, avoid the square.
Knowing I don't, I took a look at my stats and was more than a little surprised to see that 33% of my images are square. Given that clear disadvantage, I almost wanted to start whittling away at the sheer number of them. Then a 'Cloud Atlas' quote floated down, "All boundaries are conventions waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so". For me, the convention is far less important than the end result. The image is finished when it 'sits well with me', and often that feeling doesn't fit in a rectanglular tin.
So, is the world really just an ocean of rectangles? You bet it is. Look around yourself right now. Excluding your keyboard, I challenge you to find even 5 squares. Some of it makes sense. Humans are physically rectangular so rectangles exist to accommodate our form. Also, our vision is binocular, so we view the world as a horizontal rectangle. It also makes architectural sense. Building up instead of out conserves land. Still, there had to be more to it than that because our world is more than a bit rectangular. You just proved it.
The why of it was unearthed hundreds of years ago. The Golden Ratio, or Golden Rectangle, is used to describe aesthetically pleasing proportions. Removing the offensive square from a Golden Rectangle creates a smaller glorious golden rectangle that spirals down to infinity (lead image). As it turns out, we've been spoon-fed a never-ending diet of pleasingly proportionate rectangles for hundreds of years and we've adapted well. We have evolved into geometric lemmings.
These 'magical' proportions (a 3:2 ratio) dominate our visual and, therefore, our photographic world. When we think photos, we think rectangle. Most DSLR cameras shoot in 3:2 ratios. So, it is a rare photographer that strays from the rectangle. Even the few photographers who use square format cameras most often crop their images and present their final work as a rectangle. If you want to see yourself in print, the golden rectangle appears to be your golden ticket.
Vertical rectangles work well with magazine and digital layouts. But generally, a vertical format is seen as less natural and less comfortable because it creates visual tension. JPG featured member, Ryan Notch's frequent use of vertical format is not only stunning, it is powerful. Even so, horizontal format continues to rule. Our eyes can scan an image fastest when its shape is a golden rectangle (such as a paragraph of text). It speeds up our ability to perceive the world so we use it whenever we can. But aren't the images we find most compelling those that we don't speed read... the ones that include visual metaphors and asymmetry... the images that demand we linger? Truly great images are anything but predictable.
It is no wonder we photographers return to our old friend, the golden rectangle, time and time again. People are driven by a desire for order and clarity in a world filled with ambiguities. We find the familiar soothing... even comforting. Our brain likes information that we can interpret without conscious thought. In that dulling process, we become human lemmings... relentlessly choosing it and its strangling effects. The power to fit in with one's social peers is irresistible. In the end, the logic behind an opinion doesn't matter as much as the power and popularity of the opinion.
Interestingly enough, the square format is fighting back. Instagram uses this format exclusively. But true to our lemming ways, we try to coerce these images into our beloved rectangle by pinching to zoom out. To rein that in, the latest Instagram update actually forces users to adhere to the square by snapping the image back to a square. Not surprising, users absolutely hate it. Holgas, Dianas, and other toy cameras also use square formatting but those are not the cameras that dominate the industry.
So... how did the square become Cinderella in this fairytale? The obvious reason: squares are avoided because they are a very stable and symmetrical shape. The square has powerful geometry that forces the viewer into the center. Therefore, the content within the square must overcome that geometry. Also, digital cameras kick out digital rectangles. If editing isn't your thing, you're stuck with the rectangle you shot. However, before sticking to your rectangular guns, take a look at Josef Hoflehner's work which demonstrates the true power of the square. Black and white has never looked better.
This essay is about alternative formatting, but it is also about taking a walk on the wild side... about dumping predictable, the rule-of-thirds, and convention. Image rebels have appeal. They are the John Benders of photography. They are confident, adventurous, challenging, mysterious, and indifferent. Image rebels are inmates trapped in rectangular insane asylums on the hunt for an unmanned key. For them, it's about getting out, not fitting in.
It all comes down to what you want in return for the effort. If the answer is more, a good place to start might be thinking INSIDE the box.