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.