The Rule of Thirds

26 October 2018 | Grids and Freedom in Photography and Sketching Manuals

This post, like the last, is about grids, the grid that represents the so-called “Rule of Thirds” — a rectangle divided into nine smaller ones of equal size. This compositional device was used in advice literature for amateur photographers in the nineteenth century and is still referred to by digital photographers today, and even built in to Instagram (although the advice was that it does not apply to square pictures — take that, Instagram).

It is tempting to imagine that this grid, overlaid on a scene in a viewfinder or an app, derives from Renaissance drawing aids such as those described in Alberti’s De Pictura or illustrated in Durer’s Treatise on Measurement (Friedberg 38-41). However, such devices were constructed not to aid composition but to facilitate perspectival drawing, while the photographic camera automates the construction of perspectival space.

More likely, it derives from British nineteenth-century drawing and watercolour manuals, of which there were a huge number. Frank Howard’s 1837 The Sketchers Manual includes such a grid, where the intersections of the lines indicate “strong” points of a picture, i.e. those areas of the picture where the subject, or points of light or dark, should be placed (Howard 44-49).

Howard’s grid appeared only two years before the announcement of photography’s invention. It was a means to systematize the practice of sketching for amateurs — people such as William Henry Fox Talbot’s wife Constance and sister Caroline. According to Martin Kemp, their sketches, and Talbot’s, largely conform to the principles for picturesque composition set out in such manuals, regardless of whether they consulted them (Kemp 275-6).

The “nineteenth-century cult of sketching” and its picturesque aesthetic has been linked by Richard Sha to the English landed gentry’s appropriation of land and conception of property (Sha 73). The manuals use the word “taking” to describe sketching (and later photography), linking making pictures with ownership (Sha 77). Sketching manuals reaffirmed and naturalised the values of this class: the world is there to be taken.

Sha also points out that the manuals struggle with the tension between freedom and adherence to rules in sketching. The sketch gained its truth-value or documentary function through its sense of immediacy, which relied on loose and quick handling. This threatened to undermine the need for rules (and therefore for manuals). So the sketching manuals asserted that freedom could be won only by familiarity with the rules, necessary to discipline both eye and hand. In a footnote, Sha links this to Terry Eagleton’s description of custom, habit, and sentiment as central to hegemony in contrast to absolutist rule. Power becomes aestheticised when it becomes embodied, spontaneous, “lived out in unreflective custom” (Eagleton 20).

The earliest Ilford Manual of Photography, by Charles Herbert Bothamley, first published in 1891, includes a Rule of Thirds grid (in the interwar edition I consulted), and emphasizes that this is a simplification of more complex techniques, a basic device which should not be adhered to “slavishly” since, “A true artist is not a slave to these principles, but is master of them, and utilizes them for the more satisfactory realization of his own ideas” (Bothamley 45). Similarly, the American M. Carey Lea’s Manual of Photography (1868) advises against “slavish” adherence to rules (Lea 174).

Slavery (incidentally, only abolished in the United States in the 1860s) is not contrasted to a freedom to ignore rules, but rather to an “acquaintance” with, and internalising of, such rules. This is Eagleton’s softer, hegemonic power, operating through taste, habit and custom, through the practice of a certain way of looking that is rooted in property relations. The value of the Rule of Thirds therefore, is not in the extent to which it helps a photographer produce “good” compositions (whatever those are) but in the extent to which it helps a photographer feel they are “master” (owner) and not slave. Through the overlaying of a simple grid, the world can be appropriated.

After all, if we have no rules, how will we know we are free?


Friedberg, Anne. The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.

Howard, Frank, The Sketchers Manual, or the Whole Art of Picture Making reduced to Its Simplest Principles by which Amateurs may Instruct Themselves without The Aid of a Master, London, 1837.

Kemp, Martin. “Talbot and the picturesque view: Henry, Caroline and Constance.” History of Photography 21, no. 4 (1997): 270-282.

Sha, Richard. “The power of the English nineteenth-century visual and verbal sketch: appropriation, discipline, mastery.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts24, no. 1 (2002): 73-100.

Bothamley, Charles Herbert, Manual of Photography, London: Ilford Limited. n.d.

Eagleton, Terry, Ideology of the Aesthetic., Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

Lea, M. Carey, Manual of Photography, Philadelphia, 1868.

Thinking through the Grid

16 October 2018 | On Dufaycolor and the Réseau

In 1932, Ilford Limited invested in a colour film product called Dufaycolor, manufactured by Spicer-Dufay. This was a colour reversal film (primarily for movies) based on the Frenchman Louis Dufay’s system of colour photography on glass plates (circa 1908). In brief, Dufaycolour was an additive, three colour, process, similar to the earliest commercial colour process, the Lumière Autochrome.

[To understand exactly how Dufaycolor worked and what it looked like, especially close-up, it’s best to head over to the Timeline of Historical Film Colors, a database created by Professor Barbara Flueckiger of the University of Zurich.]

However, while Autochrome used irregularly distributed grains of coloured potato-starch, the Dufaycolor process (like several other processes) used a réseau, a coloured geometric pattern of red, green and blue dyed onto the film , through which the black and white panchromatic emulsion would be exposed. The réseau acted as a filter both in the taking and the viewing of the film-image.

Réseau can be translated from French as network, mesh, grid or even web. We tend to think of chemical photography as characterised by a scattered random grain, with an indefinite set of values (shades of grey). Yet Dufaycolor systematized the image, and curiously there is a similarity between the way in which Dufaycolor worked and the way in which colour is sensed by a digital camera. The digital camera’s sensor is made using a photolithographic process and pitted with light sensitive cavities that record the number of photons hitting them as an electrical charge. The sensor is an analogue device, which cannot distinguish colours, so the usual system to rectify this involves a coloured mesh or mosaic — called a Bayer filter — placed over the sensor. This is strikingly like the réseau of Dufaycolor film and works in much the same way.

To some extent Dufaycolor demonstrates the poverty of our conventional ways of thinking about analogue photography and film. The analogue-digital distinction is based around an opposition between continuous and discrete signals, between sampling and direct translation, between numerical encoding (in French, digital is “numérique”) and an uncoded representation. While I am not suggesting Dufaycolor was in any sense digital, it sandwiched together on one surface the black and white emulsion with its irregular grain and infinite shades of grey and an RGB grid that we might associate more with electronic systems such as television and computers.

How to make sense of this grid? The grid is usually associated with rationalisation, standardisation and instrumentalisation, and opposed to the organic. The silver-halide grains of the film sit on the side of the organic in this crude opposition, as does the Lumière brothers’ potato starch Autochrome. Rosalind Krauss says that nineteenth century treatises on physiological optics were illustrated with grids as a means to convey “the separation of the perceptual screen from that of the ‘real’ world” (Krauss 57). Light passes through a “physiological screen” or filter in order to reach our perception. In the case of colour perception in particular, the grid signifies that colours do not exist objectively or singularly outside their interaction with neighbouring colours .

The réseau breaks up white light into its constituent parts: it acts as a filter in the sense that it controls what is let through and what is not. But it is also a net. It holds the image together. Computing too relies on grids of binary code, on cells and pixels but also on networks and grids that constitute the infrastructure linking computers to ones another (Higgins 253) . Hannah Higgins argues against the reduction of the notion of the grid to regulation and standardisation, writing that grids are “not physically flat, nor are they experientially flat , nor are they dimensionally pure” (Higgins 276).

In one sense the réseau base of Dufaycolor film can be seen as a step in what Paul Virilio saw as the history of the reduction of human sensory perception to a mechanized logistics of perception. Virilio directly links the losses of human perception with the gains of the photographic system: “While the human gaze became more and more fixed, losing some of its natural speed and sensitivity , photographic shots, on the contrary became even faster” (Virilio 13).

This dystopian picture of the photographic system growing in sensitivity at the expense of what was once a far more nuanced and subtle human perception, might be qualified with a view that sees film and photography as appealing to the sophistication of human vision. Writing on cinema and the notion of “persistence of vision”, Tom Gunning says, “I have always found it odd to describe as an imperfection our ability to blend two images into one” (Gunning 508). One of Dufaycolor’s main failings was that, blown up on the big screen of the cinema, the regular réseau was perceptible to human eyes used to the fine grain of panchromatic (black and white) cinema film. Rather than facilitating the hallucinatory spectacle of cinema, the grid had an unfortunate tendency to disrupt it.


Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids”. October 9 (1979): 51-64

Higgins, Hannah B.,The Grid Book, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2009.

Virilio, Paul, The Vision Machine, London: BFI, 1994 (originally published in French 1988)

Gunning, Tom, “Hand and Eye: Excavating a New Technology of the Image in the Victorian Era”, Victorian Studies 54 (3), Spring (2012): 495-516

Links for Technical Explanations


7 October 2018 | Light, air, purity and pollution

“Fogging” is a term widely used among darkroom photographers to describe streaks, blotches or an overall darkness caused either by light or by contaminants in the processing chemicals or atmosphere. I had always assumed it was a metaphor, since the effect on the image looks like a fog. But this week, I discovered there is a connection between “fogging” and the notorious London fogs.

In the Ilford Limited archive at Redbridge library there is a memo dated 19 January 1923, glued to a page in an experiment book about “troubles with fog”, which is about problem-solving to prevent “fogged” papers and films. The memo says, “We have definitely decided that in future coating of any kind of emulsion must not be commenced or proceeded with during a fog as the risk is not worth the small gain we aim at in coating during a fog”. I checked against the Met Office’s historic weather reports and there was fog in the London area on the 17th January 1923. So, on one page, fog refers simultaneously to the photographic phenomenon and the atmospheric one. The “risk” the memo refers to is presumably of contamination from atmospheric pollution, the “gain” might be the added moisture in the atmosphere that helped prevent film from curling during the coating process.

The London fogs were particularly noxious and persistent between 1870 and 1910, though they started to decline around 1900. They were a toxic consequence of London’s basin climate, and pollution produced largely by coal. This is also a period when photography underwent dramatic, rapid change, becoming fully industrialised and marked by a series of innovations: dry plates are introduced in 1871, also gelatine bromide papers, paper roll film (called stripping film), cellulose nitrate film from the 1880s, handheld cameras and new emulsions and developers. The Kodak model of lab processing for films delivered and returned in camera was instigated by George Eastman in 1888, and took off in the early 1900s (Sarvas and Frohlich).

This new industry relied on such ephemeral things as bright light and pure air. One of the greatest difficulties for early photographers in Britain was poor light, because of the limited sensitivity of early photographic emulsions. Dark winters with short days, rainy and foggy weather limited opportunities for natural light photography. The polluting, sulphorous yellow fogs, which could make the days as dark as night, not only prevented photographs being taken, but could ruin newly coated films and plates.

Mid-nineteenth century reformers blamed the fogs partly on the working class’s wasteful squandering of coal. As Bill Luckin argues, eugenic theory also linked the fogs to a racialised understanding of class, manifested in claims that the fogs were stunting the urban working class, rendering them “incapable of reproducing a strong and healthy ‘stock’” (Luckin 40). The fog became increasingly associated with ideas of urban degeneration and moral decline, and sunshine and pure air became linked to moral purity. The daytime darkness was associated with sin and corruption, the rise of the urban underworld, with crime and “aestheticism”. Just as bodily cleanliness was thought to reflect individual moral selfhood, so light and cleanliness in the city suggested the moral state of the city and nation.

The fogs affected the City of London far more than Greater London, which is one reason photographic manufacturers located themselves in the suburbs. But London expanded outward, and one appeal of places like Ilford was the ability to escape the fogs. In 1879, when Alfred Harman established his factory in Ilford, the town had a population of 7,000 and, the factory was surrounded by green fields on three sides, but by 1900 the population had grown to 20,000 (Hercock and Jones 47).

Unfortunately, as London expanded toward Ilford, the fog also relocated. The gasworks at Ilford expanded, as gas was promoted as a clean fuel by the anti-fog activists. The gas companies themselves donated money to the smoke abatement campaigns (Thorsheim 395). Gas appealed to a middle class who wanted to distance themselves not only from the smoke but from the associated workers (such as the sweep and the coal merchant). Yet while it was relatively clean at the point of use, gas was filthy at the point of production. As well as filling the air with fumes, the gasworks polluted the soil and waterways.

By 1900 London’s gas companies were consuming about 4 million tons of coal annually, and the pollution problem in places such as Ilford grew worse (Thorsheim 383). As Peter Thorsheim writes, the rise of the gas industry merely moved the pollution “from one environment and group of people to another” (Thorsheim 282). The “stunted” working classes were now to be found in the vicinity of the gasworks, while the acrid black smoke drove the well-off away (Thorsheim 386).

In 1899, in just one day, 25,000 plates were ruined through fogging at Ilford’s factory. Company historian A.J. Catford places the blame for the incident firmly on the sulphurated hydrogen emissions from the Ilford Gas Company’s new works “for the manufacture of Sulphate of Ammonia” (Catford 49-50). He claims that in May 1900 the board of Ilford Limited issued a writ against the gas company which they later withdrew, instead planning a new factory further out from London, in Brentwood, to avoid the pollution. In the meantime, engineers at the original plant invented a system to purify the air inside the factory, pioneering an early form of air-conditioning (Catford 50).

In a previous blog post I described photography as a technology for “cutting through the haze”. Photography’s sensitivity to contamination aligns it with sunlight, cleanliness and morality, even while the photography industry was itself a major pollutant. In the early twentieth century, the photographic companies’ appeals to amateur photographers to make the most the sun, the seaside, and the great outdoors, as well as their tips on photographic processing, will need to be understood in the context of ideas of purity and impurity, cleanliness and contamination, which emerged and developed out of the nineteenth century fog.


Sarvas, Risto and Frohlich, David M.,From Snapshots to Social Media: the Changing Picture of Domestic Photography, London: Springer, 2011.

Catford, A.J., Our first 75 years. Redbridge Museum and Library, Ilford Limited Archive, Box 1361, 90/359/E1/6

Luckin, Bill, “‘The heart and home of horror’: The great London fogs of the late nineteenth century.” Social History 28(1) 2003, 31-48.

Hercock, Robert J. and Jones, George A., Silver by the Ton: The History of Ilford Limited, 1879-1979, Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill, 1979.

National Meteorological Archive, Monthly Weather Reports

Thorsheim, Peter, “The Paradox of Smokeless Fuels: Gas, Coke and the Environment in Britain, 1813-1949.” Environment and History 8, no. 4 (2002): 381-401.

Further reading

Taylor, Jesse Oak, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2016.

Brimblecombe, Peter, The Big Smoke: A History of Air Pollution in London Since Medieval Times, London: Routledge, 2012.

Otter, Chris, The Victorian eye: a political history of light and vision in Britain, 1800-1910, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Thorsheim, Peter, Inventing pollution: coal, smoke, and culture in Britain since 1800, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006.

McClintock, Ann, Imperial leather : race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest, London: Routledge 1995.

Now and Then

5 October 2018 | Links between my work on contemporary photography and the Ilford Limited project

I plan to do two blog entries in fairly quick succession to try to link some of the various things I have been working on in the past week or so. This first one is about the connections between my research into Ilford Limited and work I have been doing about contemporary photographic practices.

For reasons unrelated to this research project, I was invited to the University of Westminster at Harrow by Lucy Soutter (author of Why Art Photography?) to give a lecture which I titled Big Photography - Small Talk. I talked about what social media is doing to our experience of photography and how critics, theorists and artists have responded to it, also the watery language used to describe the great volume of images and the question of whether a photograph can still be analysed as a singular thing. I looked at the idea that photographs have become a kind of chit-chat or small talk, how they are carriers of marketable data, and how social media encourages us to respond quickly and unthinkingly.

I was thinking about the connections between this and my Ilford research as I returned to the archive the next day. I am so used to moving between different worlds, making images and designs for musicians and then writing about academic subjects, or making my own visual work and teaching, that I don’t have too much of a problem with the idea that my practices do not seem outwardly linked. They feel connected to me, and I use the same ways of thinking (intuitive and analytical) in all of them. Yet in relation to writing and researching about photography, which really should be one area of my work, I find I am operating across another partition between historical research and contemporary criticism.

In my book Photography: The Unfettered Image I tried to overcome this separation — it was intended from the start to be a history written unashamedly from the perspective of, and in response to, the present moment of digital networked photography. I felt that in a rush to characterize and make sense of the present we were at risk of overlooking the possibility that mobility and fleetingness were characteristics that could be traced back to the early years of the medium.

I can make a related case for the connections between this project on Ilford and my preoccupation with the contemporary production and circulation of vast amounts of images. The project began partly because I felt that if I was going to make pronouncements about digital photography, I had to have a more nuanced understanding of what it replaced, of the world of analogue, chemical photography.

There are existing excellent histories of companies such as Kodak, Polaroid and of family photography but these largely discuss change in the consumption of photographs, the development of new practices of photographing and so on. I wanted to get a better understanding of the technical basis of this culture, by which I mean the chemical and industrial infrastructure. I set out to make sense of chemical photography or photographic chemistry as culturally shaping, in ways which go beyond photographic practices, and into other aspects of experience, just as digital networked images are fundamental to our experience in ways that extend beyond the making and viewing of photographs.

As I said in an earlier post on the history of the senses, I am guided by the idea, from Walter Benjamin, that new technologies alter not just what we experience with our senses, but the very nature of sensory experience. I don’t know if I will ever arrive at the point where I can connect sensory regimes and specific technical shifts, but that’s the broad goal: to understand what was reconfigured and rejigged by changes and innovations in photographic chemistry.

In the next blog I am going to try to put together some thoughts provoked by archival material I have been looking at. In particular, I aim to go back to the seaside, inside the home and immerse myself in the London fog, to go deeper into questions of light and exposure and perhaps also start to think about colour.