Rule the rules
After a short conversation with a fellow photographer on the rules of composition, I decided to write some lines on this highly debated matter. His pose was that placing a subject straight to the center of the frame was wrong and against the well-known "rule of thirds". So, I asked him "should expression be constrained by rules?" and I got no answer... This is a common outcome of similar conversations on framing and composition. Following the rules blindly and without question just because they exist is an unfounded answer. As far as fine art (or artistic) photography is involved, following the rules might actually kill a frame.
But let's start from the beginning. What are those rules anyway? They are just a set of widely accepted information on how to setup your frame so that it looks good. This involves leveling your horizon line, putting a subject at the foreground, dividing the frame by the rule of thirds, using leading lines or symmetrical elements, applying the "exotic" golden ratio and so on (you may need to do some further search on these).
But where do all these rules end up to? It's all about "looking good" as stated before. Exactly that. All those rules are nothing but what statistics call "aesthetically accepted", by all means a fitting term but who says so? Truth be told, most of these rules can help you make some great compositions but they can also ruin a shot if you always follow them and only shoot by the book. At the end of the day, we are being stressed and stormed by "do's" and "don'ts" and we eventually miss the point as photography starts losing its meaning. It should be all about spontaneous personal expression, the photographic equivalent of “Naïf Art” in painting.
For me, deciding to break a photography rule is not easy. It requires to be accustomed to the psychological and aesthetic attributes of an image. It is a complicated matter. By placing the subject at the front of a frame, far behind, keeping it centered or using no subject at all is all about making a statement. You have to relate the frame to a certain psychological outcome, a mood that fits the frame and your vision of it as well. If the mood is ruined by following the rules, then you have to think otherwise and brake them. The same goes for how or where you decide to position your horizon line, when to make use of negative space, experiment with the golden ratio and so on. In the realm of fine art photography, all these rules come and go according to the cardinal elements of a frame as these relate to what the artist needs to express. The key factor in understanding an image is to look and accept it only through the eyes of the artist and this requires to put your senses to the test.
So, if a certain composition works for the artist, no one can judge his decision on what to do with the rules. They're just tools and no tool can do it always the right way. Use the rules merely as hints to a successful frame and take into account the possibility of them failing. Being involved in fine art photography has greatly helped me to accept the works of others as they are, respect them and either manage to understand them or not. I seek the originality and truth in an image, not its score on composition rules. I know that rules aficionados will think otherwise but at the end of the day we all agree that art cannot be judged, only felt...