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.
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.
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.
"Fundamentally I think we need to rediscover a non-ironic world"
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.
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
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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!
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.
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.
I look for a nice light. Is that subject or technique?
art is about managing compromise
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.