Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Importance of the Subject in Photography

Would you stop a group of complete strangers on the street with, “ May I talk to you for a moment? I have something very interesting to tell you. This is so meaningful and important please take the time to hear me out. You won’t be disappointed. This IS worth your time.” Would you have the nerve to do something like that? This is exactly what you do when you display your photographs. If you aspire to artistry then the content of your photographs must say something to the viewers of your work and say it well enough to be a thoughtful, transformational experience.

I am often asked by my students for ways to improve their photography. Indeed this is one obligation of a photography teacher. Most students are looking for technical advice, others for some magic formula or secret they are convinced we old timers know that they do not. Knowing this secret will then make them the photographers they wish to be, showing photos displaying amazing technical wizardry and wrenching content. My recommendations vary with the person and the circumstance, but rarely contains technical advice as that is generally not what most need. After looking at the work of hundreds of students and other photographers, many very talented technically, I have come to the conclusion that rarely is it lack of technique that makes a person’s photographs mediocre or downright boring. Rather it is their content or more precisely their lack of content, feeling, point of view, or anything else indicating that the photographer has an interest or knowledge of the selected subject. Picking up a camera is like sitting down to write. You must have something to say, something for which you have passion.

Many new and even seasoned photographers appear always to be looking for new technical procedures, but not at all interested in the subjects of their photographs. To be blunt there are no secrets in photography. If you know your camera and have a decent knowledge of exposure and then read fifty more articles on exposure what will you gain from the reading? - a quarter of a stop or something equally useless?

Having taught for over fifty years I have seen many earnest students floundering instead of producing good photographs. They wanted their work to deserve the label Art with the capital A yet they continually produced commonplace work. Neither they nor their viewers were really interested in their photographs. They produced technical exercises rather than engrossing pictures of people, places or things that they loved.

Imagine you are going to write a book or article. In what subject are you truly interested? What about this subject do you wish to share with others? These are two simple questions often overlooked by both new and used photographers. Instead they become caught in one of two traps fatal to their goal of producing truly significant photographs. Both of these traps tend to make you miss the whole point of being a photographer, which is that you must have a subject you feel worth communicating to others.

The first trap is equipment. Photography is the only art form that I know of in which the practitioners worship their equipment. I know many artists, yet have never known a painter to brag about his brushes or serious writers to spend hours comparing typewriters or word processors or sculptors spending hours discussing their chisels. Yet most of my time spent with photographers is spent listening, ad nauseam, about this or that make of camera or lens or tripod, film, paper, etc., etc., etc.

Indeed if you want to impress your fellow photographers you never have to show any work at all. Just show up at any gathering of photographers with a very expensive camera hanging around your neck. You will immediately be revered by half of the crowd. If you walk into a group of painters with a two hundred and fifty-dollar Kolinsky brush expecting to be fawned over you will be very disappointed. Carry a Leica or Hasselblad around a photographic gathering and you don’t even have to boast of your skill, many will take it for granted. As a result some new photographers spend more time worrying about the size of their wallets rather than learning necessary skills. They become convinced that if they could only afford the latest megabuck machine they would certainly be able to take pictures just like the big guys.

Of course the ad agencies that sell camera are only too willing to exploit this. Because of this many potential photographers never achieve anything because they are convinced that they can’t afford to be a good photographer. They don't realize that many of the photographs in museums and being sold for outrageous prices were made with simple, non-precise, old wooden cameras, with shutters that probably never gave the same exposure twice and with lenses that by today’s standards would barely qualify as the bottom of a Coke bottle. How in the world did Ansel and Edward do it? While we are at it how did Lord Byron manage to write his poetry without a Pentium IV computer and Microsoft Word?

The second trap is technique. Do not misunderstand me on this point. You do have to know how your equipment works, how to arrive at a decent exposure, and how to print, but learning technique is like learning grammar. You can bore a person to death with perfect sentences. You can become an expert grammarian and never ever come close to being a writer or poet. I am sure you have seen beautiful photographs, gorgeously printed, that were tedious. Too many have made technique the end-all of their photography. They become superior technicians, not photographers.

Many of these technicians, when they actually do some photography, become positively anal in their working procedures, refusing to do anything unless all conditions are “perfect.” I remember one such person telling me with great pride that he put his finished film in Photo-Flo for exactly twenty-seven seconds. In point of fact if it stayed there for thirty seconds he would have been very distressed. He rarely had any work to show instead was worrying constantly about the technical perfection of his work.

The photographic world has a very large group of people I call oral photographers. They know everything about every piece of equipment, film, paper, the arcane chemistry of the photographic process, lighting, composition, etc. They can talk about all of this for hours. Oral photographers have the same effect on many new photographers as being in the presence of someone wearing an expensive camera. The new photographer becomes intimidated by all of this exotic knowledge they feel they must learn. Being an oral photographer is a great way to impress the troops but the end result for a student photographer can be the same as being intimidated by equipment; they pursue technique and knowledge as if these were the ultimate goals or they just become discouraged and quit.

Both of these obsessions are insidious in another way too. They are great cover for hiding from yourself the fact that you may have absolutely nothing to offer the world as a serious photographic artist. Worse, they prevent you from addressing and overcoming this correctable state of affairs. As long as you lack the proper equipment and the necessary knowledge, who could expect you to produce great photographs of artistic merit? You will be fully supported in this thinking by many fellow photographers who have the same feelings or by the jealous, egotistical ones who do not want anyone else becoming more accomplished than they are.

Expensive equipment and loads of informed photographic chatter will bring praise and ego stroking, but to actually show a photograph you then open yourself up to (Heaven Forbid!) criticism. My goodness, someone might not like your photographs. Your cover is blown. Now you are just some poor goof with a camera producing lousy pictures. Much safer to hide behind the logo on your camera or telling other people that putting the tripod leg in their sock and developing in a mixture of Dektol and cucumber dressing would have produced the master print.

Why this depressing and seemingly pervasive state of affairs? Part of the reason is understandable. We work in a visual art that depends on cameras, light, and chemistry. There are certain aspects of photography that are pure chemistry and physics. If the numbers are right then the negative or print will be well exposed or well printed. Also there is a learning curve. First some basic exposure must be learned. Light and lighting must be learned. Composition, maybe studio skills, and darkroom skills are also necessary. Lately we have to add computer skills too. Yet with reasonable effort these skills can be mastered quickly enough so that you will be producing fairly competent work on a regular basis in about six months to a year. Maybe not master level work, but launched and on your way. It is during this stage that the siren song of equipment and technique weave their spell - so beware.

Having mastered the basics of technique where should you go from that point - the point of this essay? Answering the following questions is important. What are you trying to accomplish with your camera? Is there something in your life that you are passionate about- some consuming interest – but not photography? What, if anything, are you trying to communicate? What do you wish the people looking at your photographs to come away with? If you were to sit down to write a book what would you write about? That is what you should photograph. You need a subject for your photography. To be only interested in photography probably means you will be a poor photographer. Remember the grammarians?

My favorite subject is funerary art, especially Victorian cemetery artifacts. I aspire to interpret the statuary based on my feelings about death and my perceived feelings of the sculptor. This interest has involved years of reading and research and hundreds of hours trekking through as many cemeteries as I am able. I even belong to an organization dedicated to the study of gravestones and have written for publication on the subject. This informs my photographs.

My other loves are - in no particular order – architecture, machinery, the moods induced by fog, and the human body in motion, the latter consisting mostly of pictures of hockey players and dancers. These are the subjects for which I am both passionate and knowledgeable. These are the subjects that I photograph and show to strangers. I know gravestones and cemeteries well. This is reflected (I hope) in my work.

Some subjects don’t require special knowledge. I love foggy days and nights. I know what fog is though I am not a meteorologist or scientist. But I have observed and thought extensively about what fog does to a scene. I have watched the effect of fog on the light. I have written about it in my personal journals. I have learned which seasons, what kind of weather, and where and what time in my geographic area to go when fog is expected. So even though there isn’t a large knowledge base I still have the edge over the photographer who has given no thought to the subject at all.

We sometimes try to become like our photographic heroes. Many photographers try to emulate St. Ansel or St. Edward traveling with their cameras to deserts and California shores. Most gloss over the fact that the best photographs these two gentlemen made were of subjects with which they were deeply involved. Adams did not just visit Yosemite; he lived there and knew it intimately. He saw more sunrises over Half Dome than the average grizzly bear. He photographed what he loved and that which had meaning for him. Weston did the same. His passion and eye for for good design made his peppers and potties pop. His love of Point Lobos and his love for the models he photographed are there to see in his pictures. None of their photographs were just technical exercises. The subjects they depicted were important to them. The same can be said of any meaningful photographic work.

What are your subjects? What do you feel that you can show the strangers on the street that will be worth their while? I am not talking about the occasional lucky shot, the marvelous or horrible thing that occurred when you just happened to be there with a camera. I am talking about a body of work that you develop over a period of time, maybe a lifetime. What do you have to show for the time and money? Your work needs a subject. You need to have passion and love for that subject. You need to be able articulate that subject verbally. This implies knowledge and thought. It does not matter what your interests are. Anything from Aardvark Husbandry to Zebra Watching will do. When you raise the camera to your eye you will bring so much more to a photograph when the vision is informed.

As a visual artist you need an internal life to draw upon for your art. No amount of money spent on cameras and accessories, not even a Ph.D. in Photographic Science will make you a successful photographer. My definition of success? When people stop to look at your photographs, in effect to hear you out, and they walk away thrilled, informed, and changed in their perceptions; glad they took the time. Seeing your photography has been a worthwhile experience. However incremental, you have made a difference in their lives. That is as good as it gets.

Frank Calidonna


John Dykstra said...

Photography student here, who wants to be an artist. This is a great article. I noticed you haven't written anything new recently and I hope you write more. Promptly favorited.

Anonymous said...

Great article, reminds me of the wonderful book, 'Art and Fear'.