Musings on Photography


Posted in aesthetics, process, the art world by Paul Butzi on January 15, 2010


There are a whole host of interesting comments on this post. It’s forming an interesting group conversation, really.

Niels Henriksen wrote:

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 suspect Niels is right about this. There’s no single definition being used, and that’s confusing things. I don’t know an easy way around that problem other than suggesting a single definition, and then it just because an argument about the definition.

Take Ed Richards comment:

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.

What I am photographing these days is, by and large, what I see on the walks with the dog. That’s partly convenience. The basis for the experiment, though, was observing that every single workshop leader or teacher I’ve had has told me to photograph what I know and love. Ruth Bernhard told me to sell the large format camera, buy a small camera, and make photographs of my family, for crying out loud. When Ruth Bernhard told you to do something, by God, you at least listened and considered.

And so I photographed on the beach because I found it a fascinating place, and I discovered that photographing a place is a great way to come to understand it. I photographed my kids, because I love them and knew they would not be children forever. I photographed in the valley near where I live, because in some large sense it’s where I live, and it’s important to me. And now I’m photographing in the forest where I live, because it’s the specific spot I decided to put my home. All of those things matter to me. There are uncountably many other things to photograph, and I might one day decide those things are important, too, but until then I’m not drawn to photograph them.

I don’t know quite how to explain this except by example. A photographer who met Harry Callahan gushed enthusiastically “I’m so glad to meet you because I, too, photograph nudes!”, and Callahan responded by saying that he didn’t photograph nudes, he photographed his wife. This seems an essential distinction to me; if form and composition are all that matters, it shouldn’t make any difference whether you photograph your wife, or some other randomly chosen woman of the same proportions. And yet it matters. It matters a lot.

Ken Rockwell in one place tells us that subject doesn’t matter. And yet, not very much further along in the page in question, he writes about punchlines. And yet, if it’s all about treating the subject as something that doesn’t matter beyond providing things to generate strong, graphic compositions that grab your attention from 100 feet away, how can it matter that this blob over here is a person looking at that blob over there, and that blob over there is actually a person looking back? Either a blob is a blob is a blob, or else it matters what sort of blob it is. If exactly what sort of a blob it is matters, then I’d say subject matters.

If what is being said is that we can’t separate the world into two disjoint sets, one of which is good to photograph and the other not good to photograph, then I agree. People care about different things, and while I happen to care about trees, some folks don’t. I should photograph trees, and those people who don’t care about trees might find it helpful to photograph something else. So it’s possible, I suppose that Rockwell and I are in violent agreement. But I don’t think thats the case.

If what is being said is that the subject only matters in the sense that it provides compositional fodder, I am at a complete loss. Why, then, does Sebastio Salgado go to great effort to travel to the places he does and photograph the people he does? Surely there are people close to his home who are roughly the same size and shape and would be a lot more convenient.

As several commenters point out, it’s wise to stay away from absolutes. So in the end perhaps all I can say is this: subject matters to me, and it appears that it matters to some other photographers as well. Maybe that means I’m doing one thing, and Ken Rockwell is doing something different, and the two activities are connected only because both involve cameras. And that’s just fine, if somewhat confusing.

9 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on January 15, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    > Why, then, does Sebastio Salgado go to great effort to travel to the places he does and photograph the people he does?

    Because he is a photojournalist/activist, which I think is a very different role than a photographer doing self-selected art. While more high minded than folks shooting celebrities or cars, Salgado is a commercial photographer who photographs what he wants to sell. (I am a big fan, and even have a print of his, so this is not meant to be derogatory.)

    You are photographing for different reasons, and while you have sold prints, I do not get the impression that you have ever done much shooting driven by finding subjects that would sell. You are exactly right, your subjects are important to you. The beach picture subjects might be important to a number of people, it is a beautiful and universal subject. Your dog walk subjects are of interest to you alone (ok, in this WWW world there might be someone else who cares about them) but of no interest at all to me. What is interesting to me is when your compose a picture that makes those subjects interesting to me. Then it has very little to do with the subject, and almost entirely with the composition/lighting.

  2. andrewteee said, on January 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    You can have it either way – take pictures of subjects (in good compositions) and good compositions (of subjects). I do some pure composition work, but my best work, because I gave a damn, was always about the subject. Composition matters, but what I’m really trying to do is capture the subject. There is a large local park and I love it there, especially in winter. Almost every weekend I try to take a photo walk and capture the beauty, space and atmosphere of the area. To me, when the subject matters we are more invested in taking good pictures, and we dig deeper and look closer, and see it again and again from many points of view. We explore the subjects and they reveal more to us and more fodder for our pictures.

    Nonetheless, as a design I also have a deep respect for more purely form oriented work.

  3. Gordon McGregor said, on January 15, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    ‘What is interesting to me is when your compose a picture that makes those subjects interesting to me. Then it has very little to do with the subject, and almost entirely with the composition/lighting.’

    A large part of that I think is often that the simple act of a half way decent photographer picking ‘something’ from all the other ‘things’ that could be used as a photographic subject, then shifting through all the bad shots, to get the handful that are interesting enough to share online, attaches some heightened significance to it.

    There are I’m sure plenty of other trees that on a given day, that Paul didn’t feel motivated to take pictures of, because of a peculiar and oh so personal mix of time of day, light, what he had for breakfast, if Kodak happened to find something interesting to sniff then, or later, if his mind was thinking about a blog post or not, if he kicked a stone or looked up, or stepped around a puddle, all to the point that something caught his imagination or eye enough to raise a camera.

    Then after all that, some few of those pictures filtered up enough to be considered interesting enough to illustrate a blog post (maybe not the best, or most dramatic, or well composed, just that had the ‘something’ that happened to suit the personal and arbitrary selection criteria for a blog post on here)

    and then we are subjected to that particular tree as a subject. and a small handful of us might just have eaten something at the right time and be in the mood and have the correct series of life experiences and associations to feel something when we look at the tree – probably quite different to what Paul felt, but still we feel a connection, to that image, and I don’t know, the woods we played in as children, or the spaces our parents wouldn’t let us near, or an idealised forest that was where Christopher Robin played in our mind, or whatever it is.

    Art’s a funny old game.

  4. Frank Harkin said, on January 15, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Bill Jay has an essay on this called ‘The Thing Itself’. Worth a read at

    When you point the camera at something then that – whatever it may be – becomes the subject. The act of pointing – or selecting – gives meaning (in the eyes of the photographer) to the subject and as such is important alongside shape, colour, form etc.

  5. David Kwett said, on January 15, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    So we go out for a walk with a camera, and how many hundreds of trees/people/scenes do we pass by before something attracts our eye?

    And we do a quick study of that subject found, work the scene, select our shots, and move on.

    Later we sit in front of the screen and review the day’s catch, and start culling.

    I can take a lot of photos of very similar subjects, and feel very similarly while taking them. In the cold light of the screen, though, it’s not the subject or the feeling, or the composition or lighting, that makes the few special images work. It’s all that and more; it’s the ‘wholeness’ of the image rendered. (And more than I might care to admit, something special that was only hinted at in my awareness at the moment of capture turns the shot.)

    I don’t know how to dissect it further. Of all the pictures you took in the session, of that subject, why did you select the one at the top of this post to display?

  6. Walter McQuie said, on January 15, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    So it seems the photographer’s choice of what to aim at matters a great deal even where the viewer is indifferent to the subject of the photograph. A funny game indeed.

  7. Gordon McGregor said, on January 16, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Well, at it’s heart aren’t we all just saying ‘hey, look at this!’ and just the fact that someone thought it worth pointing it out makes it more highlighted[*] than all the other stuff that we didn’t think was worth pointing out.

    * I took a pause trying to think of another word than ‘highlighted’ after trying to avoid important, relevant, interesting, worthy etc

  8. Mike said, on January 18, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    I got a bit fed up with being told ‘it’s all about the light’, which led to my realisation that, for me, it’s largely about either the subject itself or some form of memory.


  9. julie said, on January 19, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    There are two subjects for me in each photograph, i’ve come to realise. The first is the actual, physical, real live subject in front of me when i have the camera in my hand. The second is the subject as i see it in the photos that I’ve taken. I started to scratch the surface of that today (, and I think there’s something in it.

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