Tag Archives: subject

Keeping Secrets

Triptych, Flow No. 4

Triptych, Flow No. 4

Sometimes photographer antics amuse me.  In reading the blogs of other photographers, I’ve become aware that apparently there is a practice among some photographers of keeping their locations secret, and among other photographers of sleuthing those locations in order to “out” them.  To me, this smacks of insecurity, as if the quality of an image depends on its subject, and images that otherwise are compelling somehow become lessened when their subjects are frequently photographed.

The quality of a photograph doesn’t depend on the subject, it depends on the photographer.  Consider one wonderful subject, the Eiffel Tower.  It’s been photographed to death, and the vast majority of those photographs are both incredibly banal and incredibly derivative of one another.  But then consider Michael Kenna’s images of the Eiffel Tower, which are remarkable both for their excellence and for the fact that they were executed more than 100 years after the tower was built, well into the saturation overload period of Eiffel Tower photography.

In general, I don’t keep secrets about my work.  The one “kind-of” exception I make is for abstract images like the triptych in this post, where I don’t publicly disclose the subject of the image.  I say “kind of,” because really I don’t think of it as keeping a secret.  If you want to know the subject, just email me, I’m happy to tell you (indeed, I take a bit of perverse pride in how mundane some of these subjects are).  I only don’t make it public because I assume the abstracts have an element of suspended disbelief, and that some viewers would rather not dispel the illusion by knowing what the subject is.  All photographs are basically illusions, after all, but abstracts even more so for not having a readily identifiable subject.

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Abstraction and Design in Photography

Farr's Co-Op. Ault, Colorado, 2014.

Farr’s Co-Op.
Ault, Colorado, 2014.

The subject of this photograph is pretty obvious – it’s the Co-Op building in the lower half of the frame.  I’ll admit that it was the building itself that drew my eye and was the impetus for making this photograph.  I’m fascinated by old structures like this and the visual possibilities they generate, not to mention the back story and history that underlie them.  Judging by the popularity of this type of subject matter among photographers, I’m not the only one.

Still, simply knowing what your subject is rarely provides sufficient basis upon which to make a compelling photograph.  Rather, it’s important to be able to intelligently arrange the elements in your photograph to make a meaningful composition out of your subject.  Without a meaningful composition, subjects like this tend to end up looking like documentary photos in old newspaper clippings or snapshots casually taken by tourists on the side of the road.

When composing a photograph, one way that I think about the subject is to abstract it into basic, two-dimensional shapes.  I first started doing this after reading some introductory drawing texts, where the lessons emphasized drawing objects by drawing the component shapes that make them up.  A coffee mug, for example, might consist of two ellipses at the top and bottom, a rectangle for the body, and a half-circle for the handle.

However, the principle translates well to photography.  The building in this photograph of course can be broken down into several basic shapes.  However, I was less interested in the constituent shapes making up the building, and more interested in the shape of the profile of the building as a whole.  From the perspective at which I placed my camera, I saw the building’s outline as forming a roughly triangular shape, wherein the tops of the towers formed the long edge of the triangle, sloping towards a point to the right out of the frame.

Having this visualization of the building in mind, and then walking around the scene to see what was available for a composition, I realized the branches of a nearby tree would make a perfect complement to the building because the tree formed a complementary triangle, with the long edge of the tree branches’ triangle sloping upwards towards a point to the left out of the frame.  From there, the design of the photograph came together quickly, by arranging the building triangle on the bottom and the tree triangle on the top, joined together at a diagonal boundary running from roughly the upper left of the frame to the lower right of the frame.

For me, being able to see a photograph’s subject in terms of its abstract shapes is hugely helpful in creating meaningful compositions.  Rather than simply photographing the subject for what it is, abstraction helps me to take control and actively design the composition of the photograph, and my subjects usually come out looking better for it.

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