I have come to realize I am attracted to certain themes in my art. Before I fall off into art-speak, what I mean by a theme is just the simple dictionary definition: “a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation”. In other words, what subjects do we chose for our art. Themes tend to be bigger than a subject. A theme may tie several seemingly separate subjects together.
Think about artists you admire. Do you also picture the typical subjects they do? Ansel Adams – grand black and white landscapes of the west. Georgia O’Keeffe – modernistic flowers. Monet – impressionistic rivers and ponds in northern France. John Paul Caponigro – abstract and ethereal seascapes and landscapes. They tend to go together in our minds because we know they very often do these subjects.
Chicken or egg?
Do artists pursue themes because that is what they like or do they pick something to get known for? Kind of a trick question. It doesn’t have to be just one or the other. Sometimes themes choose artists. Sometimes artists choose themes.
What is available to us often has a huge impact on our themes. Ansel Adams lived in California. Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas were his back yard. John Paul Caponigro lives in Maine. Seascapes are common to him. Monet lived along the Seine River. He painted what was around him. This is quite common. We tend to grow to love what we see most. I live in Colorado, right on the dividing line between the mountains and the arid plains. Both are beautiful to me. I see them every day. The more I see them the more I resonate with them.
Some artists deliberately choose themes or subjects to become known for. They want a “signature”. Joel Grimes is well knows for his commercial work and stark, gritty treatment. Some people become famous portrait artists or wedding photographers. In general these are things they have consciously decided to build their career around.
I won’t claim there is a right or wrong. If you pick a certain subject matter to build your career and reputation on, I hope you really love it. Otherwise you could be like these old rock bands still touring around whose audience only wants to hear their hits from 40 years ago. It would get very frustrating to me.
I am a searcher and explorer. Themes are less conscious for me. Looking back through my portfolio I can detect a few. The ones I have detected make it less surprising now for me when I find myself drawn to them. I recognize it and have come to expect it. That doesn’t mean I am not open to new things, just that I can see larger patterns in my work.
Themes or typical subjects tend to be personally meaningful in some way to the artist. It is hard to keep on doing art you don’t care for. That is probably one reason we have themes. The subjects we are drawn to are somehow meaningful to us so we keep coming back to them.
I don’t want to go too deep on the need for meaning. Our themes do not have to align with deeply meaningful social or environmental causes for them to be meaningful. If they are meaningful for us, that is sufficient.
I used Georgia O’Keeffe as an example earlier. Her mentor and, later, husband Alfred Stieglitz promoted the idea that her flower pictures had deep sexual significance. It helped build her reputation in the modern art world of the time. She later vigorously denied this was true. She maintained it was only the form and color that was important to her.
Maybe meaning is a very nebulous and personal thing. What is meaningful to me may not be to you. And vice versa. Or you may see meaning I didn’t when I made the image. I have never thought that pictures have significant meaning in themselves. The themes I discover in my work have meaning to me, but I do not try to force it on you. Maybe on the rare times I try to express my feelings in words the viewer may occasionally get a glimpse of the meaning there is to me. But I do not expect you to get one of my images and hang it on your wall unless you like it as an image and maybe, there is something there that is meaningful to you.
Consistent over long times
Themes tend to be a persistent feature of an artist. We are drawn to certain subjects. Maybe we understand there is a theme there that we are pursuing. But regardless, we keep coming back to certain things.
Our themes can fade with time and be replaced with new themes. We all grow and change our values and interests. This tends to be a slow process, but it happens for most of us. I hate to try to quantize it, but I would guess that when we find we are interested in a theme it will stick with us for a few years. Sometimes, for our whole life.
Sometimes we find that several seemingly disparate subjects that interest us are really part of a unifying theme. This is a wonderful realization, because it unites large parts of our work and brings a new meaning, or realization to us to understand why we are drawn to it.
Let me give a personal example. I am drawn to old things that are worn and aged, but only certain ones. Some old things excite me and many are of no interest. Old rusted cars, abandoned buildings, old machinery, these have always been interesting subjects to me. As I’ve gotten older I have discovered the Japanese term wabi-sabi. I realized I was embracing the philosophy before I ever heard it expressed. It has become a unifying theme for many of the subjects of interest to me.
It is apparently impossible to succinctly and even correctly translate wabi-sabi to English. There are too many subtleties in the Japanese meanings. Some day I will attempt to write a better blog on it.
Here is one very compact description of wabi-sabi: “‘Wabi’ expresses the part of simplicity, impermanence, flaws, and imperfection. On the contrary, ‘Sabi’ displays and expresses the effect that time has on a substance or any object. Together ‘wabi-sabi’ embraces the idea of aesthetic appreciation of aging, flaws, and the beauty of the effects of time and imperfections. The two separate parts when put together, complete each other.”
I discovered that I am drawn to flaws and imperfections and the beauty of aging and the effects of time, especially of things that are bravely standing against time. This theme unites my collection of old rusty cars, broken down buildings, and broken flawed objects. I was happy to be able to wrap a higher vision around my old rusty things.
It makes us different
Our affinity for themes is one reason we can go out with a group of other photographers and still come back with our own unique images. We each have a different viewpoint. We are drawn to different aspects of a scene. Even if we shoot the “same” scene, we probably each have our unique viewpoint. This causes us to frame it differently, isolate a different part, emphasize different things.
Or, for some of us, even turn away from the classic landmark and shoot a different direction entirely.
Our themes help unify our images. They give a meaning and long term point of view to our portfolio. In another sense, our themes are an indication of our values and world view. What we are drawn to shoot are often things that are meaningful to us because of the themes we embrace. We still shoot other things, but something keeps drawing us in certain directions…
The image with this blog was taken in Blaine Washington. It is on the seacoast right at the border with Canada. It is a lovely small town. I was across the harbor. There were good views all around of the harbor and the sea, but I was fixated on this great old boat. Rusty fittings, deteriorating paint, obviously it had seen better days. But it was still standing against the elements. That is encouraging. For me, a perfect wabi-sabi moment.