Musings on Photography


Posted in the art world, Websites by Paul Butzi on January 12, 2010


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.

11 Responses

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  1. Martin Doonan said, on January 12, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Agree. Likewise, the guff about photography only being about light.

  2. Doug Plummer said, on January 12, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    You know, I’m going to have to take Rockwell’s side on this one. I don’t think subject is irrelevant. If your aim is toward a given subject matter, it’s because there’s something in there that you need to see. Perhaps it’s a place you prefer to hang out, so you’re likely to make those environs the target of your seeing. But I think that extracting meaning primarily from the subject of the photograph limits the seeing and limits the possible meaning for the viewer.

    My favorite quote on the “subject” comes from Frederick Sommers: “Subject matter is harmless, but it can be charming to the point of distraction from other elements.”

  3. Robert said, on January 12, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    I’m indifferent because I’m simply doing it [taking photos]. Interesting point though. And if I think about these things too much, I will most likely over-analyze.

  4. Chris Klug said, on January 12, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    Hmm, I need to think about this a little. I shall return when I have something pithy to say. However, regarding Mr. Plummer’s quote from Mr. Sommers above, I am reminded what my playwrigh mentor told me over and over “Clever is the enemy of great writing.” What he meant was that if the writing is so clever that the audience realizes how clever it is, you have very effectively pulled them right out of the story being told. I always have agreed with that idea.

  5. arangodan said, on January 12, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    I enjoy pictures that say something. I’d like to make my own pictures that speak to others. My message is not about triangles and boxes and circles. While those things may be in the images I make, they might appear as a consequence of seeing something that spoke to me strongly enough to photograph.

  6. Paul Maxim said, on January 13, 2010 at 6:02 am

    I don’t know if Ken Rockwell is completely right or wrong about “subject”. After reading his entire article, I can visualize people printing it out and trying to memorize everything he says. That, of course, would be counterproductive. Anyone attempting to do that will over-analyze every single image they attempt to capture.

    Still, he has a point. If all you care about is “subject”, there’s a good chance that most of your images will bore people to tears. Structure, form, and light are at least equally important to most photographs. It’s roughly analagous, I think, to writing. The “subject” of healthcare in the U. S., for example, is important. But can you imagine sitting in the Senate chamber of congress and listening to some clerk read a 2,000 page piece of legislation? Boring. And then some.

    Photography is no different. If there is nothing to “grab” a viewer’s attention, then the importance of the subject matter is pointless. If that’s what the photographer wants, then so be it. It’s entirely up to him or her. But to say that subject matter stands alone in terms of importance is, among other things, foolish.

  7. Andreas Manessinger said, on January 13, 2010 at 7:30 am

    First: thanks for the word “wonderful” 🙂

    Then: I don’t care about much of the article. As far as I’ve glanced on it, it’s Ken’s mantras over and again. What I specifically pointed to and what I liked, is the part about punchlines and especially double punchlines. I probably would have used different words, but I know what he means and when I see something like that, I recognize it. Of course we are deeply in the territory of luck here.

    Consider this: You can certainly compose a streetscape and wait for a person passing by. I do it regularly. In many cases waiting for some minutes will give you what you are looking for. Getting two people in the frame, at exactly the positions where you want them, this is much harder and much more unlikely. Getting that, and then in a way that it looks as if they were reacting to each other (or they even are), that is pure luck. You can’t force it. If it happens though, it sure makes for damn fine images.

    And then: it is not so hopeless. It’s just a different game. You have to try, you have to know the situations, you have to anticipate them, and then it may happen or not. The good thing is, that simply trying, you get lots of interesting accidents, and some of them happen to be pictures of exactly that kind, only unanticipated. In the end it’s just the same.

    Finally: I think subject is overrated 🙂 Every single snapshot on all of Flickr has a subject (well, most have), but only an extremely small fraction are good images. Those are the images that have some sort of structure or whatever you call that additional quality. It’s definitely not that they have a “better” subject. It’s that their subjects are presented in a different manner, more controlled, in a way where structural attributes meaningfully contribute to the overall impression.

    And then you must also consider how Ken looks at images from the perspective of the average viewer, in a way judging an image’s success by the time the average viewer spends looking at the image. Of course that’s a highly debatable quality criterion, but even if you don’t agree, it is absolutely valid and frequently applied. Under those conditions, a certain amount of WOW may be not strictly necessary, but it certainly helps a lot, and in some areas like advertising it is more or less mandatory.

  8. Richard Gardner said, on January 13, 2010 at 8:15 am

    Personally I treat photography as “other”.
    The making of my images take on all the elements of a well done photograph, including exposer, balance, etc.
    The real truth about my work is that I’m trying to create an image the will excite the viewers subconscious.
    So, is the subject important to me? Yes it is, but only as a means of creating a visual pathway to an underlying archetypical image.

  9. Oren Grad said, on January 13, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    The problem isn’t that Ken Rockwell is mostly interested in shapes and bold colors. (He seems to be having a good time with his cameras – more power to him.) It’s that he presents his personal tastes as universal principles. He’s not alone in that, of course.

    Anyway, be sure to read Ken’s “About” page if you’re inclined to take his stuff too seriously.

  10. Mike Peters said, on January 13, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    Yes, the oooh and the aaah reactions are usually to images that are easy, cheap, usually completely meaningless, cater to the lowest common denominator and are ultimately forgettable over the long haul. Photos like these are very popular and usually bring their makers lots of money. An excellent strategy if you are a commercial photographer.

    However, think of all of the most important images taken over the past 150 years. Strong subject matter combined with a transparent technique that gets out of the way is what allows an image to transcend mere style and the constraints of the time in which it was made. Form plus content equals a good photograph, but if one overwhelms the other or exists without the other, you have something that is probably less than it could be.

    It’s takes hard work and patience to strike this balance on a regular basis, which is why most people usually don’t bother. It’s far easier to snap on an ultra-wide lens, get low, tilt the horizon, pump up the saturation, turn on the hdr and over sharpen to get peoples attention.

  11. Walter McQuie said, on January 14, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    I particularly liked your line about agreeing with most everything KR said, but not anymore or at any one time. One hopes that one’s opinions and understandings about photography and art progress over time. For many of us engaging in a struggle to see more deeply and clearly offers greater reward than entering a race to capture the next wow-inspiring bundle of shapes and colors.

    KR has a thing about the photographer’s vision being much more important than the equipment she uses–a fair enough point, even an important one. What can be irritating is that even though his site (and its value) consists primarily of equipment reviews, he is irony-free enough to be able to enlighten us with his secret knowledge that eqipment makes no difference at all. Just don’t pay any attention to that ultrawide lens behind the curtain/between his camera and that great image

    His poo-pooing of subject matter also says more about his sensibilities than about how photography always works. The image he uses to illustrate his article is titled “Ruin, San Diego…”. Photos of worn out, dilapidated buildings have a definite place in the photography roster of recurring subject matter themes. Perhaps not for Mr. Rockwell, but for many viewers, his image has more (or perhaps just different) resonance than if it depicted a neatly kept red cottage in a southern California suburb or a stack of bricks in an empty lot next to the ruin he found.

    I find it interesting that Mr. Rockwell invokes subconsious processes in his analysis of how color and shape work in an image. As it seems he would agree, much of the work of visual imaging takes place at a level beyond or beneath our conscious awareness. But surely there are subconsious workings of thematic as well as graphic elements. That some photographers can take some great images by making use of only those subconscious processes concerned with color and shape doesn’t mean that no images benefit from subconscious processes concerned with subject matter.

    Our host here posts pictures of the environment where he chooses to reside, and that he regularly explores. Many others also benefit from making images of subjects they feel connected to. What we see–not just what images that are available to us, but how we see them–is influenced by where we stand, how often we stand there, and also our knowledge, experience and attitudes about what is before us.

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