The importance of subject matter

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Sean, Oct 23, 2002.

  1. Sean

    Sean Admin Staff Member Admin

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    I approach my photography on a purely emotional level. I use it as a tool to reflect who I am. I've always felt that we all possess the ability to feel 100's if not 1,000's of intricate emotions. If I see something that has a huge impact for me emotionally, and I'm able to capture it's essence, then I in turn feel like I am able to show the world who I am. I dunno it's hard to explain, and I've had a long day at work so my head isn't very clear! Hopefully that makes some sense.
     
  2. b.e.wilson

    b.e.wilson Member

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    For me phtography is more a puzzle.

    I find a nice scene, one that it pleasant, ot interesting, or unusual, and the problem begins. I start working on just what it is that is interesting, or unique, or pretty. The I work on the best way to include it in its surroundings. I try to find the simplest composition possible (keep in mind I'm a landscape photographer primarily, so I shoot lits of rocks and trees). "Simplify, simplify, simplify" is my motto at this stage of the work. Sometimes it requires me to wait around for the light to do something it isn't doing at the moment. I practice the shot with a digital camera, to see how exposure will look. Sometimes I find I can't get the shot at all, so I repack my camera and move on. My goal at this stage is to get the very best image of the simplified subject on my color slide film. Frankly, I'm not looking down the road at the print or at sales. I'm looking at what I'll do in the next moment.

    The process is repeated in a way once the slides are developed. I now have many 4x5 transparencies. Some worked, some didn't. I start with the ones I liked and print them. A printing session for me is usually move pretty rapidly through the best shots and get a decent print of each. Then in a subsequent session I start the fine-tuning of the print, adding burns and dodges when needed to fix problems or add mood, tweaking the color balance. For the first time I start thinking about the end product on the wall.

    So for me there is no heirarchy, just these sort of compartmentalized 'do your best' steps. I don't work, as Ross mentions, using emotion, but I realise the necessity of it. Until I develop that aspect of my shooting I'll have a more documentary style.

    Now, on strictly theoretical gounds I might argue that the heirarchy jdef propposes might be reversed, that the print, the final interpretation in the string of interpretations, is the most important, being what everyone sees. As an example I'll use the Weston example of veggies on a black background. Common, uninteresting subjects, but when shot and printed masterfully, the print itself becomes far more interesting than the subject.
     
  3. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    I think there are two ways to look at subject matter. One photographer sees something and says, " that will make a wonderful fine print." Another photographer may see something and say, that stirs something in me to want to photograph it and make a print.

    Sometimes I see something that I know will make a pretty picture. In that case, I am thinking about the final print from the moment I get out the gear. I may be thinking about what paper you will use, what developer, the filter to use etc. Such is the case with most LF shooters.

    On the other hand I see images that just resonate with me. I don't know how they will turn out or how difficult the y will be to print. For those photographers the subject matter becomes so powerful that a fine print in the Adams tradition is not required or may be a detriment.

    A couple of examples would be a project where I photograph old manufacturing machinery that is destined for the scrap pile or shipped overseas. I use 8x10, sometimes modify the lighting and use very long exposures, and through tests I know film, developer, and paper to get the desired results before i expose a sheet of film. Detail of the complexity of the machines and age are key and the printing is designed to enhance an almost nostalgic look.

    The other is a recessed doorway I saw where leaves from a nearby pile were being swirled by the wind. the age of the door, the lighting and movement of the leaves were intriging. So I got out a 35mm and 4x5 and made some exposures. Don't know yet if they turned out or if they will even be acceptable prints, but something in me said to try to make the image.
     
  4. BobF

    BobF Member

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    This discussion has made me think about what and why I shoot what I do and has maybe made me think about changing some of it. I should have "deep thoughts" more often it might do me some good.

    I find that a colorful "pretty scene" of whatever, usually drives me to use color to try to capture what I see as I see it. It then becomes a technique proplem of how to achieve that end and it therefore subject driven. I don't create something different I simply capture the subject and I need to rethink this approach somewhat.

    However when I see a strong graphic design such as Jim's machinery (for me it's old mining equipment) or dramaticly lit portraits, or even just play of light and shadows I am thinking of the print and how it will look. This is usually black and white 4x5 work as I can make the subject change with technique and am previsualizing the print. Whether I succeed or not is another matter.

    I know that if I shoot something such as Moon Over Hernandez that most likely I will get a flat uninteresting print as I don't yet have the skills to execute it like Adams did. Believe me I try. I think that would be a subject driven black and white and I can't yet do those well.

    On the color side I probably need to work more on thinking of the final print effect I want whether or not it is an accurate representation of what I see. I really appreciate some of the more abstract or graphic color shots that others do even when they are often photoshoped.

    Don't know if this makes much sense as I am kind of thinking out loud.
     
  5. BobF

    BobF Member

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    jdef - "Imagine making a print without having chosen a subject. That would place the print ahead of the subject in the hierarchy. Is it possible? I don't know, what do you think? "

    Well......I thought I was getting into depths over my head but you just drowned me. How about placing a sheet of unexposed paper in the developer and flashing the room lights on for a second to get that wonderful smoky ripple effect. That's about the only way I can think of to place the print ahead of the subject.

    But as I said you drowned me [​IMG]
     
  6. Nige

    Nige Subscriber

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    How about you want to make a dark moody image (say just to test you ability to get detail in blacks) so you've got a preconcieved idea what the print is going to look like, but you haven't actually got the subject yet. You then go out looking for a subject that might fit your idea of print. A photogram might also fit into this category where you know what you are trying to do then go insearch of the subject to do it to (eg. a plant that's not transparent enough so you go and grab another one from the garden that looks more promising)

    Pesonally, I'm a subject 1st person. I usually just wander around until I see something that looks interesting (to me) and snap away. Printing is generally a pretty straight reprensentation of the scene (as I remember it or as I decide to interpret it from the proof sheet). Even though I haven't taken many pics recently, I still don't get enough darkroom time to catch up with the backlog of 'maybe' pics, so I don't deviate much.

    Good and Interesting question!
     
  7. b.e.wilson

    b.e.wilson Member

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    jdef, I guess I did express a hierarchy: the passage of time. By doing the subject selection first I didn't really imply that it has the top-rank in hierarchy, just that it must be done first.

    I suppose that if I did the first step thinking deeply on the 'chain of interpretation' that inevitably follows and seeing it through to choosing the wall on which the final print will hang, then I'd be prioritizing the steps. But I don't, really. At the moment I do each step as best I can, with little thought of where each step 'ranks' with the others.

    Maybe when I'm a more accomplished and surer photographer that will come. I'll deal with the philosophy of it then.
     
  8. BobF

    BobF Member

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    jdef

    That particular mistake comes from many many years ago and I did try several attempts to include the technique with a portrait. They all went into the circular file and I am much more interested now in achieving "good" prints as opposed to tricks. I've got enough trouble with simple straight prints, and by your definition they would all be subject driven.
     
  9. avandesande

    avandesande Member

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    I look for a nice light. Is that subject or technique?
     
  10. BobF

    BobF Member

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    jdef

    I disagree with you so I am going to beat this horse till I am sure it's dead.

    Lets take some of the art created with paint splashed on canvas. I don't think you could call that subject first. In the same way I have gone out to shoot with the intention of creating something purely abstract or graphic in which the subject is unrecognizeable either from use of viewing angle, macro close up, or high contrast or all of the above. The effect of the final image is what I have in mind and the subject is whatever happens to present itself in my wanderings that can be used to help create that print. The subect is like the paint, it is simply useable photons to put an image on film. I don't much care what the subject is, only that I can get an intriging abstract pattern.

    For instance I found an old abandoned motel in the desert that had broken out windows with jagged glass shards still left in the frames and lite see through curtains billowing out. This made some interesting straight pictures but also presented me with abstract possibilities. Buy intentionally getting an angle that caught the sun in the glass shards, with the deep black interior adjacent and the curtains pushing against the glass I hoped to create an entirely abstract and unrecognizeable print of this subject. The subject is irrelevant and simply used to supply photons that will create the pattern I have in mind.

    I would say the print came first in this instance. Your turn to beat this horse.
     
  11. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    I think it all depends on how you work and the opportunities. In my case sometimes I see something I like but dont have the camera so I go back with an "image" already in mind, so I guess in this case the print would be more important than the subject. OTOH sometimes I just pack everything and go hunt for an image, so I guess in this case the content and what initally draws my interest is more important.
    I think you work the same way jdef, in one of your pictures your caption mentioned you just had met your subject and asked her to pose for you.....in other images is more apprarent you went for an image you already had in mind.
    I beleive in some measure we are "limited" by our taste, in that case then I would think the subject is more important than print content, I can only speak for myself but I seem to confine myself to subjects I enjoy photographing in that vein then the subject is always the first thing that captures my attention. OTOH if I was talented enough to do portrait, landscape, comercial, close up etc, etc. Then I would not be posting here and I would be working as a phtotographer...lol.....
     
  12. avandesande

    avandesande Member

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    --I contend that whatever you frame up in your ground glass is your subject, wether or not you have a preconceived idea about what that should be. --

    Without objectivity your result may be much different than what you envisioned, with subjectivity you are setting yourself up for dissapointment, or as an optimist, suprise!

    I am not sure what the hierarchy is really a useful construct, it is a physically mandated reality.
    You cannot make a photograph from a print(at least not in the sense we are talking about).

    --Aaron
     
  13. avandesande

    avandesande Member

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    I am just suggesting that if you don't look at the GG image objectively you won't truely see it as it is, and your result most likely be different than you envisioned. Also the heirarchy thing was not obvious to me at first either,I was just distilling the discussion.

    --Aaron
     
  14. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    Well for me as my skills have developed the subject has become less and less important and my interpretation and technique more. So for me the hierarchy would be interpretation/technique/subject. IOW I see something that interest me but I might not photograph it because the interpretation I have in my mind might not be possible. Sometimes technique might not allow me to get the image I have envision.

    I think that your question is related to the search of your own style, and is a natural evolution IMO. I can only speak for myself, when I first started I wanted to take pictures like AA or Weston......so with that in mind I searched for the "right" subject, then I applied all my zone knowledge (interpretation) and then I would go to the darkroom and try to get the "perfect" print (technique). As my skills evolved I see less and less this rigid process, I have not done film testing in many years, if I try a new developer I just measure the shadow densities and adjust EI, but testing developing, N+, N. N-...forget it! Of course when I first started I tested every film and developer combination under the sun...I had great charts, notes, H&D curves...but not a single good pic. It was not until I made a good print totally different from what I had envisioned that I realized that technique allowed me to get a good print out of a bad neg, and that my interpretation was not chained to the subject but was a product of my imagination and what I "saw" in the negative.

    I beleive that if I am to endow the print with some kind of "feeling" I must depart from reality, and in a sense we all do when we apply filters, N+ or N- developing etc, we are taking the image away from what is really there and adjusting it to our desires.
    So I will post the image that changed my opinion, merely to illustrate my point, the negative was flat, the contrast was not there and the straight print was just boring......with a little bit of work and experimenting a descent print came out, and as a matter of fact was my first sale.
     
  15. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    OOpps....messed up when loading the print, here it is....
     
  16. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    Exactly jdef I think a balance has to be acheived to be comfortable with your "style". In the beguining I was searching for that perfect negative that would yield the beautiful print, as we are led to beleive that technique is everything in LF.....Now I dont obsess about it I am confindent enough in my skills and technique that interpretation has taken a primary place in my images.
    Thanks for the comment I am glad you like it, but yes, the print has more detail and sharpness.....the reason I hate scanning...

    BTW altough it looks like a tree this is only a little piece of branch about 3 feet long.... [​IMG]
     
  17. Jorge

    Jorge Inactive

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    That was part of the experimentation, some Agfa papers if toned in selenium to completion get a sort of coppery color and split toned, so I bleached the leaves with ferri and then toned the print. The print was printed with a mesh under the enlarger lens to diffuse the dark tones. Simple techniques but in this case effective.
     
  18. steve

    steve Member

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    Much of the discourse so far is coming from the point of view of what I will call "reactive" photographers. That is, those who go out with a vague or often undefined subject, but react to what they find.

    This method of photographing is neither good nor bad it is just a way of working - I often do much of that type of work myself.

    However, for many of my projects, I have started with an idea of what I've wanted, sometimes sketched the idea and then put it into a photograph. If you look at Andy Goldworthy and much of John Pfahl's work, it is obvious that they have started with an idea first, that is then executed by finding the subject for the idea. (I am using those two because they could fall into a landscape category as opposed to someone like Joel Witkin.)

    How do you classify or quantify a series of photos? I have a friend who shoots a lot of the Hispanic culture, and although he has to find the subject within a set of circumstances, he knows the total presentation he is trying to make within a certain subject genre. For example, he worked for two years on a project documenting prostitutes along the Mexican border. He also has a long term project documenting the Mexican influence upon Native American ceremonies.

    In a hierarchy, one would have to say that each of his series started as an idea first that is later realized by finding the subjects to illustrate the idea.

    I'm not sure in your method of working any of this makes a difference - or, even why trying to define a hierarchy within a working methodology is important.

    Could you explain how/why defining a hierarchy is important to you and your photography? I've never thought about it previously, and it is mildly interesting but what about it is germane to making (better) photos?
     
  19. steve

    steve Member

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    Yes, I use "reactive" because it means to respond to a stimulus. In this case, the stimulus is the subject of the photo - and the response is making the photo.

    Receptive means open and responsive to ideas, impressions and suggestions. I don't mean to wordsmith this, but you can be responsive (thinking, analyzing, etc.) with no reaction (doing something) because of the stimulus.

    ***"If photography is indeed uniquely compatible with this methodology, then I feel that it's important for me to understand that."***

    This has nothing to do with compatibility of the medium, it has to do with you discovering the best working method for yourself. But, before you can do that, you need to find out what kind of photos you want to make. This is part of developing your own personal vision about whatever interests you, and then trying to put what you see/think is interesting into a photograph that is meaningful to you - and then maybe, others will find meaningful also. If they aren't interested, don't worry - you may just be too advanced for them.

    ***"I'm just trying to figure out what I'm doing"***

    Yeah, me too - and I've been trying to figure it out now for the past 35 years. My advice is to relax, take your time, and don't be concerned if it turns into a lifetime pursuit.

    ***"I have no education or training in photography, and in fact, know very few other photographers."***

    I have a lot of formal and informal photographic education, and know quite a few famous photographers - I'm not sure it's all that important. If you are interested in photography you will educate yourself in whatever way you need to in order to better understand what you are doing. It may be through formal classes or reading books and using what you understand in a trial and error method.

    There is no one best way. Edward Weston really had no formal education in photography, and had a lean methodology that was perfect for his style. Ansel Adams had to know why things happened so that he could control them and pursued photography through a self-developed semi-scientific method. Leslie Stroebel and Richard Zakia understand photography to the sub-atomic level in both physics and chemistry. Of the people named - which ones are famous for making "art," and which are famous for contributions to the understanding of photoscience? Each has their place because both areas (art & science) advance photography - one is not better or more important than the other - only different.

    I think you might benefit by getting a book called, "Perception and Imaging" by Richard Zakia. It's a quite fascinating study of human perception and translation of perceptions into a photographic image.

    There are even "excercises" you can do to verify or play with the concepts presented. The nice thing is that for all of Mr. Zakia's photo background, he truly advocates breaking the "rules" (and shows his examples of doing this), and having fun with making photographs - and that's really what it should be about.