The Subject?

A no subject image I had to shoot

I wrote recently about the sometimes ambiguity of the subject. But the subject itself? I’m not sure I care what it is. Is that heresy?

Subject is king

People sometimes travel halfway around the world to photograph a certain thing or event. As I write this, several of my friends are preparing to travel to photograph the upcoming total solar eclipse. Or if a friend corners you to watch vacation pictures or videos, it is of their trip to [______] – fill in the blank of the place you don’t care about.

The point is that it seems most people are highly fixated on getting the best images of particular subjects that are important to them. This is probably perfectly natural. After all, when we go to the trouble of taking a picture, it should be ‘of’ something, shouldn’t it?

Most photo instructors emphasize this. Actually, they initially put beginners through a boot camp and hazing packed with technical details and jargon about aperture and shutter speed and ISO and depth of field and … If a beginner survives that, and are still interested in photography, then they are taught to have a foreground, middle ground, and background and a clear and strong subject. Then you work on composition, lighting, exposure, etc. This is standard practice.

Is it wrong? No, but learning photography is actually a difficult thing. There are many technical levels and esthetic aspects to learn. It takes a lot of practice to get good at all of them. People have different preferred learning styles, so a one-size-fits-all regime may not be appropriate.

A genre

Many well meaning experts firmly recommend that their listeners have to pick a subject area and specialize in it. They say if you are going to make a place for yourself in this over crowded field, you have tp be well known for one particular thing.

Are they wrong? Probably not. It is good advice if your goal is money or fame. So their advice is to become the recognized wildlife photographer, or portrait photographer, or street photographer, or night sky photographer, or … pick your specialty.

Then they tell us to look at what our “competitors” are being successful with and do more like that. While I can’t believe any “authority” would recommend that artists copy what other artists are doing, I can see where it is shrewd advice for maximizing your income. If you don’t care about your art.

Develop a body of work

And then we are told that we have to have a body of work. This sounded mysterious and difficult to me until I figured out they were just saying we have to be able to demonstrate we have done this enough to be taken seriously and we have to show the sustained quality of our work. Oh, well, sure. I have to do that for myself every day. I would call it my portfolio.

But then they say our portfolio must have a consistent subject focus and style and look. One “expert” I heard recently answered a question about this by using an analogy of an aspiring musician. The gist was if you are submitting an audition tape, it should all be similar type and style. You wouldn’t do some Country & Western and some rock and some bluegrass and some rap.

Maybe that is good advice if you are trying to break into the music industry. But I don’t think it works for me in my art.

Conventional wisdom is that our work needs to have a theme or be centered on a cause. After all, we can’t be a “serious” artist unless we are dealing with serious, life and death subjects. Right?

And we need to have a recognizable look that sets us apart. And our work needs to be cropped to a consistent presentation format, like square. Of course, it should have consistent color grading so it all looks like it came from the same artist. And so on.

Omnivorous

Some of us have real trouble with this, though. We are missing that ambition gene that allows us to suborn our artistic vision to the needs of marketing and fame. At least, I suffer from this defect.

I consider my artistic interest to be omnivorous and wide ranging. To the point where I would assert that I don’t care what the subject is. If it interests me, I will shoot it. And almost anything can interest me under the right conditions.

I am coming to see that it is not usually the subject that makes a good image. It is my reaction to it, My relation to it. The interest, even love, that comes across to me and my viewer.

Ultimately, an image can seldom be great unless I love it. And few images of an “interesting” subject will be great to me unless there is a strong connection there. I have heard people debating if you should take a picture if you’re not sure it will be a “portfolio” image. I say, if it interests you, take it. You won’t know until later what your reaction to it will really be.

An artist

Am I an artist? My answer is “yes”. The style and theme of any image in my body of work is a record of what I was drawn to at that place and that time when I made the image. I refuse to restrict myself to only shooting rusty 1950’s Chevy trucks in black & white and square cropped. It would make me crazy if I closed down my options like that. I love rusty 1950’s trucks, but I could not exist on a exclusive diet of them.

I may travel half way around the world to go to a place I am interested in and want to explore. But I don’t go to photograph a subject there. As I explore, I will likely find many images to take. But when I take one, it is because the whole scene grabbed me and tweaked my interest.

Let me give an example to make it concrete. I am unlikely to ever go on a safari in Africa. But if I did, I wouldn’t care if I came back with a great shot of a lion. Why? I don’t really care about lions. I would be more interested in a nicely formed tree in great light with a stormy sky. Or a native tribesman. Or …

What seems to happen is, as I’m looking around, something clicks. My subconscious triggers a message to my conscious mind to let me know “there’s a picture there! Get it!”. When that happens, it is not just about a subject. Its the subject, in this place, at this time, in this light, with me in this mood. Bam. That makes an image. Check my current online portfolio. I try to organize it to make it easier for you to browse, but you will see a wide range of subjects and styles.

The subject

So the subject? Not as important to me as it seems to be to a lot of people. The subject is only part of a good image. And it’s usually not even the most important part. At least to me. So yeah, I will go so far as to say I don’t care about the subject.

This is just my personal approach. You do what works for you. I hope you get the shot you want.

Today’s image

Today’s image is an example of the subject not being as important to me as the overall look and how I felt about it.. You could argue there is no real subject. I loved it and had to shoot it, even though it was difficult. I won’t say here what it is, but if you write me I will at least give you some hints. 🙂

What Is Creativity?

I’ve discussed aspects of creativity before. Mostly from a practical standpoint. It is a topic that has a special call to me. But what is creativity actually? I decided I would do research to find out what the experts say.

Psychology

So I set out to find out what people who spend their career studying creativity have to say about it. I have mentioned Teresa Amabile and some of the intriguing papers she has written. They led me to believe there might be useful insight to be learned.

After some internet research I saw several mentions of a book “The Nature of Human Creativity“, published by Cambridge University Press. It is a collection of papers by 24 psychology scientists that are frequently cited in textbooks and other papers. The first page describes it as “an overview of the approaches of leading scholars to understanding the nature of creativity, its measurement, its investigation, its development, and its importance to society.” Wow! That’s exactly what I wanted!

I eagerly bought it and jumped in, only to find it was like wading through a swamp. Turns out the giveaway I should have caught was that this was by “leading scholars”. Works like this are written by PhD’s to impress other PhD’s. There is little thought of communicating practical advice to real people. But I have read a lot of PhD and above papers, so I pressed on, although with diminishing enthusiasm.

Spoiler alert: I gave up about half way through. It’s not that I couldn’t understand it. Instead, I found it very unsatisfying. I could tell there would be no light at the end of the tunnel, because the real answer is that the scientists don’t know. Sure there are lots of theories. Scholars live by making and publishing theories. That does not mean they are very meaningful.

So, what is it?

A lot of psychologists accept the statement that “creativity involves the production of original, high-quality and elegant solutions to a certain class of problems – novel, complex, and ill-defined, or poorly structured problems.” [Mumford, Medeiros, and Partlow, 2012] This is one of the simplest and most concise statements defining creativity I have found by the psychologists.

In practice, though, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions for me. The one word I definitely agree with is production. You cannot evaluate the creativity of something until it is made or built. Someone has to be able to see it, hold it, examine it, compare it to other things. Otherwise it is just an idea.

But then what about terms like “original” and “high-quality” and “elegant”? What do they mean? Who defines them? And is art included in the set of “novel, complex, and ill-defined” problems they study? To me art is definitely all of those.

How to measure it

One of the greatest problems I had with the psychologists, though, is how do you measure creativity? If something calls itself a science then its theories must be measurable and other scientists must be able to repeat and independently verify the results.

Most of the psychologists agreed, probably correctly, that creativity varied by domain. They pretty consistently solved the measurement problem for their research by using a panel of domain experts in each specific area to score the creative works. The expert scores determined the creativity judgment for any work being evaluated. The fact that the expert’s scores had decent statistical correlation was their “proof” that the measurement was valid.

That is easy and it takes the researchers off the hook. They do not have to be the judges. To me, though, it is the thing that invalidates the whole research approach.

Is art different?

The psychologist’s measurement approach will work OK for engineering or math or software or accounting. Most any problem solving discipline where the problems can be expressed and solution quality can generally be analyzed and agreed on.

I believe art does not fit this pattern and has a terrible history of valid critical judgment. There are no clear right or wrong solutions in art. Critic judgment is often strongly biased by their opinions and background and training. Just look at the resistance and rejection a new movement like the Impressionists got when they opposed the established Realist intelligentsia. Or look at Paul Klee. History seems to repeat itself about every generation.

On a much smaller scale, look at typical photography contests or exhibition competitions. Perhaps I am just an arrogant curmudgeon, but I often look at the winners selected and think “you’ve got to be kidding; I throw away better ones than that”. I have done judging (forgive me) and I know judges can come to consensus and select the top 3 entries they like best according to the criteria they have set. But unless a work is a blatant copy, I disagree that they can reliably determine a quantitative measure of its creativity.

To me this shows that we should have little confidence in the ability of critics to judge creativity in art.

If we don’t know what it is, how can we do it?

Sherlock Holmes seems to be the first to state “I know what is good when I see it”. Don’t we as artists do that all the time? Isn’t that the only criteria that can guide us?

We could say “I don’t know what creativity is, and judges seem to be telling me I must not be creative, and I can’t always do work that is demonstrably original and novel, so I will give up”. If we did that no art would ever be done. At least not by honest, truth seeking artists. It is easy to copy what seems to be popular, but really different work always fights against a headwind.

But think. Who is it that is telling you your work is no good? The same people who told Monet and Van Gogh and Klee they were no good. I’m glad they didn’t listen. They kept their head and did the work that was unique to them. And the world is better for it.

We each have to determine what evaluations we choose to accept for our art. Do not give weight to the negative talk by the critics when your inner voice disagrees. Your inner voice may not be right. It may need new training and experience. But you have to trust yourself, and go with your instincts. You really don’t have any other reliable standard.

Talent or skill?

So is creativity a talent or a skill? Does it come from the Muses or is it something we are born with? Can we develop and enhance it or are we stuck with what we have? Can other people reliably measure our creativity?

Probably some or all of that. Don’t expect the answers to come from psychology research . They are at least as blind as the rest of us. If scientists can’t give us objective answers, we have to decide who we listen to. As an artist we need to give greatest weight to our own evaluation. It is the only way we will follow our path.

One thing I do know is that creativity seems to reward hard work. If we sit around waiting for inspiration, we may be sitting a long time with nothing to show for it. Get busy. Go out in the field or go to your studio and make trash if necessary. Do something. Movement seems to generate creativity. Make your own path and don’t look back.

Disclaimer

I am not belittling psychologists. Most of them I have studied seem to be very intelligent, hard working people. I’m just saying I don’t think the methodologies I have seen used in studying creativity are destined to lead to much success in understanding art.

Maybe they can understand why 2 software developers with seemingly equivalent training and experience can exhibit vastly different levels of creativity and productivity and quality in their work. Something I have often seen first-hand. But that is a different and easier to study domain.

I wish them luck. But for me, I will not look to psychology research for future help in understanding artistic creativity.

Lighten Up

Reflections on flowing water.

By lighten up I don’t suggest we make more high key images. It’s not a bad idea if you don’t do it much. But I mean to give our viewers more opportunity to figure things out for themselves.

Serious

Most of us take the world very seriously. Of course, there are serious issues we live with all the time. I don’t minimize them. But I learned from an expert in culture that, being an official old guy, I typically have less anxiety than most of you younger people.

Personally, I’m glad. I hate going around burdened down with angst and fear. Instead, when I’m out taking pictures I see joy and hope and feel uplifted.

I’m not trying to change the world with my images. At best, I hope to help a few people have a better day by looking at my work.

But another way to lighten things up it to be more ambiguous. I notice that most of my work has a clear subject. Low ambiguity. Also, not so many questions for you to answer for yourself. This is probably a fault.

Ambiguity

Ambiguity is a marvelous tool. Used sparingly it can liven up our work and give our viewers more challenges and rewards. Ambiguity means being open to more than one interpretation.

I recently watched a video on Creative Live by Renee Robyn. She is a conceptual artist who constructs images as composites of many layers. Some of her work leads to various interpretations. I was interested that she said about one that she asked many people what it meant to them and every one had a different interpretation. And none matched what she had in mind. That is ambiguity.

Ambiguity introduces the option of different interpretation. Of course, that is always possible with any image, but more ambiguity makes it more possible.

Leave questions unanswered

As I get older I find my work asking more questions than answering them. Maybe I realize I know less as I age.

I cynically view that a lot of young people come out of art training thinking they now think deep thoughts and have to raise great questions for their viewers. Later, whether they realize it or not, most of them settle down some and their work says “this is what I see”. Even later, like me, they might come around to saying “these are things I still don’t understand, but I see them different and less rigidly now”.

Intentionally introducing more ambiguity is one way to move away from imposing my own interpretation on a scene. By leaving more room for the viewer to create their own story it becomes more of a conversation.

Say more

It is quite possible to say more by saying less. This is one of the beauties of poetry. Great poetry may introduce deep truths in a few words, but in a way that keeps the reader thinking about it on and off for years.

I have no images where I claim such insight or depth. But I do think that by leaving more for the viewer to fill in from their own experience and viewpoint, there can be more interest.

Giving viewers the clear answer to things can come across like a boring lecture. It may be good information, but it doesn’t necessarily engage you. I have this problem with a lot of landscape images I see (and take). It’s a landscape. Beautiful place, great time of year, I’d like to go there, but there’s nothing else. Nothing left for me to figure out or question.

It seems much more rewarding to hint that there is more depth there to be discovered. To give the viewer a chance to participate, to become a co-creator.

Today’s image

This image is a little ambiguous. I’ll let you figure out what it actually is. I left a couple of strong hints, but feel free to make up your own interpretation, your own story.

The Subject Isn’t the Subject

French street scene at night. The comp[osition carries it.

Huh? Wrap your self around that for a minute. When we shoot images, we almost always have a distinct subject. What sense does it make to say the subject isn’t the subject?

Inspired by a quote

This article was inspired by an article by Ian Plant in Nature Photography Network, Feb 8, 2023. In part, he said:

But the single most difficult, most counterintuitive aspect of photography, the one thing that most photographers have a tough time wrapping their heads around, is this: your subject is not your subject. Instead, your subject is just part of the overall visual design. The subject might arguably be the primary element of the design, perhaps the most important part, but it is only a part, nonetheless. To make truly exceptional photographs, you need to include more than just your subject; you also need to include other visual elements that work together with your subject, getting the viewer engaged with the story you are telling with your image.

This requires some careful thought. Many of us tend to be fixated on finding the “right” subject and filling the frame with it. Ian is suggesting that is a limiting view.

What else is there besides the subject?

But if you have a good subject, and if you light it and have adequate depth of field, and you expose it right, doesn’t that make the picture? He says probably not, and I tend to agree with him.

A successful picture is a complex balance of many, often competing, dimensions. Yes, a subject is usually important, but there is the overall visual design, the composition, the feeling, the processing, even the context.

Presenting a badly designed image of a great subject usually doesn’t work well. Maybe in a photojournalism context, if the subject is truly unique it would be considered a strong image. But as a normal visual image, no.

It’s that balance thing. All the parts have to be strong.

It all works together

A well composed image of nothing particular probably doesn’t work. Neither does a not well composed picture with a good subject. We’ve probably all experienced both.

Another statement from Ian Plant in that article is:

Once you learn to stop thinking of your subject as your subject, you instead start seeing your subject as an abstract compositional element, which is a necessary step for making compelling photos. You start to see your subject in terms of its shape, color, and luminosity value. Seeing shapes and learning how to arrange them effectively within the picture frame is of critical importance to successful composition.

So the subject is part of what you build a compelling image around. Everything else you have learned about composition have to be thought through. You know, the considerations of framing and leading lines and balance and contrast and emphasis and patterns and … it goes on. You can find a million videos on the internet with someone ready to give you the secrets of composition.

Viewer perception

Why doesn’t an interesting subject carry a picture by itself? For you, it might. You were there. The image invokes memories of the experience, or the subject is important to you. Not so for the viewer.

To the user, it is a picture. You have to give him a reason to keep looking at it. People are so inundated with imagery that they are going to move on in about 1/2 second unless you can grab them.

So, let’s say there is a picture you like of a heron. It was your first trip to Sanibel Island in Florida and you shot lots of bird pictures. It is significant to you. But put yourself in the place of your viewer. They see lots of heron pictures. What does this one have to offer to make them pause on it?

Is it a significant moment with the bird poised to catch a fish? Is the bird in an interesting pose? Does the lighting enhance the feeling? Have you brought something of the environment where the bird lives that is of interest? Does this tell an interesting story about the bird? A good image is more than just an interesting subject.

Your mileage may vary

Seems funny how most of my articles contain a disclaimer like “your mileage may vary”. Art is intensely subjective. There are no hard rules. There are only patterns that have been identified over time that seems to strongly influence people’s perceptions.

Ian is describing landscape photography. “Rules” may well be different for portraiture or photojournalism or other things. The fine art I do is a lot like landscapes. Sometimes it is straight landscapes. So his thoughts struck me as significant. As always, you do your own art according to what makes sense for you. Never let any so called authority tell you you can’t.

But listen to opinions of people who have a track record of doing good work. Don’t necessarily follow them, but listen, try it on, see if it fits before rejecting their advice.

Today’s image

This is a quick shot of a street scene in Paris. It is not a carefully planned set up shot. I was out for dinner with family when this grabbed me.

Quick or not, it passed the test of “I’ll think of a reason later“. The more I worked with this the more it went up in my estimation.

Why? It is a pretty standard tourist shot of Paris streets. Look at the things that help make it more. The curve of the street and sidewalk draws us into the scene, as does the diagonal line of light and color., as do the people walking into the scene on the right. The bicycles give movement and make it more alive. The light and color on the building draw us to the side of the street that has most of the interest. As you look along the lighted street, the people in the cafes each seem to have their own story and interest. They all seem to be enjoying the evening out and that is pleasant and inviting. The receding perspective of the buildings on the left also direct and guide us along the street and through the scene.

Conclusion

To me, there is a lot of interest to explore and reasons to keep moving around the image looking at things. A simple shot of a street at night blossomed into an interesting picture. It moved beyond a street scene and became a study of living in Paris.

Most all of that was instinctual, not planned. A (metaphorical) bell went off alerting me there was something here. I got in position and framed the shot quickly. I really didn’t want to hold up my group, and I didn’t.

It’s a fairly standard and common subject. Design improved it to something more special. Instinct helped me craft the interest. What do you think? Is it interesting? Am I kidding myself?

Window or Mirror

In a storm? Standing bravely?

It has been observed that photography can be either a window or mirror. The idea has some merit. But like most real world things, it depends.

Szarkowski

The idea originated with John Szarkowski, at the time the head of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was expressed in an exhibit named “Mirrors and Windows, American Photography since 1960” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978.

Mr. Szarkowski was a huge influence on photography for many years. I don’t agree with many of his ideas, but I believe there is something to consider in the ideas behind this exhibit.

The press release for the show states that “In metaphorical terms, the
photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.”

Let’s try to unpack that.

A window on the world

At the beginning of photography, it was seen as a way to quickly capture real scenes. The “writing with light” aspect was a big thing. A landscape or a portrait could be captured much more quickly than by previous artistic media. What a breakthrough! To make a portrait in a few seconds instead of having to sit for days while a painter works! And it was “real”! Indisputable. Unaltered. Exactly what the person or place looked like.

This notion that a photograph is true to reality carries on strongly today. I see photographers who refuse to alter anything in the frame for fear of being dishonest. And most viewers have a natural belief that what they see in a print is real. Unless an image obviously looks like a fantasy illustration, it must be fact.

A great many photographers follow this tradition. I started there, too. The idea that an image represented exactly what was there at the time. No illusion or tricks or modification. Many great photographers like Ansel Adams and Gary Winogrand could be placed in this group.

This could be described as the “window on the world” view. What I choose to frame in the image is bringing the viewer an exact representation of reality. It is an outward looking viewpoint. The photographer is silently in the background. It is not obvious what he was thinking or feeling. There is little clear message beyond “look at this”. And there is always the implication that you could go there and see the same scene.

A mirror reflecting the artist

Somewhere in the mid twentieth century (around 1960 according to Szarkowski), many photographer’s intent started to shift. This would describe some great artists like Paul Caponigro and Jerry Uelsmann. It was no longer sufficient to just bring reality. It was important to express my beliefs, to make a statement, to convey my feelings. And it was no longer important that the image depict the scene literally.

Now the goal became to express the scene as I perceive it. That may require extreme processing or compositing or absolutely anything as long as my intent is brought through. The final image may bear little or no resemblance to the original. That is OK, though, because it is an expression, not a capture of reality.

There was one idea in the exhibit notes that resonates strongly with me. The image that a scene projects on the artist who then internalizes it and interprets it to the viewer. This seems to me to capture a large range of what is done in art now.

A natural evolution?

I believe this movement from window to mirror was fairly natural and predictable. By the 1950’s or 1960’s people had become used to seeing images of the world. Major publications like Life and National Geographic flooded us with images of the world, both landscapes and people. Pictures were becoming commonplace.

To take landscapes, for instance, there is only room for a limited number of shots of the major sights of the world. The market was saturated. So artists started to differentiate their work by allowing their own personality to show through. The notion of a personal style became important.

The part of this that seems valid to me is that, while there are millions of photographers out there shooting everything imaginable, only I have my personal point of view and style. Therefore, my images are unique. Even if they are of the same scene many others shoot. That seems to me to be the only chance of artists to carve a niche in the crowded market.

Both?

Even Szarkowski was quick to point out that this was not intended to be a clear division of artists. It is an axis, with strong window view points on one end and strong mirror view points at the other. Most people will fall somewhere in between. And they may move back and forth on the axis with time. Although I think the movement is typically from window toward mirror. At least that was my path.

But even with that said, I do jump around. It depends on the context and what I am feeling at the time. So, for instance, when I go to a new location that excites me, I may start out taking “window” shots. To capture the locale, the scenes I am loving. Many of these are consciously for my own memories.

If I have the opportunity to spend time in the location, I move past the “window” shots and start feeling a personal view that begins to be expressed. This is now drifting toward the “mirror” end of the axis. But in the same day of shooting I will probably do both. In familiar territory where I spend a lot of time, there is a greater tendency to concentrate on mirror views, since the conventional views are well gone over.

The metaphor is useful to help us reflect on how we are seeing subjects at any time.

Neither?

This idea of window vs. mirror views is just Szarkowski’s concept. That doesn’t make it right or some universal truth. I must admit, though, the model has merit. It is a valuable metaphor.

Photography started out as a window on the world. Just the fascination of being to quickly capture as “real” scene in all it’s complexity was one of the things that propelled it into popularity. And I think many new photographers still start out intending to shoot realistic scenes of nature or architecture or people. It is a great way to hone our technique.

And I believe that many who stay serious about the art move toward the mirror end of the axis. It is no longer enough to just present a scene and say “here is what it looked like”. We feel a need to express how we felt about it, or how we perceived it differently than other people.