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The Decalogue of Ideal Photography

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Platon Rivellis was born in Athens, Greece in 1945. He studied Law in Athens (1963-1968), Political Sciences in Paris (1968-1970) and Photography in the USA (1983). He worked as a lawyer in Athens for twelve years (1971-1983). He has been teaching Photography since 1981 in various venues. He has organised the model departments of Photography of the “Laiki Epimorphosi” (Ministry of Education – Adult Educational Programmmes) and taught its instructors. He has edited a series of programmes on Photography shown on Greek National Television; he also edited many photographic books and curated many exhibitions. He has delivered numerous seminars and lectures on photography in Athens, Cyprus and elsewhere. He has exhibited his work in both solo and group exhibitions. His articles have been published in numerous Greek newspapers and magazines. He is the Director of the “Photohoros” publications. He founded in 1988 the “Photography Circle” society, of which he is the President. He is the author of several books – theoretical publications and albums with photographs.

The Decalogue of Ideal Photography

by Platon Rivellis

I have studied the works of great photographers for many years with the purpose of either the teaching or enjoyment of their work. My studies have led me to discern several common factors, which in some way and to some extent come together in an ideal photograph.

As with any approach to art and art works, what I am attempting to do through this article is to journey to areas where there are no specifics and that can only be probed at. Of course, to make an approach is not necessarily to embrace full knowledge. Indeed, this would be undesirable, since a full understanding of art (which is luckily impossible) would eradicate the dimension of mystery which in fact justifies its existence.

So, let not the studious reader attempt to implement this decalogue of common factors on every photograph, as if it were a code breaker, for the characteristic of a significant work is that it always slips through one’s fingers, so as to continue to exist beyond all attempts to authentically interpret it.

Nor does it make any sense for the conscientious or ambitious photographer to attempt to pre-impose these criteria onto his photographs. It is sufficient that he is able to recognize them when by fortuitous circumstance they emerge in his work. Besides, everything that can be said about a photograph discreetly bows and retreats in the face of two paramount moments: that in which the photographer decides to click the shutter and that in which his photograph communicates for the first time with a refined and sensitive observer. This is the only way in which a new world is born and souls are found to inhabit it. The only way, finally, for a photographer to successfully create his work is to continue to work, multiplying the traces of the photographed world in his collection, and for the audience to thirstily seek out any such tracks.

Absolute Proposition

A photograph should command respect. Not by its excellence, nor by its often suspect attempt to charm, but by its presence, which should contain a comprehensive and credible proposition. It should not allow the audience to doubt the sincerity of its intensions. It should not expose a photographer who doubts. It should not leave room for its time and space to come under suspicion. Then the audience, whether or not the result has led them to an epiphany, will respectfully bow to an honorable and dynamic presence well able to express an affirmation. The understanding of the significance of time and space in photography is important to the understanding of the catastrophic effect of photographic doubt. Furthermore, this observation, as with all the others, can be applied (possibly with minor changes) to every art form. Thus, the brush stroke on a painting should enliven the artist’s decision to leave his mark or the sudden entrance of the wind section of an orchestra leave the listener in any doubt that it came at just the right moment. The viewer should, in effect, identify with the photographer, and click the shutter with him saying “I too was there”.

Altered Values

There is nothing in the world of the senses that can be simply transported into the world of photography. Already, from the very moment that we enclose a recognizable object within four sides and deny it to its neighbouring world something changes. What is significant is that that which we are used to seeing in reality, which we recognize in a specific way and which we grant a specific place in our visual hierarchy, in a photograph acquires a different dimension and an increased value. A shadow, a sign, a fold of material, an inclination of the body, a lighted window and anything else which in the sum of reality occupies an insignificant position, in a photograph, isolated from everything else which ran with it in life, cut off from its time duration, takes on another function and is upgraded into something which from now on categorically influences the life of the image in a way nonexistent in reality. The photographer fishes for details and offers them up again in altered form. It is for this reason that the viewer recognizes when faced with the familiar that it is at the same time unique.

The Black and the White

A photographic image can give a good deal of varied information that may diversely affect a great many people. From the point of view of art the only piece of information which is of interest is the whole image and only that. For this reason, however, whatever is include within the frame of the photographic image, even that which bares no recognizable element, no specific information, in other words absolute black or white, has an equal significance with any other square millimeter of the image. A photographer speaks through these as well, just as a composer uses pause and the poet the break. The use of these areas, which contain no information, carries equal weight and expresses function and values to the same degree with a descriptive portion of the frame. The removal or translocation of these blank spaces will mutilate the image and alter the weight of any other visible piece of information. The black and the white areas of a picture are its zero point. Zero may have no autonomous arithmetical presence, but it is because of it the other numbers exist.


The narrow content of a photographic image, no matter how significant, cannot create dynamism or arouse curiosity. The artist is all the more capable to the degree that he can make his work complex and contradictory, so that at the exact moment that the viewer attempts to categorize and interpret the work of art, the work itself will invalidate the estimation. In other words, there should be interrelated readings; where the photograph is moving towards a narration, its composition draws it towards aestheticism, or the harsh humour of an image is balanced by its curvaceous form. This is a pendulum where the more extreme its movement is towards one side, the more dynamic is its return to the other. Finally the game of contrasts ends up as a game of balance. The ultimate simplicity hides immeasurable complexity and vice verse.

Dominant Element

Each photograph covers a very small space. It is a world in miniature; life in a catchphrase and it cannot endure much more. If we expect a lot from it then what little there is will be hidden from us. The immature verbosity of many young artists who wish to include everything they know and can imagine into each photograph, smothers and weighs down their work, creates confusion and visual and intellective noise. It reminds one of architects who will overload their structures in arabesque detail from the narcissistic desire to show that they can, or the authors who write their first book as if it were their last. Each image should have a single rhythm, a single breath and persuade us that it has categorically isolated a certain something. Else why should time stop and space be restricted? So, in each good photograph there is a single dominant element, a single ingenious discovery. This is what supports the weight of the image, framed, of course, by auxiliary details. It is the magic moment, the charismatic adjunct, that little something that owes its presence to the talent and genius of the artist. Its absence would leave us with a photograph that is perhaps correct but certainly not good.

The Four Sides

A photograph is born out of the body of reality. It is a choice based on exclusion. A photographer creates by excluding elements of the world he does not wish to include within his frame. The four sides act as a knife, a guillotine. They are, therefore, limits of decisive importance, since they will exclusively capture those elements of the world that the photographer will use to mould his own universe. With this act, however, those objects that have been excluded acquire a significance of equal prominence, since in such an evaluation the act itself is nothing more than the other face of what is left undone. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that a photograph is created by what is not included within its frame, since it is this absence that bestows a unique and often mysterious significance on what remains. Based on these thoughts, we can say that in the ideal photograph the four sides define with absolute severity those things which are limited by the frame and emphasize the relationship between them. At the same time, they constitute a bridge and a relationship between what is enclosed by the frame and those things which the viewer suspects continue to move around it. The photographic image thus acquires mobility which projects it outside of the frame. Boundaries connote continuance.


What is most important is never spoken, never confessed. It remains an ethereal and incomplete proposal or is whispered so quietly that only a distant echo reaches the recipient. It may be that this is because what is important can never be entirely specific, perhaps because we are afraid that what we say out loud will be a pale translation of our faith, if not a betrayal of it, perhaps because we feel that when meaning is dressed in words it turns to ashes. So in photography what we see hides what we avoid expressing and at the same time allows it to be seen. In this way we ask for the help and the complicity of the audience. In this way we secure a continuance in time for the content of our work. Each photograph is a Delphic oracle where all is made clear, yet something is hidden, not through symbols but by implication. There are just as many approaches as there are interpreters.· AllusionsA photograph makes reference. It makes reference to events in the photographer’s life, to his fantasies, but chiefly to photographers he has admired. The viewer is also searching for similar emotionally rich moments in memories of his own life, and if his knowledge allows it, he too will enter the game of photographic allusions. The artist moves in two spheres of exploration; one which has to do with his life and the world and the other which has to do with the art that he serves. Each photograph is a proposal of how the artist sees the world and at the same time how he sees Photography. His position within photographic history, however humble that may be, is part of the challenge. So in a specific photograph, apart from what the photographer loved or hated in his life, the viewer is also able to read what the photographer admired or rejected in Photography. The obvious or implied allusions that a specific photograph attempts either consciously or unconsciously, either in honour of or as an anathema of what has gone before, constitute both additional energy and interest for the viewer.

At the Edge of a Precipice

An artist should take risks. Should walk a tight rope. Should stand at the edge of a precipice. Art and the dangers it conceals are a challenge for creativity, just as the world and what is so often a negative reality are causes of creativity. The more a photographer flirts with failure, the greater are his chances of success. A ‘playing-it-safe’ success leads to works that are predictable and therefore consumable. The struggle with failure, when it results in victory, leads to estimable works. The dangers delineate the measure of success. A good photograph also implies the failure that it avoided but which it moved hair-raisingly close to. Besides, art conceals curiosity; curiosity about the limits of Photography and of the photographer; and if one does not go to the edge how is one to discover them?


Abstraction is synonymous with art, despite the fact that for a long time it identified itself very restrictively and mistakenly to non-representation. The term is relative to amplification since it surpasses everything it portrays, abstracting its obvious function. Yet it is much more closely related to precision and spareness. So we come to the initial meaning of the term that is the distancing of anything unnecessary. This is what constitutes the artist’s greatest battle and possibly his fundamental insecurity. Like the sculptor who discards pieces of the stone, making each movement all the more critical, until he reaches the point where the next blow of the hammer could destroy the work. In significant photography nothing is superfluous and nothing important is absent. Then, the metamorphosis is revealed and hyperbole is born of abstraction.

Rivellis, P. The Decalogue of Ideal Photography. Retrieved from

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