Finding your subject. How?

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by batwister, Mar 7, 2013.

  1. batwister

    batwister Member

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    Increasingly, I'm finding the photography I look at mostly interests me aesthetically/artistically. On only one occasion have I actually thought "that is what I want to photograph" when looking at work.
    The photographer in question made formal studies of intimate landscapes, but I've since realised that subjectively, it was his unique geology (often in exotic places) that interested me - which, as defeatist as it sounds, isn't something my part of the country is known for. I spent some time seeking out geological oddities - but only made odd pictures - and eventually became restless and disenchanted with the natural landscape altogether.

    As some might have gathered from my previous threads, I'm caught between a rock (no pun intended) and a hard place photographically.

    Since my move away from the natural scene I've been interested in the New Topographics and more modern work of that lineage - mostly large format colour.
    I'm coming to the same painful conclusion; that this simply isn't my forte. It has only led to fruitless and empty aesthetic explorations. As mentioned in another thread, when looking at my recent negatives, I'm just thinking "what the hell did I SEE!?"

    My subjective conflict, summed up, is essentially this:
    In my heart of hearts I feel investigating the medium is what interests me ultimately - I don't mean endlessly playing with paper and chemicals, but work which is about photographic seeing. Think Kertesz, Callahan, Eggleston and Raymond Moore (for those Brits who are familiar). But then there's 'documentary style' work (think Walker Evans, Paul Strand's later work and Alec Soth as a modern example). This kind of photography has a certain nobility, a straightforward, direct and dare I say, humanitarian approach which attracts me - subjective seeing, yet artful in construct. I'll get some flak for this, but quite simply, I live in a lifeless place. I'm uninspired by what I see.

    But how did you find your subject? Some, I'm assuming, will say they didn't think about it, that it was just intuition - but what if your intuition works against your better judgement!? What if it's wrong? By that I mean - leading to pictures only you understand or care about. I said in a recent post that making photographs to 'share' is a dead end, but what I do think is of absolute importance is connecting. For that, you have to find some striking universality in your subject. And I guess to find that, you have to be looking in places that you connect with. I'm still not sure I've found that. Where is it? :sad:

    In short, do you ever feel like you're just making compositions, as opposed to photographs?
     
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  2. lecarp

    lecarp Member

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    Keep in mind this is just my opinion and its meant to be helpful.

    No one can really give you the answer, the answer must come from inside. The problem is you don't trust your intuition.
    If your work does not come from your own intuition then the work isn't honest, if the work isn't honest its basically meaningless.
    I believe you might live in a place that is not the right place for you, if your work is important, move.
    Stop striving for universal appeal, honest work will find its audience, even if small they will be loyal.
    Stop thinking about it, don't look for answers in the work of others, don't look at their work period until you start to find
    your own way. Put away the camera for a while and just look, look with your intuition, just experience your surroundings. Try this for a while, you will know when its time to photograph again. Good Luck!
     
  3. tkamiya

    tkamiya Member

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    Something like that will come to you, naturally. You can't really force it upon yourself.

    My images tend to have strong emotional component - be it landscape or portraiture. What's what I see in a lot of things and that's what I tend to photograph. When asked, I usually say my favorite area is portraiture but that's not exactly correct. I found this by looking back on my photographs in the past few years. It was also prompted by a photographer I respect and admire stating, "you seem to have a good eye for composition. You seem to be photographing what looks good, but I don't see a continuing theme."

    I am not an activist photographer where I seek to find subjects to make statements. I tend to photograph subjects that interest me WITH emotional component. That's what I do... since I am not selling my work, that's enough for me.
     
  4. Vaughn

    Vaughn Subscriber

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    I slowly came to realize that light was my subject, the landscape is where I want to be...
    and that by working those two aspects together, I am slowly learning how to see.

    Some changes have thrust themselves into my work, triplet boys will tend to do that.
    I don't change for the sake of change, but as time goes on, we'll see where I am at.
     
  5. Shawn Dougherty

    Shawn Dougherty Member

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    I'm with Vaughn. Light is my subject and it's always the right light to photograph something... So, I put myself someplace I feel like being at the moment, be it urban or rural, and start looking at whatever sparks my emotions or feelings. Often times I just begin exploring on the ground glass and see what happens.
     
  6. Rick A

    Rick A Subscriber

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    Stop looking at other peoples work and comparing yourself to them. You are the only you there is, so embrace your uniqueness. It is okay to occasionally vue other artists work to get "inspiration" but you really need to dig deep into yourself for what you want to portray to others through your work.
     
  7. semi-ambivalent

    semi-ambivalent Subscriber

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    This is so true.

    s-a
     
  8. michael_r

    michael_r Subscriber

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    Finding my subject matter wasn't difficult. It was there all along. Resolving to go with it and leave more widely appealing stuff, composition etc. behind was difficult.
     
  9. Ken Nadvornick

    Ken Nadvornick Subscriber

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    Analysis paralysis?

    Ken
     
  10. cliveh

    cliveh Subscriber

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    Have you thought about taking up drawing for 6 months? I don't mean that in a sarcastic way, but when you return to photography, it may give you an added incentive to see what you are looking for.
     
  11. tal bedrack

    tal bedrack Member

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    as someone pointed out before me, the answer is within yourself. this matter is one of the most personal aspects of all creative endeavours. your instincts are fine - you admit to yourself when you feel that you took the wrong turn. just keep on looking and listen to your inner voice, glide on the stream of consciousness.
    for myself, it took me some time, but finally i found out i'm interested in the connections between land, mythology and the apocalypse - as strange as it all sound, i embrace these ideas with my heart an soul, because they are truly mine.
     
  12. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    It's a two step program.

    1. Stop looking at other people's work.

    2. Put your camera away until your inner self sends you in the right direction, and it will.


    Your mind has been bombarded with the irrelevance of other peoples images and too much internal chatter and navel gazing.
     
  13. Rick A

    Rick A Subscriber

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    Pick a subject, then photograph it from every concievable angle. Move in close, far away, bottom to top. Then pick which shots work best for you.
     
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  15. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    clive and blansky hit the nail on the head
     
  16. Alan Klein

    Alan Klein Member

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    As stated by a couple previously, photography is about light. If the light is right, any subject can be interesting whether landscape, cityscape, or whatever. Try getting out early or late in the day when the sun is lower. Side lighting creates powerful images with shadow and light perfect for B/W photography. Then look for strong compositions that compliment the lighting. You don't have to have a subject in mind when you go out to shoot. Your eye will see if the lighting is interesting and that's what you shoot. Good luck.
     
  17. hdeyong

    hdeyong Member

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    It's tough if you live in an uninteresting place. I know, I did for a number of years, and it's hard to motivate yourself and take pictures.
    Pictures of what?
    I started doing some still life and really enjoyed it, but it's not the answer for me.
    To be honest, I think if possible, you're going to have to plan a day or a weekend away on a fairly regular basis. It's what worked for me, and it was a feeling of freedom, and encouraging to be in a situation that was almost purely for photography. Not to visit cousin Agnes and squeeze in a few minutes if you can, but to go somewhere just to explore it photographically. I used to go in the off seasons, because the place is probably very much the same in appearance, with lower prices and less crowds.
    It doesn't have to be a trans-Atlantic flight, you'll be amazed at what you'll find a couple of hours down the road.
    I was.
     
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  18. FiatluX

    FiatluX Member

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    To expand on the above, I suggest that you bring a notebook and pencil/pen with you at all times and try to take note on every occasion that your minds eye/intuition actually "sees" a photo especially when just going about your daily business. A pattern will eventually emerge and that will serve as a creative starting point when you finally decide to start using your camera again.

    Welcome to the reboot and reset club, good luck! :smile:
     
  19. Arcturus

    Arcturus Member

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    I find that if I dwell too much on weighty issues like what my primary subject is or what I’m trying to say with my photography it all gets too serious and frustrating. I just grab my camera and shoot whatever it is I feel like exploring that day. Just my opinion, I like good photography but I do it for fun so having serious or specific artistic goals tends to inhibit my creativity.
     
  20. markbarendt

    markbarendt Subscriber

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    Giggled when I read this. To me in a sense you have described commercial photographic work, what you call composition, versus art, which you are calling photographs.

    For me photography is a bit of both.

    I do find that two things trigger my interest. Fresh/foreign (to me) subject matter, things of man, and people.

    I do believe that for art experimentation is truly important, you gotta be willing the burn and print a bunch of film and paper knowing most shots won't be art that meets your standards and then ask yourself afterwords "what worked, what didn't, and how do I make it what I want. For me this process has helped define the destination, not just the process.

    People and things of man are fun for me because they change, unlike the landscape around me. There is always fresh content and inspiration in the people around me. That is true of my family and friends, but it is also true of the people literally anywhere near me, there's lots of interesting characters in the world.
     
  21. batwister

    batwister Member

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    Thanks for the suggestions, all are of value to me. Blanksy, hdeyong and markbarendt hit it home especially.

    This isn't necessarily about making 'good art', but just finding a comfortable area (mental and physical) to work in, that keeps us charged and motivated.
    It's probably about simply being honest with myself too. As has been suggested about looking at the work of others (which I think is important), in the end, it's true that you have no idea where it came from - internally. You can perhaps only ever 'take' from the surface of other work.

    A break to just experience/see and a change of scene are what I need. What Mark says about fresh subject matter makes a lot of sense, but I still wonder how so many of our revered photographers worked in a single location for years and years on end, producing such animated and spirited work. HOW does it remain fresh to them, really? I need to know this. Robert Adams and Denver, Colorado for instance - one of the happiest couplings in photographic history. This is a common theme with the great photographers of course, which can't be ignored - breathtaking work produced in otherwise banal places. I just feel like I'm punishing myself when I do it in my area. But it feels like an important challenge - one that I can't let go of; "if I can make good pictures here, I can anywhere, but if I can't, I'll produce shit wherever I go."

    What would really help me is getting inside another photographers head, someone who works within the same square mileage producing great work. I'd ask them how they remain, without being nagged constantly by that thought of "what if?" about another place. Which comes back to Mark's point about needing foreign subject matter and new experiences - does this just mean you're flighty? Short attention span? Isn't singular focus integral to producing meaningful work? The idea of giving up on my fine art fantasy and trying to get into travel photography is increasingly appealing to me, for the reasons you suggested. Maybe some of us just fundamentally aren't cut out for art photography, which in the current art world climate, requires a certain monotony to have any success. I'll say that some success is important to me at this moment in my life, for my age, but also the fact that I'm consumed by photography - it needs to be substantiated. I actually studied music, but have abandoned this pursuit completely for photography.

    I'm very aware of how self-absorbed this thread is, don't get me wrong, but I truly hope it will be of value to others facing similar existential crisis with photography.
    I very much appreciate your thoughts and time.
     
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  22. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    Actually what you really have to do is set your mind free. Then it will take you to the right place. Mentors and self learning are all well and good but you sound like you are at the place where you need to let it all go.

    Like an athlete, you train and train and when it's time for the game, you stop thinking and just play. Because if you are thinking while you're playing you'll suck.
     
  23. michael_r

    michael_r Subscriber

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    I obviously can't know whether or not my work is "great", but I've been working within a few square miles (often less) for years and it isn't getting old. Tice's work inspired me to stop trying to ignore what was around me, the things that I wanted to photograph, and to focus on a place I know well. I suppose it's what I wanted to do all along, but was too stuck trying to make great photographs. Now I make pictures that are honest and unique to me in both content and style. That happened naturally once I resolved to go with my instincts and trust my own seeing. It is not work that will ever have a wide appeal, but I honestly don't care about that anymore.
     
  24. cliveh

    cliveh Subscriber

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    This is extremely good advice.
     
  25. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    I was at a workshop this last Wednesday offered by my local photo club. The workshop presenter was Kathleen Hinkel, a young (from my perspective) commercial photographer based in Vancouver who pays the bills with a variety of commercial work, but whose first love is street photography.

    She was excellent as a presenter, her energy and enthusiasm and talent were obvious and her presentation was remarkably medium neutral - based on her words and my look at her website I believe while she now shoots digital, she at least misses shooting film.

    What struck me was one of her suggestions. When she heads out either on a specific project, or with the intention of wandering the streets for photo opportunities, she likes to "prime" her energies by first quickly looking through a variety of photo sites or publications which she finds interesting or inspiring.
     
  26. batwister

    batwister Member

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    Thanks for your wise words. That analogy will stick in my head.