What is a theme?
In the previous article I gave the simple dictionary definition of a theme as “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation”. This is right, but inadequate. I have come to believe that for artists, themes are ingrained and consistent.
That is, unless we are doing commercial work for clients, themes represent what we are drawn to. The things that have meaning or symbolism to us. They probably don’t mean anything in themselves, but they disclose something about us. What we see and the way we think.
So perhaps, for a fine artist, themes are the ideas that tweak our passion, that spark our creativity. It is important to keep in mind that the theme does not have to be deeply meaningful. It just grabs us for some reason.
I am at a stage where I think more and more about projects. These self-assigned projects help focus me and exercise my creativity. Without them I tend to run wild and shoot everything in sight. That is OK, but a project helps me get deepen into an idea.
I have a list of project idea I think I would like to do. Sometimes, though, when I try to start one, it turns out to be Meh… It is difficult to really get into it with any enthusiasm. I have come to recognize that this is a symptom of the project not aligning with any of the themes that channel my interest. I usually abandon these, unless there is a compelling reason to push on through it. There seldom is.
On the other hand, when a project aligns with my innate theme interests I can really get into it. It is energizing and exciting rather than being dreary work.
So I have learned to look inward more to keep projects aligned with my natural themes. This can be hard for some of us cold, analytical types. After all, it is easier to talk about composition or exposure than it is about feelings. But as I have said before, art is primarily about feelings. I have to get in touch with my feelings??! Well, maybe not in that sense. But I have to become a lot more sensitized to them.
The unique nature of photography is that it is a subtractive art. The world is swirling all around us in unbelievable detail and complexity. When we lift a camera we engage in a process of reducing, filtering, limiting what we show to make a pleasing and coherent image. This takes discipline and a good sense of what we find important in the frame at the time.
This self-discovery process sounds hard for some of us, especially guys. But maybe not. Our own work can often tell us, if we listen.
If you have a body of work (a fairly large collection of images you think are good) you probably have the data you need already – your own images. As an exercise in self discovery, pick out around 100 of your best images. The ones that you feel you are most proud of and that represent the work you are doing now. If I were doing it right now, I would use Lightroom to go through my catalog of top picks and pull 100 of them into a collection to examine.
As painful and time consuming as that is, that is the easy part. Now it is time to think and reflect. Study this set of images. Write down the themes that come to mind as you look over the collection. Just do a free association, stream of consciousness at first. Write these theme ideas on sticky notes and lay them out on a table or a white board or your monitor or wherever is convenient. Look for groupings of related ideas. Put them together. Come up with a term to represent each grouping.
Hopefully you now have no more than 3-6 theme ideas. Go back to your image collection and try grouping them according to these ideas. Don’t worry if it is not perfect. A single image may overlap more than one idea. But it is a test to see if you believe the groupings you came up with.
Now you have a clearer map of the big ideas you are drawn to. This is enlightenment.
No, this is not rocket science. It is not really science at all, in the sense of being objective and repeatable. If you repeat the experiment you would probably select a different set of images, because they seemed meaningful to you at the time. You would probably label them differently and come up with different themes. Same but different. That is, there should be a lot of overlap, because themes are much more broad than a particular subject.
Does this make it invalid? No. The process gives you insight about yourself and your interests. It is turning your sights inward and trying to understand more about yourself. The fact that you get different results proves you are a complex and varied individual. That’s good. Be proud of your complexity.
What am I drawn to?
I mentioned wabi-sabi as one of my themes. Some others are time travel, weathered, force of nature, and black & white. I haven’t figured out if black & white is a theme or just an attribute of a lot of the art I like to do. Still working on it.
The image with this article I just shot yesterday (as I write this). This is in the force of nature theme. We just had our first good snow here in Colorado and I couldn’t resist getting up in the mountains to see it. This is not cloud or fog or smoke. It’s blowing snow. It’s not snowing. As a matter of fact the sky is a boring bright blue.
When we get sandwiched between a high pressure system to the west and a low pressure system to the east, we can get violent winds across the mountains as the pressure tries to equalize. When I shot this, it was about 18 F with about 40-50 MPH gusts. Very cold! But I hardly noticed. I love scenes like this showing the power and majesty and force of nature! I was in the zone. I didn’t even remember to put my gloves on, and I hardly noticed.
Connect with your heart
So I find that scenes that excite me when I am shooting them are usually in one of my themes. If I am not excited, I’m probably trying to shoot something that doesn’t inherently draw me to it. By understanding my preferred themes I can more easily decide what to shoot and what to avoid.
Someone once said “if it doesn’t excite you, why should it excite your viewers?” This is generally true. Have you ever made a technically perfect image of a beautiful scene and then later thrown it away? I have. Lots.
Art is about showing other people what we felt; what we were excited about. If we’re not in love with an image why should we ever show it to someone else?