The picture must by its mere arrangement make you look at it.

Having looked — see!

Having seen — enjoy!

-William Mortensen

In an effort to improve my work I recently came upon an old photography book originally published in 1937, entitled The Command to Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze . The book, out of print since forever, has been recently reprinted in paperback by Feral House Press.

For many years Mortensen failed miserably as a photographer. Yet his stubbornness, his failures, and his lowly apprenticeships in the early days of Hollywood helped him synthesize the basic ingredients behind a good picture. By developing a physchologists level of insight into the physche, he formulated a methodology built upon a series of metrics and truisms which produced his own personal algorithm for pictorial success.

Mortensen’s #1 rule was that a “picture must, by its mere pattern, make you look at it”. This “rule” seems painfully obvious, but it’s execution is in understanding how our unconscious minds determine what makes some pictures more interesting than others. As artists, we are constantly trying to determine just how to make pictures that make people look. Mortensen felt that fear was the determining factor in making compelling images. He goes on to state quite explicitly that, “Primitive man is surrounded by things that he fears. [Therefore], understand that there are four types of visual stimuli that directly call forth the fear response.”

William Mortensen’s 4 Types of Visual Stimuli

  1. The Diagonal – The symbol of swift menacing movement, we may not know what it is, but we know that it moves
  2. The S-Curve – The symbol of furtive secret movement, something that slithers
  3. The Triangle – The threat of sharpness and violence, a tooth, a blade, etc
  4. The Dominant Mass – An obstacle to our movement, it is compact and formidable

Mortensen’s firecracker of a book is an explanation of these four principles as well as other insights into visual perception. The book also features lush reproductions of sixty-six images of Mortensen’s best work. The book can be purchased from Feral Books.

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