Musings on Photography

Necessary/Sufficient

Posted in aesthetics, technique by Paul Butzi on January 14, 2010

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Just to clarify…

What Ken Rockwell says is “in photographic art, it’s never about the subject.” [emphasis mine] and “The actual subject doesn’t matter.” [again, emphasis mine].

What I am trying to say is that subject does matter.

Here’s a useful distinction. If something must be present for the photograph to be successful, then that thing is necessary. If the presence of something guarantees that the photograph will be successful, then that thing is sufficient.

Rockwell appears to be arguing that subject is not necessary, and that strong, graphic composition is sufficient.

I am arguing that subject is necessary, and that strong graphic composition is not sufficient. It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to make a compelling photograph by making a strong, graphic composition of brightly colored idealized featureless geometric solids resting on a featureless geometric plane.

Here are some arguments I am not making:

  1. strong, graphic composition is never helpful.
  2. when deliberately striving for a strong, graphic composition, it is not helpful to ignore what things are, and instead think of them as three dimensional solids projected onto a two dimensional plane.
  3. subject matter is sufficient – that is, given very strong subject matter, composition no longer matters.

10 Responses

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  1. My Camera World said, on January 14, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    The one problem I am having with these discussions is the definition of subject. I have a feeling that we may not all have the same meaning.

    I have see very wonderful photographs where long shutter speeds produced colourful soft abstract flows more that shapes.

    When I look at these I can define no real subject (whatever that means) in the classical sense where I recognize shapes or objects. I would have no knowledge where the images were taken except the author stated how it was done.

    But these images I would buy and hang on my wall but they are not the photographic themes I enjoy most. I still like the more traditional images that at least represent the world as I see.

    Niels Henriksen

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on January 14, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    I think the essence of your argument is that you personally don’t think that abstract art could be considered art?

    ‘It is, for all practical purposes, impossible to make a compelling photograph by making a strong, graphic composition of brightly colored idealized featureless geometric solids resting on a featureless geometric plane.’

  3. Robert said, on January 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    I’m torn when I look at all the beautiful cover art from any Cocteau Twins’ albums. Is it the subject matter? Is it the composition? Or is it the title piece or the music that accompanies the art? Regardless, I think they’re beautiful and that’s why I took up photography.

    There’s always an exception to an exception.

  4. Paul said, on January 14, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    How many times have we acted upon a sudden whim, taken a beautiful picture, without thinking about composition and hardly any thought on the correct exposure- let alone graphic composition. I´m trying to work in “automatic composition mode” and if I have a strong subject matter it´s luck or my subconcious working it out. Apart from the fact that if I think it over too much my inner critic kicks in and self doubt creeps up on me. So it´s down to inspiration, impulse or what you want to call it and then perhaps I may love it or hate.
    Paul

  5. Walter McQuie said, on January 14, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Well here’s one vote against absolutes in photography. Well maybe not all absolutes! I like your focus on subject matter, Paul, but you might check out the work of Gianni Galassi–“Photagraphia, a blog about light and shadow”. His images have varying degrees of connection to an identifiable subject. Here’s the address for a post in the last month or say with minimal subject matter input. http://giannigalassi.typepad.com/blog/2009/12/geometry-rules.html

    Of course one could say that geometry is the subject matter for Mr. Galassi. Ditto with the sorts of abstract washes that Niels Henriksen references–the subject is color or time or something. It might be more productive to look at the relative importance of subject matter, graphic, and conceptual elements in the working of individual images. Different recipes for different photographers.

  6. Paul Butzi said, on January 14, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I think the essence of your argument is that you personally don’t think that abstract art could be considered art?

    Remember that we’re not discussing art in general, we’re discussing photography specifically. So observations about color field paintings, for example, are outside the domain of discussion.

    You’ll note that I did say “for all practical purposes”, weasel words extraordinaire.

    So, go and head, make my day. Give me a link to a compelling photograph of featureless geometric solids placed on a featureless geometric plane. (Galassi’s photographs don’t count. They’re not photographs of featureless solids, they’re abstracted photographs of buildings.)

  7. Ed Richards said, on January 14, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Hmmm. I am a bit surprised. I thought that a major point of your only shooting what you see when you walk the dog was exactly a Rockwellian exercise in shooting without subjects. As opposed, say, to dragging your camera to the Oregon coast to shoot SUBJECTS. In a sense, subject matters because it is in the picture and has to be dealt with, but I read Ken as trying to get people away from the notion that they have to important subjects to make great pictures. Perhaps the contrast between an AA print of Half Dome and a wonderful Josef Sudek print of a glass by the sink.

  8. julie said, on January 15, 2010 at 7:27 am

    As Ed says, above: “I read Ken as trying to get people away from the notion that they have to important subjects to make great pictures.”

    Maybe that is what he was doing, and it is an excellent point to make, but as per usual it’s been done in that way that makes it come across as a rule that must be obeyed, rather than guidance or suggestion from someone else’s viewpoint. But that’s how he writes everything.

    We’re also venturing into that dangerous “should/shouldn’t” territory which I think are words that shouldn’t (haha) apply to photography, given that it’s such a personal thing, and we’re all doing it in a different way, for different reasons. There are no absolutes…

  9. doonster said, on January 15, 2010 at 7:35 am

    Whereas I read the notion of subject as being the thing that is being photographed. That does open up the idea of shape or colour as being the subject, rather than a defined object or event of some sort.

    Now I’ll have to go off and try to answer Paul’s challenge to put substance to that notion.

  10. Gordon McGregor said, on January 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Well Paul – I think the ‘personally’ is the weasel word in all this. Not so much weasel as just the indication of your opinion. Its perfectly reasonable for you not to like it or think it is interesting – so I’m not really arguing the point.

    For me, personally, I like many of these shots, but I’m obviously biased.

    wave

    I think quite a few of those might count as the sort of colour and shape as subject sort of thing. Least this is where my thoughts are coming from.


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