Itten’s Contrasts – An Old Bauhaus Trick

I came upon the concept of Itten’s Contrasts in a photography book by Michael Freeman, The Photographer’s Eye (great book, by the way). Johannes Itten was a Bauhaus instructor who identified contrasts as the main element of composition.

If you’ve studied arts or graphics you’re no doubt familiar with this idea. Itten taught students to identify contrasting elements: long/short, high/low, black/white, much/little (and so on). It also helps explain the contrasts of human form and emotion, with sentimentality, as one example, being the sunny side of cynicism.

Freeman suggests photographers start the exercise by pairing two photographs, each containing an element that contrasts with the other. The exercise progresses to including both contrasting elements in one photograph. For example:


Train at Alviso - ©ingridtaylar

Train at Alviso – ©ingridtaylar




At Morro Bay - ©ingridtaylar

At Morro Bay – ©ingridtaylar


Horizontal and Vertical:

Powerlines at Palo Alto Baylands - ©ingridtaylar

Powerlines at Palo Alto Baylands – ©ingridtaylar

Itten and Creative Absolutes

So, Itten got me thinking . . . about the absolutes, the boxes, the frames that keep people constrained to an identity or a style. It’s something I think about frequently. One of the earliest mandates for a writer is to find “your voice” and stick to it. Or as one blogging advice column suggested, “decide who you are and stay there. Readers want to know who they’re going to find when they land on your blog.” Which is to say, Sybil should forget about her page views.

But what if your voice is a representation of Itten’s contrasts? Very few of us view life through a single filter. What if you are overwhelmed daily with the brilliance that is the world . . . but simultaneously confronted with the chaos or cruelty as it pertains to that brilliance . . . then delighted by the cosmic humor, and then dismayed in our inability to delight in the whole package? More enlightened selves than my-self have managed this conundrum throughout time.

Of course, your voice, who you are is a constant, even if that constancy is a duality and changeability. Even Kafka’s Gregor couldn’t pretend he wasn’t an insect when he was flailing upside down with his giant beetle legs in the air. So what I’m getting at, if I could just get to the point, is that dichotomies are the composition of life . . . and they’ll make for nice pictures, too. If you come to this blog and the voice sounds more like a wood rot fungus than a human some days, consider yourself a guest in the realm of Itten, dualities and complexities noted and appreciated.

On that note, I’ve never actually explored Itten’s Contrasts photographically. So, over the next few weeks, I’ll be making my way through the list. And if you’re also so inspired, send me your pics and I’ll post them.

  • First item: Point/Line. Separate photos, then the elements together in one photo.

Related post: The 12 Days of Itten’s Contrasts

More Itten Posts: Itten’s Contrasts