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Henri Cartier-Bresson and Myron Barnstone on the Golden Section and Dynamic Symmetry

Henri Cartier-Bresson and Myron Barnstone on the Golden Section and Dynamic Symmetry

The closest art to photography is painting, and thus the two primary visual art forms share basic precepts regarding light and composition. In the same way photographers use different lenses, filters, and lights to achieve their vision, so too might they learn to use various time-honored, classical techniques in composition. While a polarizing filter is not used for every shot, neither is the golden ratio and sacred geometry. But just as every photographer will have a polarizing filter in their toolkit, so too will they have knowledge of sacred geometry, whose rules they can exalt, or break, at will.

The late Myron Barnstone was a favorite art teacher made famous by his rigorous, classical drawing classes he had videotaped over the years, beginning long before the internet made video ubiquitous. The Morning Call reports:

Skill, no matter what medium, is based on years of rigorous training, mastered through the understanding of the structured, geometric systems used by artists such as Picasso, Michelangelo and Da Vinci. "I give them a toolbox," the Whitehall Township man says of his students. . .  his legacy lives on in the dozens of students who have gone on to successful careers in the art world.

Although he has passed on, fortunately for us, Myron has left quite a legacy behind in the way of videos, some of which can be watched freely on YouTube.  Here Myron introduces the "brief history" of the golden ratio in art, taking us on back to the time of cavemen:

"Welcome to the Golden Section"

Myron provides a few more concrete examples of how artists use dynamic symmetry and the golden ratio here: "How do Artists use the Golden Section?"

Here Myron elaborates on it all a bit more, in "Golden Mean, Golden Rectangle, Golden Section used in Art:"

Wikipedia provides a partial list of artistic and architectural works designed with the golden ratio in mind:


The legendary street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was famous for using tracing paper to try and find dynamic symmetry in his photographs, thusly studying and improving his composition until he was able to head on out to any street and capture the action in accord with the golden ratio.  Cartier-Bresson stressed the need for internalizing the "golden rules" so as to be able to capture master compositions without the aid of any "little schema grills" clamped onto one's viewfinder, nor the "Golden Rule" etched upon the camera's "ground glass:"


Charlie Rose traveled to Paris and interviewed Henri Cartier-Bresson himself.  When Rose asked Cartier-Bresson, “What makes a good composition?” Cartier-Bresson had one word—“Geometry....

...In applying the Golden Rule, the only pair of compasses at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes. Any geomet­rical analysis, any reducing of the picture to a schema, can be done only (because of its very nature) after the photograph has been taken, developed, and printed – and then it can be used only for a post-mortem examination of the picture.

...I hope we will never see the day when photo shops sell little schema grills to clamp onto our viewfinders; and the Golden Rule will never be found etched on our ground glass.”

When you see a street-scene evolving in front of you, can you capture the "decisive moment" in a golden ratio composition, as Henri Cartier-Bresson trained himself to do?

Regarding Cartier-Bresson, the legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon stated, "Cartier-Bresson is the greatest photographer of the 20th century. He is like Tolstoy was to literature. He covered all the ground, in a vast way – politically, socially – and the most personal and complex insight into the human personality."

Well, perhaps masters such as Avedon, Cartier-Bresson, and Barnstone are worth listening to, studying, and heeding.  The simple, classical tools and traditional rules of composition could be even more valuable than a new lens or camera.

Do you find anything inspiring in the above list?  Please share in the comments!

Elliot McGucken's picture

Dr. E is an award-winning Ph.D. physicist, author, inventor, and photographer. He took up photography to fund his physics theory: Light Time Dimension Theory. He signs all his work with dx4/dt=ic. LTD Theory's Principle: The fourth dimension is expanding at the rate of c relative to the three spatial dimensions.

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Any logarithmic spiral spirals infinitely outward, not just the one whose growth factor is phi. The same goes for spiraling infinitely inward if you extend the domain to allow negative values of theta. A logarithmic spiral with such a domain absolutely has a center, namely where theta tends to negative infinity and r tends to zero. Such a spiral is not a closed curve, so it makes no sense to talk about circumference in the first place. Lastly, all (not just the phi version) logarithmic spirals are self-similar. As for being found in "all our bones," I've yet to see the exact irrational number phi found in any proportion of any meaning in the human body, and approximations are just that, approximations. Second, give me any number, a big enough data set, and enough confirmation bias, and I'll find that number everywhere.

What confuses me is that the golden ratio is supposed to be some mythic connection between the physical/mathematical nature of the universe and its mystical nature – some sort of in-built scientific constant of art. Yet, mathematicians don't care about phi at all; it's a very insignificant number that we mention as some historical footnote and move on from. Scientists of times past found it interesting because that was the state of the science then. Bloodletting was also exalted at one point, but you see where I'm going with that. Modern scientists have dutifully analyzed its appearance or significance with more modern sophistication and have continually found it to be in a word, insignificant. Sure, there are historical examples and maybe even a modern example or two you can cherry-pick, but the overwhelming majority of mathematicians and scientists are adamantly indifferent to this thing that's supposed to be the mythical connection, so my question is: on what basis besides appeals to historical artists who didn't have the requisite knowledge to assess the mathematical significance of a numerical concept or anecdotal cherry-pickings of those who did pay it heed centuries ago does this continue to persist?

Your graphic is an excellent illustration of the counter-argument There is no phi in that sculpture. Lines have been drawn at approximately "golden ratio" intervals, but those are not significant points. There is another image of the Sistine Chapel with golden ratio rules drawn right at the point of the fingers touching, but those are only golden ratio rules because the outside rectangle was drawn at an arbitrary position to make the rules "golden ratio" rules. Countless times it has been claimed (even here, and in the first video!) that the ratio of the phalanges of the hand fit that ratio; hint: they do not, at least no more so than many simpler geometric ratios such as 2/3.

The whole "golden ratio myth" has been debunked many times, much more thoroughly than I am willing to do. A quick google search includes https://www.fastcodesign.com/3044877/the-golden-ratio-designs-biggest-myth which seems to hit many of the major debunking points but not everything.

Humans seek patterns. When a pleasing pattern is drawn over a pleasing image we see significant pieces of that image which line up. And there are enough pleasing patterns that one of them likely will, when drawn just loosely enough, match up quite well with any arbitrary pleasing composition.

There is no secret pattern overlay to great photographs or great compositions. What pattern overlays give you is a framework around which you can build an interesting photograph, not because they are magical or mystical or somehow "natural", but because that latticework is there, so if you follow it in one part of the composition and in another part of the composition the interrelation between those parts will be apparent (see Myron's Picasso example as exactly this). Will you form better compositions by following a rule of thirds or golden ratio rules or golden spiral or sinister diagonals etc? You will. But not because the pattern is special, but because there is a pattern which draws the pieces together.

This rule should be used as a foundation for more elaborate compositions and seldom by itself

Lol, edited your original troll comment, eh? I’m a perfectly fine mathematician and photographer, thanks. I never said this rule shouldn’t be used; my point was the arbitrary application of mathematics as justification for artistic decisions is inappropriate.

One book by a nut is not "countless".

>> Why does the golden ratio inspire so much blind rage and silly denial?

To be honest, because we prefer our stupid and krazee people to be more entertaining. Seriously - if you're going to award yourself a Phd, at least learn to write equations as well as a high school student..

My best suggestion: if you want attention so badly, get a silly haircut and say "Because... ALIENS!" a lot. It's no more undignified and it will pull in more punters...

>> Your clickbaity blogger friend

And that's typical of Bitter Lying Nut Logic. The man is a professional designer. A real one instead of a guy on the Internet who has awarded himself a Phd...

...And the best part is you can buy this "wonderful book" for 50c because no wants it. Which may be a sign that it isn't that wonderful.

It's also a sign Eliot isn't that bright. Because the book isn't about HCB - or even photography - and the author has no relevant knowledge. She just repeated the same psuedo-source in an aside in a book no one cares about.

And because Eliot The Self Awarded keeps quoting junk sources that trace back to the same ur-junk source, everyone with the brain is laughing - because each time he reminds everyone that the respectable relevant literature is against him.

Of course if he was bright enough to realize that, then he might have a real Phd..

The Cult of the Golden Ratio has been around for centuries. Yes, great artists used "golden ratio" rules (often quite roughly, to the point that claiming a golden ratio is arbitrary unless the artist said he did so; Dali's Last Supper painting is a great example of several kinda-sorta-if-you-squint golden ratio rules in use, but not really). They did so because for centuries the teaching was that this was a "secret" to great composition. A lot of crappy artists made mediocre compositions based off the golden ratio as well. The art based on it is an effect of the mystical belief that it was a special ratio, not the other way around.

If I were advising an artist or a photographer just learning how to compose shots, I would advise them to line up lines and patterns in the shots where one wants the eye to flow, and to avoid doing so where one does not want the eye to venture (ie, a line started in your subject and extending through a background distraction only enhances the distraction). Obviously using a set pattern and arranging the focal points of a piece on that pattern's lines achieves this, but without an intellectual understanding of what you are doing and generally leads to too-familiar effects. I would also advise them to balance the shot if they want a relaxing image, which is another effect following any of the "special ratio" rules will generally yield. I would give this advice, rather than to line things up on specific patterns, because it gives them a logical understanding of what they are trying to achieve, and what they will achieve by breaking the same rules. It is teaching them to fish rather than giving them one specific fish.

Even by fstoppers standards publishing this article is shameful. I want to ask the side editors whether they contacted the HCB Foundation to check the alleged facts? Which is a rhetorical question, because I bloody well know they didn't. HCB wrote extensively about his work and he never once mentioned this idiocy. This is dragging out the corpse of one of the greatest names in photography and, frankly allowing an obvious nut to desecrate it.

Really, there isn't enough shame in the world. Idiotic articles are one thing, but articles that lie about founders of the art this site is supposed to be about are another.

>> There exist a lot of references, books, and articles stating HCB did use the golden ratio.

I.e. you nuts make the claim and repeat it to each other. That means nothing. HCB write extensively about how he worked: if the claim that he used used the Idiotic Ratio was true then he would have said so, yes?

>> You seem to be claiming that you are an official expert on HBC.

Nope. You think that because you are an idiot who invented a Phd for himself.

>> The literature vehemently disagrees with you on multiple levels

Nope. Nut books on the Idiotic Ration disagree with me. ALL HCB'S WORKS AGREE WITH ME. ALL THE MAJOR BOOKS ON HIS WORK AGREE WITH ME.

Really - you should be ashamed. Literally. Trying to make your pathetic life more interesting by inventing a degree for yourself and ranting about stuff you don't understand is one thing. Putting words into the mouth of a dead man is another.

No, I'm saying that you are lying about the book says because you have shortened the quote to change its meaning:

>> In applying the Golden Rule, the only pair of compasses
at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes. Any geometrical
analysis, any reducing of the picture to a schema, can be done only (because
of its very nature) after the photograph has been taken<<

I.e HCB said that he did NOT use the GR to compose - that doing so was impossible and stupid. You can draw spirals on pictures afterwards if it makes you happy - but they won't help you shoot. "The only pair of compasses
at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes" does not mean, as you stupidly claimed, "apply the GR using your eyes" but "use your own judgement".

Really Elliot, you're not bright enough to play this game. You just get into trouble. For example, where does your Phd come from and what is the title of your thesis? If it came from any respectable source then we should be able to verify that quite easily...

Hint: if you are tempted to quote a small part of its source so you can claim an untrue meaning for it, ***check that the full text isn't available online.***

Great article!

Hi Elliot. You can go to my website dynamicsymmetryart.com. I have a lot of information there for photographers that want to treat photography as an art form. Any questions you can email me through my website.

Hi Elliot.

Yeah, my initial response was more direct. In my experience, after teaching design for many years, I've learned that photography websites are not the best forum for these types of articles. As you can witness for yourself, they feed on trolls and photographers that have no interest in learning how to create artistic images.

If a classically trained artist saw the comments above, they would shake their head in disgust. And yet, at the same time, photographers get offended when a classically trained artist makes the comment that photography is not art (an example of this can be found on the Art Renewal Center website). Why do they get offended? Because photographers aren't trained as artists, and they can't distinguish the differences between the two.

The truth is, most photography websites have nothing to do with art. These include Improvephotography.com, PetaPixel, The Art of Photography, Digital Photography School, etc. Most are nothing more than places for gearheads to go and debate camera sensor pixel counts and the technical aspects of camera equipment, software, etc. And if any brave soul dare writes an article on composition that has information on topics other than the Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, Leading Lines and so on, photographers get defensive. Why? Because they don't have any knowledge on any other design concepts outside of these child-like composition principles.

Additionally, while I have nothing against shooting with great camera gear, as I have been buying Leica cameras for over 20 years, the camera a photographer shoots with won't create art. Creating art comes from learning a set of art skills, that ironically, most photographers never receive.

With that said, for any photographer that has a genuine interest in creating artistic images, I recommend the books The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry by Michel Jacobs, Geometry of Design by Kimberly Elam, Classical Drawing Atelier by Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier by Juliette Aristides, Pictorial Composition by Henry Rankin Poore, and Myron Barnstone's drawing videos lesson 7 & 10.

Good luck.

This is easily one of the better articles in this otherwise quite rubbish site. It is mind boggling how many art cripples are commenting against it here without having a single dicent pictures in there portfolio.

Yup, this article again. Only one problem. HCB was shooting in a 1.5 rectangle. The golden section rectangle is a 1.618. Additionally, all this talk about the decisive moment, and how it’s proof that HCB used Dynamic Symmetry. Wrong! The example in the book is a cropped photograph of the original and the 1.5 rectangle is not a Dynamic Symmetry rectangle.