As an example of the kinds of things you would hope to know about your subject before you try making meaningful photographs of it, I would like to link here to an article I wrote for Nature Photographers Network a while back. It shares just the surface of things I’ve come to understand about experiencing, enjoying, and photographing the Mendenhall Glacier.
If you’re in my Landscape Photography class, this should serve as an example (albeit longer than necessary) of the kind of paper you need to write about your subject of choice. Be ready to turn your paper in as soon as possible.
My day has been busy enough that this post won’t be going up until Thanksgiving Day is already over for almost all of you. Still, I wanted to include some response to one of my most favorite celebratory days. I truly enjoy having an entire day dedicated to considering and expressing my gratitude. It’s particularly fun to do it with close family and friends. This day was my daughter, Della’s very first Thanksgiving ever, which in itself makes my thanksgivings flow.
When scanning through my archives, I realized I have not recorded photographs on at least the last four Thanksgiving Days, which isn’t entirely surprising when you consider the state of Juneau this time of year. The once verdant forest has long since been dormant and waiting to hide under the cover of snow. Today, actually presented a quite beautiful morning, but light was fleeting and rare. I planned an image like this one from the outset of my trip because these falls say something about thanksgiving to me. The water falls in various quantities all year long; furiously during the snow melt of early summer and sparsely during the bitter cold of winter. But, like our thanksgivings should, it always flows through good times and bad.
I’m making it a goal to retain a mindset of gratitude beyond the end of this holiday. Thank You.
In the last post, we developed an understanding of what Subject is in terms of photography. Along the way it became clear that the concept is expansive as far as what it includes, and it is obviously a key ingredient in any image. Today I want to talk about why I think the subject of a photograph is important and what advantages there are in focusing on Subject instead of Light or Composition (not that you could get away with ignoring any of the three).
First of all, I can’t help but consider the subject as the base of the photograph. The objects in a scene are almost always what attract us to the scene in the first place. They hold the lines, textures, patterns, colors, and shapes that we find intriguing; and Composition is clearly a response to what is there in the first place. If we compose from nothing, then we aren’t talking about photography really because no matter how abstract our photograph might be or how extensively we enhance it in the processing stage, it starts with what was there. Where things belong in a frame is a product of what they are and what natural qualities they have.
I think Light must stem from Subject in much the same way. Every object has a “right” light that will enhance both the object and its surroundings, but that light is certainly not the same for everything. For some scenes, the best light is soft and unidirectional, giving equal luminosity to every detail in the photograph. For other subjects, the most flattering light is the warm last rays at sunset when vivid colors are spread across sky and land. Good light is oh so important, but we can’t really know what kind of light that will be until we truly understand our subject, which brings me to my next point.
The one thing that we really CAN understand out of the three components (Subject, Light, and Composition) is Subject. The reason we can understand it best is that our subject is consistently available to us. It’s possible for us to visit the same location day after day, month after month, and even year after year. In all of those visits, it’s possible to develop a deep an intimate understanding of the place and the subjects in and around it. Truly knowing the subject of our photograph helps us see unique compositions that other people would not. Understanding the subject means we know what light will bring out all of its best traits and hide its flaws. I think no matter whether we agree that the most important thing in a successful photograph is the subject or not, we should all accept the challenge to understand our subject as well as possible.
If you are in my landscape photography class, I would like you to pick one subject (it could be a place or single object) that will be your focus for the next several days and possibly even the rest of the semester. It can be somewhere specific near the school, near your home, or somewhere else you will be able to visit frequently. Tomorrow and over the long weekend, I would like you to begin your research. You can do your research on site (writing down careful observations), on a computer, or in the library. If you can bring in a paper tomorrow that demonstrates you already have a very good understanding of a specific subject, you may be able to take home a camera until Monday.
There is a debate that occasionally comes up among photographers (though it is usually more of a conversation) about what things matter most in an artistic photograph. Of course the end desire is to generate some sort of connection, possibly emotional, with the viewer, but I’m talking about the raw elements going in. Typically the discussion comes down to three main contenders: Subject, Composition, and Light. This of course assumes some level of technical proficiency; such as important objects being in focus, colors being some form of accurate, and brightness or darkness not hiding important details. Together, I would like to take the important components individually and examine them, so that when we are through, we will have come to personal conclusions about the priority of each.
Whether by chance or personal bias, I’ve decided to think about Subject first, and we may as well attempt to come to a definition or common understanding. One part of Webster’s definition is, “something represented or indicated in a work of art.” It’s easy for me to understand what subject I might represent in a photograph because I must be representing a tree if there the tree is, right in the middle of my photo. Alternatively, how is it that I might only indicate my subject in a photograph, and is that even possible? If the trunk of the tree in my photo is tack sharp, and the leaves and small branches are all blurred in different amounts and directions, what is indicated in the picture? Just like a fever indicates an illness we can’t see, the blurred leaves and branches indicate the wind that is impossible for us to see in a photo.
There’s a tree represented in the photo, and there is wind being indicated in the photo, so by now you might be wondering which one is really the subject. I would submit that it can be both. I think the subject can be, and very often is, more than one thing. Whether you call it “a windblown tree” or “wind blowing a tree,” the two objects are inseparable and equally the subject of the picture. An entire scene that includes a tree, a barn, a path, and an old tractor can be the subject when you’re photo is about their relationship to each other. On the other hand, we have to draw the line somewhere before we say that Composition and Light are just more pieces of Subject, which would be taking the easy way out of this comparison.
The conclusion is that Subject can be various and even multiple things ranging from a texture, to a color, to a dew drop, to a mountain. To over simplify, it’s a tangible object or some characteristic of a tangible object that we are either representing or indicating through our photograph. Developing a common understanding of Subject is only half the battle, but I’m ready to share my perception of the importance of subject…next.
If you’re part of my Landscape Photography Class, I would like you to respond to this post either electronically or with paper and pencil. In 100 words or more, tell me what you agree with, disagree with, find confusing, or find interesting about my definition of Subject. If you need more to ponder, click on the link in the first paragraph.
It’s difficult to know where to start in an undertaking like this, and to be honest, I haven’t determined exactly why I’m starting this blog in the first place. Like many other “bloggers”, I suppose I’ll be sharing my thoughts with anyone who has an inclination to listen, and ease of editing might make this more functional than my website has ever been.
Best wishes to all, and here’s hoping I’ll have something to say again soon.