Via this entry at Andreas Manessinger’s wonderful blog, I got pointed to this article on Ken Rockwell’s website. It’s about what makes a great photograph. Everything that’s in there, I probably agreed with at some time or another. I don’t think there was a time when I agreed with all of it, let alone a majority of it. Right now, reading through it, I disagree with almost everything he’s written.
One thing I’ve never agreed with, though, is this:
It’s not about the subject
Here’s another secret: in photographic art, it’s never about the subject.
It’s always about the underlying compositional structure. Subjects that may be there are chosen because they support or create a structure, not the other way around.
What a subject does in real life is irrelevant. In a good photo, subjects are chosen to provide the shapes or colors we want to lay down the basic design of an image.
What might look like a door is really only used because it’s a rectangle, or two squares. If we shoot it at an angle, now it’s a trapezoid, or a truncated triangle.
An ocean liner? If you use the whole thing in a successful photo, its because it’s used as a shape that works with whatever else is in the frame.
This is why I’m known as a toilet photographer. I don’t care what my subject might be in real life. When I look for photos, I’m looking for shapes and colors. It just tends to happen that bathrooms and garbage cans tend to get lit up in great light at the end of the day, so if they’re in good light, I shoot them.
The actual subject is meaningless because you’re mind’s subconscious eye can’t even recognize it from a hundred feet away.
Your photograph must have a strong enough structure so that structure is obvious to the subconscious That’s how you grab people to get the ooohs and aaahs.
The actual subject doesn’t matter. Your choice of a subject should be made to give a strong underlying design to the image. What that subject is or does consciously is irrelevant. As far as photographers are concerned, photos subjects are used purely as big colors and shapes, exactly as you’d cut these colors and shapes out of construction paper to make a composition.
Here’s my dirty secret – I think it’s about the subject, and I am not ashamed to say so. I think what the subject does in real life is significant. I also think that the idea that photographs should grab someone and get the ooohs and aaahs is arrant nonsense. This disagreement might reflect a difference in goals. Mr. Rockwell seems to think that the goal of photography is to “be able to take awesome, award-winning shots with any camera.”
And I don’t.