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.