Sunday, October 23, 2011

An Old Conversation Update

Well, I swore that I was not going to continue this blog. However, the other blog is not “shovel ready” and I have something I want to talk about.

A couple of years ago I posted to the GW Photography Discussions blog one of my photographic principles: “The photograph is not the subject.” That started a long, long conversation. I finally amended the statement to “The photograph is not the object photographed.” Now this is something that I have long accepted but don’t know that I ever made any attempt to hash out the details prior to posting it to Discussions.

For the most part I am an essence person, I don’t really need the details, the minutia. All I need to know is that it is true and I am happy. Well the statement is true, has always been true, but it is not terribly clear. During the conversations on the blog I quoted several photographers that are considerably more capable of stating what I was saying but I am not sure that I ever convinced anyone. I personally believe that if you can only see a photograph as the subject matter you will never be able to advance your photography.

We are in a very good time with respect to photographic literature. When I was younger there was John Szarkowski, Minor White, Susan Sontag, Ralph Hattersley, Lou Bernstein, Herbert Keppler and many others writing about the meaning in photography but it seems to me that after them there has been a very long, very dry spell in photographic writing. Lately that is changing. David duChemin, Chris Orwig, Bruce Barnbaum, George Hall, Michael Freeman are once again exploring the meaning of photography, are talking about photographic vision, about photographic intent. I am having a ball buying books—okay, I’ve always had a ball buying books but now I buy them for the writing rather than the photographs--finally it's true what we used to say about buying Playboy.

Tonight after the photoshoot at the Zombie Walk—which seems to be something that you only need to do once, I was reading from David duChemin’s just published Photographically Speaking that puts a slightly different slant on what I have been trying to say. But first, I am an underliner—since Mickey Spillane stopped publishing the good parts in italics I have had to highlight the good parts someway and I prefer underlining to highlighting. I may run out of ink before I get to the end of Photographically Speaking. DuChemin doesn’t say anything that is not a good part.

On page 20 (I have just barely got started) duChemin is basically talking about seeing photographically and discussing how the photograph flattens the three dimensional world into two dimensions. He writes: “Being conscious of this flattening allows us to use it to our advantage, or to compensate for it and reintroduce the illusion of depth. It allows us to begin to read an image as it really is—a flat image composed of lines and tones. I’m often amused by how unaware of this flattening we are. As photographers we deal in creating illusions, yet we’re taken in by those illusions all the time. I hear my students talk about photographs as though they’re little three dimensional worlds. They say things like, “I like how that person is standing,” as though the photograph is a little aquarium full of real, but smaller, people. I have to remind them there is no person in that photograph. There are only the lines and shapes that represent that person. If this sounds like pedantic hair splitting, let me explain.”

“The ability to see the illusion for what it is allows us to more finely create it. If we stop seeing that shape in the photograph as a person and instead see it as lines and tones, we become aware of those basic building blocks. Seeing the person distracts us; it’s a sleight of hand that keeps us from seeing what’s really going on. It’s pattern recognition, something Galen Rowell often wrote about. We see the shapes and recognize them as a person because we’ve seen people before. Additionally, we respond emotionally to people. So when we look at a photograph of a loved one, we find that our emotions for that person come flooding back. The emotional response created by the illusion of the photograph blinds us to anything but that emotion. But ask a photographer who doesn’t know that person, who doesn’t share the same memories, and they’ll see things in that image you never did. They’ll see sloppy framing and imbalance, harsh shadows, and distracting backgrounds. It’s an extreme example, but learning to see images as they really are—being able to identify the building blocks—becomes an important way of seeing.”

Earlier duChemin gives an excellent breakdown of what I have been saying that the photograph has a subject, a meaning, that is separate from the subject matter, the object photographed. I have said that “photographic technique is the sentence structure of the visual language of photography.” He puts a slightly different twist on that.

Instead of subject, subject matter and sentence structure/composition, duChemin characterizes it as message, elements and decisions and gives the following definitions of each.

Message: “The subject is the message or theme of the photograph, and it differs from subject matter in the same way in which the moral of a story is not the story itself.” Which he illustrates with Aesop’s fable of the race between the hare and the tortoise. The hare and the tortoise are the subject matter but the moral, the subject/message, is pacing and persistence.

Elements:  “Subject matter/elements is the thing through which the story is told”

The three important elements; message, elements, decisions to which he continues with what he calls the “missing piece,” the reader. “Once she begins to read, a new element is introduced; the act of interpretation. That interpretation is entirely out of our hands.”

I read all of this back in the fifties and the sixties—just wish I had someone as easy to understand as the authors I mentioned above. I had Minor White who I could only guess at what he was saying. Minor was on an intellectual plane all his own; Sontag who was compelled to be downright esoteric; Hattersley that put a psychological twist to everything concerning photography—I loved what they wrote, I hung on every word and understood a few of them.

Of course, I have all the books but there are two books that are on my must own (not must read but must own and study) list duChemin's Within the Frame and Photographically Speaking.

To close, from p. 19, “Before we learn to see like the camera and understand that the camera is a tool that flattens the world from three dimensions to two, we are just people with cameras.” I interpret this to be the same as saying that you must be able to see the photograph as a photograph and not as the subject matter--remember my ranting about critiquing a photograph with such comments as "oh, what beautiful eyes," "the kid is precious," -- read that to equate with "I like how that person is standing."


  1. And never have I understood “the photograph is not the subject” better than with the photos in your portfolio challenge this year. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I have only just begin to realized that the reason I am attracted to shooting what I feel, is due to the fact that I am self centered and only see myself in the images I take, those that I can call "my work" (MY REAL WORK). This helps explains the internal actions that are occurring at that time of observation of the scene, even if not consciously; subconsciously...

    Well as always your time and energy are greatly appreciated.


  3. good post however it is 4 dimensions which get compressed to 2; The 4th being time.

  4. Gary good post however I disagree that it is 3 dimensions in reality it is 4 dimesions which are compressed into 2. The forth being time, now time is contextual frozen no longer relative with place and position when the image is captured which makes the whole subject line of “the photograph is not the subject/object photographed”issue more important for the photographer to grasp.

    I have forwarded you a link to another DeChemin webinar, it will becoming via another email; it is free enjoy.

  5. I think the light is dawning in this thick skull of mine. I enjoyed reading this article and agree with Jan. Your portfolio challenge certainly got me thinking in a different direction!

    Paul, it's good to see you again. Sounds like you've had an epiphany about your work!

    Michael, you always have something interesting to say. I never thought of time as being an element. I'm wondering if you could send me the link to that duChemin seminar as well; I'd surely appreciate it.

    Thanks again Gary, I really enjoy your insight and enthusiasm!

  6. Michael, you are correct. I suppose he only mentioned the three since he was talking here about the message and composition. As I said I have just barely started the book and I would suspect that he get into the element of time later on. I believe he talked about that in Within the Frame. I have read so much lately it is difficult to keep it all separated.

    He also fails to mention here something that I personally believe is a part of this equation—photographic technique in general. Of course composition is a part of photographic technique but I believe that what duChemin is saying her is much more inclusive than simply composition—this applies to all photographic technique. I always enjoy finding validation in the writings of those that are much smarter than I am, but I still like my way of putting it better—that photographic technique is the sentence structure of visual photographic language and as I say that includes composition. I do like the way that duChemin writes about it though because it is so understandable.

    One of the things that duChemin does and of course I am trying just to hit the highlights; he draws analogies that really clarify what he is saying. Much of the book so far has talked about music and painting as well as speeches by Martin Luther King, Aesop’s fables. He just seems to be able to reach out and grab something that really clarifies what he is trying to get across. Of course, he and Chris Orwig are both teachers but I am amazed at their knowledge of things outside of photography. I greatly enjoy Orwig’s writing because he pulls in quotes from so many photographers, writers, that are so pertinent to what he is discussing. It’s like finding a storehouse of accumulated knowledge in one place. As I mentioned in the post the writers of the fifties, sixties and seventies that I gravitated to were not nearly as easy to understand. As much as I love Ralph Hattersley Jr, after reading his Psychology of People Pictures I almost entirely stopped photographing people. It wasn’t until after Janet and I married that I returned to something I dearly loved, street photography. Hattersley can warp a youthful, impressionable mind like mine. But I love being warped but I am not sure that I am entirely over or comfortable with what Hattersley made me aware of forty years ago.

  7. Bekkie, Paul is an epiphany waiting to happen! And someday I’m going to push him hard enough that it is going to happen—you’ll know because the heavens will open to the sounds of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus—just hang in there.

  8. Paul, I agree totally. You are self centered and your work is for you only. Well, brother, I’m headed to the lumber yard for new timber.

    The day that you get half as self centered, self serving, egotistical and monomaniacal as I am then I will start to worry about you. Until then you are still in need of the 2x4, but it might be time to change to post timber like 6x6—you’ll smell like a cedar closet.

    Okay, on a more serious note. You need to read duChemin’s writings on intuitive photography—hey, I needed it. He really has some good things to say that brought home some very good points to me. Like you I “claim” to shoot intuitively—I am doing my damndest to change, not that intuitive is bad or even that duChemin says it is bad. He just says that he doesn’t buy it and gives a very good explanation why. It’s good enough that it makes me want to do much better. Would love to have your join me.

  9. Paul has ordered a book. What is this world coming to. Thanks.

    Nice seeing all of you again...

  10. I knew it, I knew it--it was the 6x6 that did it!!! Does anyone else see a slight crack in the heavens--listen closely, could it be?

    Paul, I greatly look forward to discussing duChemin's words with you. You have reaffirmed my faith in miracles.

  11. People, am I chagrined. I just read the original post and I left out the most important part of what duChemin was saying. It wasn’t a senior moment—it was s mistake of monumental magnitude. Now everyone is going to have to buy the book to read what duChemin says about DECISIONS. That’s what I was really writing the post about. Silly me—no old and senile me.

  12. DuChemin is a good read. I have many of his books. The link to web is

  13. Gary, I would like to offer another mental technique to solidify the concept that the photograph is not the object photographed. Visualize a sculpture of a human. Do we not view that sculpture as the work of art, in and of itself, rather than the person represented, as being the object of admiration? I certainly believe so. The artistry and craftsmanship of the physical sculpture is the thing that is admired, not the subject depicted by the artist. Just my two cents worth, John Edinburgh.

  14. John, very true. It seems that photography is unique in that respect. A sculpture, a painting—it seems that any visual art-- is easily seen as separate from the reality of the object depicted, as being an artist’s rendition of reality. The viewer realizes and accepts that what they are seeing may be depicting an actual object but it may not. It may simply be an object imagined by the artist, something created from the mind of the artist. In those cases I think we find it fairly easy, actually I think it is automatic, to disconnect the art work from reality. Because the photograph requires that the object exist and is rendered so accurately, we are deluded into the feeling that photography is realistic and therefore what exists in reality exists in the photograph. Unfortunately, IMO, some people stop at that point and are not able to see the photograph as anything more than the object photographed—which, again IMO, is a very limiting approach to the visual art possibilities of photography.

    Going back to George Bar’s comment about the two camps of photographers, those that are only interested in the verisimilitude of the photograph and those that believe that the photograph can go beyond the surface, I, of course, belong to the second camp and insist on seeing the photograph as an object of art, in order that the photograph can have more meaning than simply the depiction of the objects photographed. Here, duChemin approaches it from a different angle. He insists on seeing the photograph as an object of art in order that the photographer can reduce the object photographed to forms, lines, balance and composition. I insist on it because I want to see the photograph as more meaningful. DuChemin wants to see the photograph as design in order to work toward improved design. I think that both goals are valid and complement each other.

  15. Confession Time: I am pleased that my photographs of the coffee cups has achieved something I have not been able to achieve in two years. LOL I question how much it was the photographs and how much it was the artist statement. Would anyone have seen the story I was trying to tell in the photographs without the artist statement? I will be honest. When I took the first photograph I was photographing the back bench of a booth and a string of lights. It was not until I saw the photograph on the monitor that I realized the implications of the photograph. If I had only seen the photograph as the back of a booth and a string of lights—the objects photographed I would never have started the Table for One project. The following photographs were shot with the theme in mind, but it is only because I discovered it in that first photograph after the fact. I do not believe that anyone would have accepted the theme in a single photograph. I believe it required a series to make the theme understandable. It was a little unusual because it was about what was excluded from the photographs. Most often we are photographing relationships between the objects that are included.

    I would like to make one more confession—I take an awful lot of photographs, way too many, that are nothing more than depictions of the object photographed. I always approach seeing the photograph as more but in truth, all of them aren’t. I wish I could say that I always approach taking photographs as meaning. I don’t. My goal is to increase the percentage of photographs that I do approach as meaning rather than depiction. I approach all photographs as though they have more than surface meaning, mainly because I believe that things happen when taking photographs that we are not entirely aware of--serentipity, chance, or even the subconsious. Truthfully I believe that played a part in the booth back string of lights picture. I think there are times when there are things to discover in photographs that we are not consciously aware of at the time of conception. I am not always successful in seeing more but where I can I enjoy the photograph much more regardless of whether it is mine or someone else’s’.

  16. When I viewed COFFEE CUPS, I didn't read the artist statement so I will tell you what I saw when I viewed the images. First off sticking to my SELF CENTER-NESS, I saw my STARBUCKS series in a sense. IN Starbucks It was more about the unknown faces than about the character behind the face. I wondered why I took their face. Was it another seeking a comrade in arms, or is that my quest. And for the entire year of seeing the same faces most of the time, the most I ever did to Know them was only a Hi. Never a name, never a conversation. Still ABANDONED.

    In Coffee cup I felt alone when viewing it. I felt sadness that (from memory) everything was one (Is this because I know you, or is it because I felt it). I also know that the quality of these simple images was outstanding and the series tied together in a neat packs. Made me jealous that my work is always scattered about, no theme (Boy do I miss those themes). But I liked the group. Then again I also like this particular Artist's group of wall shots and debris.

    So I ask myself do I know what they were thinking from what I am seeing and feeling? Not knowing if I am right or wrong, but my though was they were thinking of why am I All ALONE.

    So is it necessary to know what the artist was thinking at the moment of creation, or only to understand what you, the viewer are thinking as you stand there and see it.

    Last small point. I have come to realize that my best work is not what I look to do but what calls to me to do it. Sometimes its in the house and sometimes it outside. But I'm called to do it. Also, being a part of this CLAN, has made me see better. THIS IS GOOD>