I love children's books and that has nothing to do with buying them for kids. I buy them for me! And I buy them for the illustrator, not the author. There are children's picture books that have amazing, beautiful and highly creative compositions. That's what I look for and I find them inspiring. I believe that we grow as photographers, too, when we look at artwork beyond photography and think about how it applies to what we do. Here are some examples:
This book of the famous Robert Frost poem has illustrations by Susan Jeffers (there is a new version which I don't have yet). Her work is always remarkable. Immediately on the cover you see a striking composition. Notice the use of space, size relationships and emphasis, as well as pattern and texture. This also shows up in the spread below. These are great examples of what can be done visually with a vertical and a horizontal using similar elements. The third image, another spread, shows a remarkable interplay of close and far, using size relationships in unexpected ways. While we can't easily do things as extreme as snowflakes and people, we can work a close-up with a wide-angle lens and play with such visual elements.
There are so many books I could pull from my collection of children's books. I will often pull one out just to be inspired by the art or even just the wonderful stories and creative approaches to communicating to an audience that they show. I find children's books also calming and uplifting as a whole as well. There is something very positive about them. Sometimes if I am feeling down, I will go to the bookstore and check out the children's picture books.
This next book, Red Fox Running, with paintings by Wendell Minor, also starts with a stunning cover. This in some ways is compositionally just the opposite of the Frost book. Here the setting is reduced to a small area of the background and the subject is dominant in the frame. Yet, both are important. The setting in the background is very important for story of place and is also visually important. The next spread is fascinating for its use of composition that is "against the rules" and a superb example of the power of getting the subject out of the middle. Notice that the fox is close to both the left edge of the picture as well as the spread and looking off the page. You will hear folks who get caught up in rules for composition say that you should never have a subject looking off the image like that, but notice how powerful it is and how it gives the fox a strong feeling of aliveness. The next spread is similar. Notice now how small the fox is in the composition, yet shows strongly because of contrast and its position in the frame. It is also "leaving" the frame, which again gives a strong energy to the image.
The next set of pages comes from a remarkable book of images, The Yellow Train, with art by Francois Roca. Again, right away on the cover, you see some remarkable things. First is the use of space. This is an unusual use of the subject high at the top of the frame, though it has some things in common with the fox and grass page seen above. The composition is also very bold from its simplicity of forms and shapes. The next spread shows a remarkable use of design that creates an abstract use of shape and color while also communicating a sense of the trains and the location. The use of the boy and grandfather instantly gives us a sense of scale. They are very important to the photo even though very small and low in the frame. In the third spread, you see an amazing use of pattern and line that creates a complex composition that is still totally understandable. Look at the train at the lower right (you don't need much of it to understand), the lines of the bridges, then the dirigible at the upper left, then the city against the sky at the upper left. That small bit of sky creates a feeling of depth to the image that is very important (cover it with your hand to see what I mean) – this is something Eliot Porter used to do in many of his intimate landscape photos, put a small bit of sky at an upper corner (it has to be small or it will fight for attention). The building at the far left with people is also a remarkable use of a frame to the scene.
Finally, one of my favorite children's book author/illustrators, David Wiesner. I could have picked any number of his books. The Three Pigs is one of my favorites. In all of his books, he challenges us visually and uses few or even no words. His books all communicate on a visual level so strongly that we don't need words, a great inspiration for what is possible visually in any visual medium. This book plays with us in some unique visual ways, starting with the pig "escaping" his story in a conventional looking set of images. Notice the words and the look of the wolf at the right. This book is so much about how we perceive the world and breaking conventions. All of the pigs escapes the bounds of their stories. Now the composition becomes flowing and very simple. Wiesner is treating the "pages" of the old book as unique visual elements. For me, this encourages us to maybe look at scenes we see all the time with new eyes (Wiesner certainly is looking at this old fairy tale of the three pigs with new eyes).
The next spread is really remarkable. This is it! Mostly space. The pigs made a paper airplane of their book pages and took off. This is so against the "rules" and really shows what is possible if we are willing to push the composition. It is powerful and effective with just the back of pigs and plane way up at the left. This is dramatic, bold and such a strong use of space. In the last spread here, the pigs have rescued a dragon from another book (they have been skipping in and out of other books) – check out the drawing of the page with the prince and the text. Notice in this image how the artist has used the entire picture area effectively from left to right. This is like a panoramic frame, and while there is an important interaction to the right of center, there are visual elements from far left to far right that carry our eye through the image. The image is highly structured as a composition, yet it still holds many little details that tell the story. I find that fascinating. It is that structure that holds these storytelling details together.
So, the next time you are at the library or bookstore, check out the children's picture book section. There are some amazing things there that can inspire us all as photographers. As you can tell, I am not one who believes photographers can only learn from photography. Art Wolfe talks about the influence of many classic painters on his photography in the book he and I did, The Art of the Photograph. Some of those painters have influenced me, too, but I have to admit that modern children's picture books are both an influence and a pleasure to look at for me.