Think of a photograph as an allegory - i.e., a story whose interpretation can communicate a hidden meaning. Generally, we can break the idea of a picture into two parts – the Subject Matter and the Subject. The Subject Matter is the image as you photographed it, akin to the story part of the allegory. The Subject, on the other hand, is the interpretation of the hidden meaning in the story, or our case, the photograph. Sometimes people also refer to the Subject with the term subtext of the image. Before continuing, let me be clear I am talking about photography as an art rather than product, fashion, medical or other types of photography which are more about factual representation.
Why is this important, and how does thinking about the Subject make you a better photographer? When you make a photograph, you first focus on the scene in front of you as you start thinking about how to compose your shot. This is the Subject Matter stage, where all your experience and learning come together to create a good photograph. However, if you stop and think more about the process, something made you want to photograph the scene or the subject in the first place, and this is where the actual reason, and therefore the Subject, starts to emerge. The trick, then, is to make the best use of the Subject Matter to allude to the Subject in a way that clarifies what your image is all about to the viewer.
Let’s start with an easy example. The Subject Matter is the two girls running down the beach with their red buckets in hand, splashing in all the puddles as they charge down the beach.
The Subject, in my mind, is about being a child, taking delight in running, and making a splash where possible. It’s about being carefree and enjoying what the world offers. In short, the subject is about feeling like a happy, carefree child.
Did you have the same feeling when you saw this image, or did it make you feel something different? Think of the Subject in terms of nouns and adjectives when you make your photograph, and then compose your work to bring those feelings to the surface. Thinking about words like; happy child, splash the puddles, running on the beach, and so on all helped compose and perform the post-processing in ways which strengthened this image. While it is unlikely you will have time to go through such an extensive line of reasoning before losing the moment – intuitively, I believe our subconscious has already figured this out and alerted us by simply piquing our interest to make the shot. Of course, if you have the time or can come back to a more static scene, by all means, think it through and work the Subject Matter until it best supports your Subject.
The Subject Matter
Much can be said about the Subject Matter and the quality of a photograph. The biggest issue is the overwhelming amount of work that falls into the “I was here” category, stopping well short of getting to an actual Subject. A common misconception, and one which I think most of us have fallen into at one point or another, is mistaking images of foreign and exotic places for good photography – simply because they are different. In reality, they are just images with a different Subject Matter, still lacking a clear Subject. When selecting your Subject Matter, the critical aspect is that this is the time and place to think it through to the end, consider the actual Subject, and then refine the image to best support your idea. Refinement can take many forms, such as eliminating distracting backgrounds, compression of the image with zooms, bokeh blur, and all the other tools you have in your toolbox. Fundamental to the process is making your image as strong as possible to support your Subject idea without sacrificing the elements that need to be there.
The following example is a little more complicated than the previous one because the chosen Subject may differ from what you think it is. The Subject Matter is a covered bridge with part of the siding cut out, so you may see a little glimpse of the outside world while stuck inside. The light shining through the spacing in the planks and reflecting on the road along with the dark interior further emphasizes being confined in an almost jail-like setting. The feeling I had about the place when photographing it was one of being trapped as I kept looking at the outside world through the little cutout while my vision was blocked everywhere else.
To me, the Subject is about freedom and the need to escape from everything that constrains us most of the time. While we think we are free, the reality is that so many things restrict us, and we only enjoy a small part of our perceived freedom – represented by the little window cutout in the siding.
This is where things start to get interesting. Built into the Subject is the idea of the artist and the consideration of why people make art to allow themselves to represent their thoughts and life. The Subject becomes the embodiment of the thoughts and ideas of the photographer and, ultimately, the actual story the artist is trying to convey. As a side note, this is the primary reason you can put a bunch of photographers next to each other photographing the same scene and, more often than not, end up with some very different images. In the previous example, you may have come up with a different idea about the Subject. This usually happens, and I bet you have heard people talk about your work in ways you did not anticipate or even think about. They do this because they are, of course, applying their own life and experience to your work and creating a different interpretation – which is what art is all about.
The basic idea of this blog is that when you start creating photographs with a strong Subject, your work transcends the all too frequent, mundane eye candy, and you begin to engage the viewer in a much more meaningful way. Next time you grab your camera to go out and photograph, stop and think about how you feel in front of a scene or object, and try and identify your Subject and how you can best express your feelings using the available Subject Matter. I promise you that if you take this approach to your work, the quality of your photographs will go up immeasurably.
I include a couple more images with the Subject hidden. Before you go ahead and reveal what I think the Subject is, try and see if you can identify what you think it is.