Tuesday, November 27, 2012

“I bought it for the frame”

DO YOU THINK that your photography is good? Do other people — people that aren't your friends or family  — think that it is good? How would you feel if one of your photographs found its way into a junk shop or a flea market, and someone purchased it only because of its frame?

Ultimately, we must be humble enough to realize that no matter how much artistic vision and effort we put into something, a buyer simply might like our photograph only because it is nicely framed.

When I did a Google search for the phrase “I bought it for the frame,” I got over ten million search results, with many people telling of some print or painting they found at a junk shop, but which they discarded, simply because they liked the frame. Now we mustn't jump to the conclusion that the frame-buyers are ignorant, tasteless philistines. Perhaps your photograph isn't all that good. Perhaps the frame is really good. [NOTICE: I must admit to having a bit of anxiety whenever I go to a book fair or used book store, thinking that I might find one of my own books being sold cheap.]

Apparently, according to the same Google search, lots of people also buy bicycles only for their frame. They plan to strip the frame of all the seemingly more critically important stuff that actually makes the bicycle work, such as the wheels, gears, and chain. Certainly these working components are more important than the frame? Doesn't the frame just sit there? The answer is that in many respects these components are more important, and the components that just happen to be attached to the frame may not be all that good or fitting for the purchaser. The brakes and tires on a bicycle become gradually worn with use and slowly become less effective over time, and a bicycle rider can choose to replace them whenever it is convenient. But a bicycle frame must be perfectly durable, and it must not ever fail during use, for it cannot be repaired in the field: a frame does not slowly lose its functionality over time, for the welded joints on a frame are either rigid or are broken with no significant intermediate state. A frame, of course, can be repainted as needed.

So what kind of framed photograph would be more valuable to most any given person: an excellent portrait of someone else's child, or a cheap snapshot of their own child? We ought to realize that prints and paintings are more important than a frame, but they tend to be more personally important. If someone buys a framed print at a flea market and then discards the original print, that is because their print is more important than the original. Likewise, someone may purchase a used bicycle, but they might replace the seat for one that is more comfortable for them; they might replace the brakes because they are worn, but if the frame isn't good, they won't buy the bicycle.

A photograph or painting may be chosen because of a particular style of a room, or because of a particular mood expressed, or its use of particular coordinating colors. The subject matter may spark the imagination of the buyer, or the subject may invoke particular memories or devotions. An image may be discarded because it no longer fits the decor of the room, or it may invoke unpleasant memories: maybe it is faded or worn, or it is no longer interesting, or it is out of style.

Now, there are some artists, particularly in the past, who strove to make images that have a more universal, timeless character, that expressed objective beauty and the sublime. This is rare today because modernity rejects the eternal and universal in favor of that which is transitory and cheap. This means, perhaps, that contemporary works are more prone to being quickly discarded.

People may buy a print because of its frame, but the frame is not bought for its own sake, no matter how well it is made or decorated, but because it is ultimately intended to enclose a print or a painting. I know of no museum or gallery that is dedicated to the presentation of frames as objects of art (although this might be an exception), but there are vast numbers of merchants — including art galleries — that sell frames in a wide variety, and the cost of these frames may equal or exceed the cost of the image that is presented within it.

Frames are works of art in themselves (as is anything intentionally well-made by man's intellect), but their purpose is mainly in relationship to the fine art contained within them. The word ‘fine’ in ‘fine art’ is related to Aristotle's understanding of the “final cause” or ultimate purpose of a thing. The final cause of a frame is to support, display, protect, enhance, and delineate the work of art contained within it, as well as provide a visual transition between the work of art and its location. The buck stops at the image contained in the frame, as it is the final cause of the art: the job of art is complete and the viewer's job of looking at the image begins. But this does not mean that the frame is unimportant, for it has important functions, but it is subservient to those things, the images, which are greater. Even though we have differing opinions on what makes a good print or painting, we should not be surprised that most of us would largely agree on what what makes a good frame, for frames have a more definite purpose.

Getting a good understanding of composition is difficult, because it involves human psychology. The many proposed rules of composition seem to rest on shaky theoretical ground, and many of the supposed examples of the use of the rules are unconvincing. However, one element of composition is concrete and objective, that being the framing or the specific crop of the image. See the article Composition, Part 1 - the Frame for a more in-depth discussion of this. The objective framing of an image, due to a specific crop, can be be a powerful tool of composition if used well, and bad framing can certainly harm an image.

As the vast majority of images are rectangles, this suggests the good use of harmonic proportions between the length and width of the image with the proportions of the matting and size of the frame. The common standard print, matte, and frame sizes do express proportions that harmonize well with each other. Attempts at making custom frames and mattes for a non-standard print size will generally be expensive and error-prone. Custom sizes may also look awkward if the maker does not apply the mathematics of proportion ahead of time: for example, it may be possible to harmonize an image with a large aspect ratio within a frame with a smaller aspect ratio if the margins or matting are well-chosen, but if the ratios are not chosen well, the final object may look ridiculous, cheap, or inartistic.

For all these reasons, I think that it would be prudent if photographers give serious consideration to framing, since, after all, nearly every print that will be displayed on a wall needs a frame, and for the simple fact that a purchaser may buy your print because they like its frame.

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