Themes

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Peter Schrager, Aug 8, 2005.

  1. Peter Schrager

    Peter Schrager Subscriber

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    I'm raising this question as it is the one thing that I have not been able to overcome in my Photography. I never attended Art School. All self taught with the help of several hunderd visits to museums and galleries. I have 100's if not thousands of good images taken with a view camera. The whole idea of focusing on a theme eludes me. Is there a good book or essay that someone could tell me about; so that I can overcome my fear of Themes? Is this the one concept that separates the greats from the has-beens? I mean all the gallery/museum shows that I see always have a theme. Is it just a question of focusing. Last week I attended a workshop. Who it was with is not important and it in no way was about critiquing photographs. But the teacher did say to me after looking at my photographs; "so what are you reaching for?" And he was right. I have lots of great images all over the map with no cohesiveness. I'm sure I'm not the only one in this dillemma. Any thoughts;comments appreciated.
    Best, Peter Schrager
     
  2. alien

    alien Member

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    Peter,

    I know what you mean.

    For me, it took me some years to realise that my 'theme' is my own life - I take my photograhy as some sort of diary of what happens to me.

    Since I met my girlfriend with her two kids, I included the 'family' theme - trying to document our daily life and what's happening around us for the kids and their kids in the future.

    I now look at my Dad's and Granddad's life and just wish they had something similar, as I have very little knowledge about their lifes - at least with my 'project' I can give a glimpse of my life to the people after me (if they are at all interested).

    Since I am taking photographs with a purpose, my pictures have improved tremendously.

    Ansgar
     
  3. Bob Carnie

    Bob Carnie Subscriber

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    Peter
    Themes can start off as simply images of subject matter you are familiar with and have axcess to . Trying to find the perfect image is very hard to do , frustrating and usually time wasting. Concentrate on what you have axcess to and know well.
    I have started a couple of projects right here at my shop , since I am here all the time it is easy to photograph.
    As well when I do have time off , I go to the boathouse , therefore I am doing a series of images there. I have been going to this paticular area of Ontario since I was a child and now I am photographing it each time I go back. I know every nook and cranny of this lake area so I just revisit my youth and make images.
     
  4. Ian Grant

    Ian Grant Subscriber

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    From experience I would say that all my series of work have sprung from random images, which then led the direction, and culminated in various exhibitions. The secret is to define the corner points and boundaries to each piece of work then have fun making images.

    As my work is nearly all landscape I decided on geographical boundaries. Some projects are still ongoing after 15 years :smile:

    I did have a book called "Achieving Photographic Style" but actually never really read it, will post it to you if you want.

    Ian
     
  5. Juraj Kovacik

    Juraj Kovacik Member

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    A very good question

    I can´t suggest any book, but try to look at www. lenswork.com and specially in the audio blog part. They are very interesting - at least from time to time - and you can order them on audio CD or listen them through internet.

    I belive that "theme focusing" is critical part of photographers work.

    Main points - I hope and would be glad if they inspire you in any positive way

    - only theme focusing give you necessary concentration
    - only theme focusing push you try to do the same thing again and again
    - theme limitations push you energy to go deeper and deeper
    - with theme you are not loosing your freedom - it is you who define what your theme is
    - photography is an art od selection and theme point of view help grow up from random selection to the selection made by your inner order. and showing your inner order, your point of view - that is what the photography is about
    -definition of your theme push you to think and articulate about your work, the order is build by words and definitions...
     
  6. Daniel Lawton

    Daniel Lawton Member

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    Perhaps a single theme would be too limiting for you? I like to photograph what interests me without having to think of whether or not it fits into a preconceived category. I guess workshops and galleries like to see a cohesiveness of subject matter although I've never dealt with either, but its what makes YOU click that matters most. Just because your photographs appear all over the map doesn't mean there isn't a single inner theme that drives you to take them. It just may not be readily apparent to the outside observer, or maybe not even to yourself, but I bet its there.
     
  7. colrehogan

    colrehogan Member

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    I have the same problem Peter. I think part of that has come about with going to a camera club and there being a different theme every month. It makes it difficult for me to do a theme for any length of time (shooting LF).

    In smaller formats, I do tend to shoot more at family gatherings, and though I would love to shoot some LF there too, it would be difficult.
     
  8. Monophoto

    Monophoto Member

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    Peter -

    I suspect that if you were to take the time to carefully study your work, concentrating on the images that you especially enjoy, you would perceive that there really are several distinguishable themes present. I know that in my work, I can identify themes retrospectively, but there's no way I would ever have recognized a conscious intention to go out to make images on those themes. Instead, as I go from place to place, I react to the scenes that present themselves to me, and make photographs of the ones that I like. There is a selection process involved in the decision to make an image, one that I am not aways actually aware of at the time.

    I know who you were with last week, and when I was in his workshop a couple of years ago, we were sitting around one evening have a beer or three when he said something like "there's an image over there - - - and the pain of not capturing that image on film has now exceeded the pain that will be involved in setting up the camera to photograph it", whereupon he set up his 11x14 and made an exposure. The point is that the image suggested itself to him - he did not seek out the image.

    That said, I know that there are certain things that I enjoy photographing more than others, and I know that there are also some subjects that are very popular with other photographers that I don't especially enjoy. That means that I probably do bias the process of images "finding me" by more frequently putting myself into those settings that are more likely to present the kind of images that I enjoy. For example, I don't get very turned on by "roots and rocks", so you won't find me hiking up mountains. But I do like manmade things, so I tend to gravitate toward situations involving buildings, structures and machines.

    Colehogan raises an important point - many of us have been (and still are) involved in camera clubs. I know that I have learned a lot from the club experience, and that the inspiration of the club has challenged me to improve my photography. But as one matures as a photographer, there is a point beyond which a club can be a problem. Clubs establish expectations, and satisfying those expectations can limit further growth of photographic vision.
     
  9. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Chances are, as Monophoto stated, you probably have several themes running through your work. It's difficult to edit and organize your own work, and sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees, if you will. Try to step back from the subject matter, and see where images relate to each other on a purely visual level. You had a couple of visually atmospheric photographs in the gallery today. Any more? There was one with a tree right in the middle... any more with a strong central vertical element? Themes will start to reveal themselves.
     
  10. Andy Tymon

    Andy Tymon Member

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    Hey Peter, Have a look at John Blakemores Black and white photography workshop book, It's more a book about picture making than a how to manual. It has a few chapters on how he developed various bodies of work(landscapes and tulips)over several years. It makes fascinating reading and is a real workshop in a book.
    Andy
     
  11. rogueish

    rogueish Member

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    Like you I never really shot with themes in mind. In a night course, we had to present a small portfollo on the last class, and it had to have a theme.
    After pouring through the prints I thought were reasonable, I realized I have many different prints that can be tied together through common elements.
    In the end my portfollio for class had the theme of "leaves". Most of the images were taken over a time frame of a year and a half. I had fallen leaves, leaves under the staires, stuck in ice, covered in frost, floating on water, still on the tree, on a bench, in hand. In a lot of the prints, the leaves were not the main focus.
    Check your prints. Just because you don't shoot themes, doesn't mean you can't present one (or two).

    Hmm maybe I should have read all the posts before replying. Looks like I'm just repeating others.
     
  12. Ian Grant

    Ian Grant Subscriber

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    What a good suggestion.

    I remenber a workshop in Derbyshire and going to Lathkill Dale, the scene of one of John's more famous images. I said it's not my kind of place for images, he said nor me and we had a great conversation

    Ian


     
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 9, 2005
  13. c6h6o3

    c6h6o3 Member

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    It eludes me too, thank God. Nothing destroys my creativity faster or more surely than the attempt to document a theme.

    Lately I've been photographing at one place, but only because that's where the good photographs come to me. After I have a lot of pictures made there in my body of work, I'll probably find that the evolution of my vision at that place documents it very well. But there's never a consciousness of any theme, only of each individual image on the groundglass.

    If I wish to convey a conceptual framework or documentary idea, I'll use words. To create an image of how I uniquely see something, I'll use my camera.
     
  14. doughowk

    doughowk Subscriber

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    Themes can be frustrating. A gallery owner told a photographer/friend to do a selection on windows, then he would display her work. Maybe he recognized that she already had a theme but needed a push to further explore the theme (also could be he just recognizes what sells in his market area). Commercial photographers frequently face such demands, but for fine-art photographers it can be a frustrating obligation.

    I recognize many themes in my work; but for lack of time, or just bad timing, they too often are in abeyance. They weigh on me both in a negative & positive sense. They act as guides but also as reminders of what I haven't accomplished.
     
  15. Michael A. Smith

    Michael A. Smith Subscriber

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    Just photograph whatever you feel like photographing. The themes (which are something different from the subjects) will arise, probably already have arisen, as a function of the work. The worst thing you can do is pick, intellectually, a theme. Then everything else gets missed.

    As others have already said, there are no doubt themes already present in your work. Your job regarding these already finished photographs is to find them.
     
  16. scootermm

    scootermm Subscriber

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    just ditto to the above.

    wonderfully put and I went ahead and deleted what I was writting as I saw this michael.
     
  17. MattKing

    MattKing Subscriber

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    I have a slightly different take on this - exploration of a theme can be a useful and enlightening exercise.

    Some time back there was a thread about simplifying - restricting ourselves to a single camera and lens - in order to restore focus to our work. Exploring a particular theme can have a similar effect.

    The trick is to approach it as a learning exercise, not a task to accomplish. It is also really important to pick a theme that already is of some interest, so that it doesn't become boring.

    After exploring a theme for a reasonable length of time, you can compare and contrast the various results, and learn a lot about what you like, and have an affinity for, and can express photographically.
     
  18. MurrayMinchin

    MurrayMinchin Membership Council Council

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    Hi peter,

    I'm a hack, a nobody...so take what I say with a grain of salt. I've attended art schools and I can't (actually, don't want to) photograph in themes either :smile:

    I'm with Suzanne and Monophoto on this one. If you truly have 100's of good images then your work already contains themes. The instructor at the workshop you went to only saw a smattering of your best images I'm guessing. Did you pick images that related to each other...otherwise known as a theme? If not, the instructor made a valuation of your work while looking through a straw. Sometimes we let people in positions of power make judgments on our work when they don't know the whole story. Weigh those comments and their worth with that in mind.

    Try and step back from your images to see the bigger themes; those images that relate to each other through subject matter, or those images of unrelated subject matter that relate because of how you responded to them. Within those bigger themes will be intimate ones. Then you just check your ego at the door and edit out the ones that don't sequence well...even if it's your "best" image.

    Sounds like your thinking of putting together a portfolio?

    Murray
     
  19. jp80874

    jp80874 Subscriber

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    Peter,

    Class room structure has some advantages. I’ve mentioned earlier that I am retired and have gone back to the local Akron (OH) University for their photography courses. Once past Photo 1 & 2 all the advanced courses have one requirement. At the end of the term the student presents a series of twenty, over matted, 11x14 or larger, B&W prints, made from film. Each picture must be a part of a theme. Print quality and contribution to that theme must be consistent.

    This is accomplished by the student creating a theme early in the course. The teacher may advise on the difficulties or triteness of one theme verses another, but in six courses I have yet to see a theme rejected, including many on sex and one on slaughter houses. Every two weeks the student puts ten prints up on the board for peer and teacher critique. Early in the course these may be work prints, but later they are as finished as the student can make them. Advice is given and in two weeks improvement is shown.

    Last year when the Photography Department was preparing for an accreditation review the main idea stressed was that they prepared students to show work that demonstrated high quality craft in a series of pictures in a theme.

    If you pride yourself on being self taught then you simply need to follow this discipline. My feeling is that by doing so you lose the advantage of peer critique, but there are many paths to the same goal.

    Enjoy.

    John powers
     
  20. Andrew Sowerby

    Andrew Sowerby Member

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    Are you feeling frustrated because your entire portfolio doesn't look fit together like the exhibitions at art galleries? That seems like an unrealistic expectation.

    If you have hundreds or thousands of good pictures then it shouldn't be a problem to pick out a dozen (or however many) that fit a particular theme . . . perhaps you could recruit someone who's opinions you respect to help you sift through your wealth of pictures. I think that you can create cohesiveness through good editing.
     
  21. Peter Schrager

    Peter Schrager Subscriber

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    Thanks and.....

    First off I want to thank everyone who contributed to this thread. Just once in a while it is nice to see some involvement besides where my son went for vacation. The instructor was not overbearing; just what he said to me rang true. I need to push myself because I have been photogrphing by the Ct. shore;
    in NYC;and upstate NY in Columbia county. I'm about to take posession of an 8x10 camera. I'm interested in going back to where I've been;reshooting and printing on some of the fine papers I've accumulated (portiga,azo) and also doing a double in Platinum. Just waiting for the weather to cool off. All of the input was taken to heart........
    Thanks, Peter Schrager
     
  22. MurrayMinchin

    MurrayMinchin Membership Council Council

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    That was worth reading again :smile:

    Murray
     
  23. doughowk

    doughowk Subscriber

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    What is a theme in terms of photography? Earlier in the thread, Michael Smith said
    From an online dictionary, theme is
    But in photography which is a visual & referential art form, what is an idea other than a group of related subjects. Isn't a series of pictures that portray baseball as played in the minor leagues both a subject and a theme? Do we have to succumb to gallerie-speak in order to speak of themes in photographic works, or is there a language of photography that enables us to recognize those themes? Just musing while my Azo prints finish washing ;-)