Victor Hugo wrote:
Form is simply content brought to the surface.
Form is the set of cognitive items in a photograph that aid in the presentation or communication of the content of the photograph.
These items, as a whole, may give the viewer a sense of visual pleasure, whether the items create a visual harmony or discord according to the requirements of the content.
• The use of light, color, tone, surface, such as texture, and volume, any of which may be repeated or contrasted
• Spatial relationships, such as foreground and background, flatness and depth
• Control of the viewer's eye movement on the surface of the photograph, such as focal point, as well as the movement of the viewer's consciousness into the photograph, including clarity and ambiguity, impenetrableness and passage
• What's in the frame, near the edges, in the corners, and what's outside the frame
• Geometric relationships, such as lines, shapes, patterns, repetitions, contrasts, and flow
Note how Cartier-Bresson, and Paul Strand and Brassai, below, place great importance on form.
The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.1
[Strand] believes in human values, in social ideals, in decency and in truth.
These are not clichés to him. That is why his people, whether Bowery derelict, Mexican peon, New England framer, Italian peasant, French artisan, Breton or Hebrides fisherman, Egyptian fellahin, the village idiot, or the great Picasso, are all touched by the same heroic quality—humanity.
To a great extent this is a reflection of Strand's personal sympathy and respect for his subjects.
But it is just as much the result of his acuteness of perception which finds in the person a core of human virtue and his unerring sense of photographic values that transmits that quality to us.
It is all part of a artistic process in which the conception of form, the just balance of mass and space and pattern to frame, the richness of texture and detail transform a moment of intuition into an immutable monument.2
I don't like snapshots.
I like to seize hold of things, and the form is very important for this.
Of course, all photography presents chances to relate things of interest, but it lacks often a sense of form.
Form is very important not only in order to create art, but because only through form can the image enter into our memory.
It's like the aerodynamics of a car, don't you see?
For me, form is the only criterion of a good photograph.
One doesn't forget such a photograph and wants to see it again.3
Cartier-Bresson, Strand, and Brassai, all used form to convey thoughts and feelings about the content of their photographs.
The content was intended to engender our thoughtful and emotional responses to the changes in China in 1949 (Cartier-Bresson), a blind woman on the street (Strand), and people in Montmarte cafes (Brassai).
For other photographers, there is no content except that of formalism.
For example, Jan Groover created still lifes from kitchen items.
I don't know why I chose forks—I just took my camera to the kitchen sink ... Actually, I have the notion that everything can be pictured, that content is not that relevant.
I think it's lovely that a knife can be pink. Its shape can be molded by light, the silver surface picks up and reflects bits of color—it's all very liquid.
And the kind of information that is possible in a small space, like that created by the borders of these pictures, can be so crystal clear and appropriate—the issue is really about pushing some thing, some form, into a space that it seems to belong in.
In the real world, these forks and kitchen implements can have many associations and functions; it doesn't matter.
Formalism is everything.4
1 Cartier-Bresson, H. (Interviewed). (1972). The Decisive Moment [Narrated slide show]. New York: Scholastic Achievement Series.
2 Brown, M. (1971). Paul Strand: A retrospective monograph, the years 1915-1968. Millerton, NY: Aperture.
3 Westerbeck, C. L. (1976, December). Night light: Brassai and Weegee. Art Forum, 15, 34-35. Reprinted in Goldberg, V. (1981). Photography in print: Essays from 1816 to present. New York: Simon and Schuster.
4 Danese, R. (Editor). (1979). American Images: New Work by Twenty Contemporary Photographers. NY: McGraw-Hill.