The Perfect SquareMonday, February 06, 2012
Whatever success I ever obtained for shooting for magazines came when in the late 70s I opted to buy what was then a new fangled camera, the RB-67 with a 6x7 cm format and the innovative revolving back (from vertical to horizontal). I remember an art director, Rick Staehling who called me one day and told me he had an assignment for me in which he stipulated that I use that big camera I had showed him.
During the many years that I shot for magazines my photographs were rarely cropped. One of the reasons is that the revolving back “forced” me to look at everything as both (not either) a horizontal and vertical interpretation. I had received assignments for vertical full page (bleed is the term) photos but when the art director would see a horizontal version he would sometimes convert it into a two-page spread and force the editor to reduce the poor writer’s copy!
For me the square format is the ambivalent format of a person not willing to make a commitment. This person can make the choice later (sort of like exposing in digital RAW). Except for those who shot for record albums (not much of an art now as the soon-to-disappear CDs and their covers were and are much too small for any detail to be important) life is not square.
If you look around with care you might find that the Greeks were aware that a square was a static shape and that life was really never square. So they invented the perfect square which was ever so slightly taller than wide. The Greeks without being sure of the existence of gravity somehow corrected what we would now call visual gravity and made their square taller so that we could flatten it with our imagination.
For me the square in either film or digital format is a shape that does not lend itself to a creativity of the magazine kind. Books and magazines are all rectangles.
It was, paradoxically, the advent of the first Apple computers in the 80s which were quickly adopted by forward thinking art directors and magazine designers that changed everything for a while. In an era where photographs were pasted on with wax on magazine facsimiles the computer liberated these art directors from the problem of designing pages for vertical or horizontal art. They started assigning photographers and illustrators to shoot and draw squares. Issues could be designed with months in advance to suit anything provided. That’s when magazines (for a while) forgot that one big picture usually trumped many small ones. Magazines in those days were littered with little square pictures and art directors ignored the intentions of photographers and illustrators and designed pages, flipping and moving images around in their Apples.