Critique was our topic for the last meeting, using prints lent to the club by Hanham Photographic Society and our thanks to them and to club member Alison Davies who facilitated the loan. We were looking at the value of using a method of criticising our own photo’s as a means to developing our own efforts. There is no one, universally approved of, method and you can use as many steps as you like. We used five, though you could argue that down to four and a half. If anything this comes down on the side of the Get-It-Right-In-The-Camera-istas rather than Ye-Acolytes-of-Photoshop as was shown by using an example of a photo that normally wouldn’t have made the cut, editing the obvious out of it and still being left with a shot that really didn’t have a purpose, though was technically better. Steve Hallam reminded us of a phrase that had been employed by one of the judges from some time ago which paraphrases along the lines of technically proficient but exhibiting a subject deficit. This week’s blog is going to look at the role of the subject on the impact of a photograph.
“I like it” is sufficient critique for the amateur, a critical audience of one. Friends and family may well make supportive noises based on a scale that stretches from genuine to tactical admiration, depending on how thin the photographer’s skin is to criticism. We are not being paid to take it, the photograph or the criticism, and if we like it enough we might enter it into a competition. Others may not like it, indeed if we enter competitions purely to gain the adoration of others we are pretty quickly going to be disappointed. More than a couple of my images have been “misunderstood” by the judges though only one to the point of (for me) defining the verb to judge as “to be devoid of eyesight or reason” – and they all had valid comments. A number of people may/will agree with our evaluation. Others won’t. Some will be at a polar opposite. If you lead with your ego expect to get it bruised. Constructive criticism is invaluable be that adoring or otherwise. Constructive means that which we can build upon, offers reasons and solutions and is the only sort worth listening to.
The subject is the object of the photograph. Aside from a liking for both the appropriation and consumption of cake and a grammatical abomination, in a photographic sense it is true, at least for the purposes of this post. An object is something that is acted upon. The subject is the person, object or thing that is doing something. So we photograph the object to make it our subject. In order to be interesting the subject has to be doing something. That something does not necessarily have to be an action it can be a relative position or a suggestion, a moment frozen in time, a detail. That is where the idea that a photograph tells a story comes in. It also points to a division that is intrinsic to photography by its very nature and an argument that has yet to be settled since the first in camera photograph taken around 1826/7. Art or record?
To most people the distinction is an empty one. Now that cameras are everywhere photographs have lost the qualities of being special, namely scarcity. There are nearly as many cameras around now as people and more than half the world’s population seem to own one. Then there may be a distinction to be drawn between “photographer” and “person with a camera” as in someone who knows how to create an image and someone who knows how to use a camera. Yet there is a useful distinction to be made between art and record and it comes back to Steve’s point about the judge’s observation on how you can get the bits right and still miss the point.
We all do record shots – snaps we might call them and they are usually associated with an event. Big events, small events those in between. There is an association with an occasion. Occasion indicates a degree of rarity, or it used to. The ultimate by volume, at least if social media is any measure, is the selfie. If you aren’t in it at the end of a stick then it didn’t happen. Most aren’t of any interest outside of the immediate group in it – or who view it on social media by accident or design. They, nonetheless have meaning. That meaning belongs to a limited audience, is exclusive and meant to be, but it has meaning nonetheless. The subject gives it meaning. They are, ultimately, disposable as they are records of the now, and are taken for the now. Some will pass the test of time but not many as occasions become difficult to separate and last night becomes last week and the cycle repeats.
And it is the subject that we are talking about. The essence of a photograph is its subject and here the art and the record elements, both of which a part of any image by nature of its observation, composition and capture (of a subject), start to divulge. The key artistic elements of any photograph are its subject and its composition. Composition controls the objects and commands our eye to the subject. The key technical elements are its composition and employment of the exposure triangle. That may rather imply that there is a list of approved subjects somewhere, no doubt there is, but that would be, or is, meaningless because we select our own and what we choose changes as we get more experienced. At least it does if we pay it some attention. There is a big difference between ten years experience and one year’s experience ten times over.
The subject then has to convey something of itself. A perfectly technical representation of a picturesque cottage is one thing but what does it tell you of the cottage other than it is? Why have all the details when one or two tell a stronger story? Generally the advice is to get in close and even then you probably aren’t close enough. We are looking for symmetry, patterns, repetition, we want to create a visual rhythm in an image. That is how we differentiate subject from object in our photographs.
N E X T W E E K
Wedding photography – Danny Thomas.