Seeing the Subject Part I: Relationship
Updated: Jun 11
Years ago a friend showed me a book of images made by the portrait photographer, Irving Penn. With each portrait the photographer had somehow managed to capture the essence and personality of each person. There was no trace or device of the photographer visible in any of the images and each image had been given over entirely to revealing that aspect of personality the photographer wanted to show. It was wonderfully skilled photography and a real lesson for landscape photographers.
It is sometimes so easy to get caught up in all the ideas around photography such as technique, gear, composition and light that one forgets to think about or ‘see’ the subject properly. If one accepts for a minute the notions and definitions of art I used in my article on depth then ‘vision’ or the ability to see a subject in a unique and special way is at least as important as craft, or the ability to realise that vision.
As I made more and more images, one of the key realisations I came to was that the primary focus of my photography needed to be on seeing the subject not on making a picture. The picture is secondary, a consequence of being able to see the subject in a certain way.
This is a hard concept to grasp and I can best illustrate the point by explaining the chain of events that led to this realisation. I started out my photographic career being fixated on the quality and originality of my images, aiming to make better and better pictures. This is a good place to start for anyone new to photography because I became self aware very quickly of when I had made a strong image and when I could have done better. As I made stronger and stronger images, I congratulated myself that I could spot the weaker images and not take them. The problem was that it became harder and harder to ‘find’ an image that passed muster. I began to avoid vista images or ‘wider views’ in locations I visited because others had already ‘done’ them. I took fewer and fewer images. I began to wonder around a location, waiting for the lightning bolt of creativity to strike. Eventually I would make virtually no images whilst the light was performing in my favourite places. There is no other way of saying it; I had photographic constipation. I am sure I have not been alone in this affliction.
And so it might have ended if it wasn’t for a chat with Joe Cornish on Whitby Steps. He was re-interpreting the view from the steps to the harbour, the subject of one of his most famous images. The light was magnificent and I was predictably ‘not inspired’. As we talked I began to realise that I was viewing my photography the wrong way round. I was thinking about, indeed I was fixated on the picture not the subject. Another way of putting it: I was worrying about the output, the result and not the input and the process that leads to the result. That moment was a key turning point in my approach.
The goal of my photography shifted very subtly but very profoundly – I focused on finding subjects I liked, finding new ways to see them and then deploying my craft to realise that vision. I stopped obsessing about the result – I just let it happen.
Relationship to the subject
I realised that the quality of my art was directly linked to the knowledge, understanding and connection I have or feel to the subject. It was only later reading the seminal work of John Blackemore, ‘The Black and White Photography Workshop’, that I found a language that articulated the ideas that had formed on that summer evening’s conversation with Joe. Blackemore talks about ‘relationship’ and ‘realisation’ as being a core element of the creative part of the photographic process. The relationship to the subject, built up over time, inspires the photographer’s vision. He spent years photographing the same subject, tulips, from every conceivable angle and lighting and his work remains a unique exploration of the almost infinite potential of artistic vision.
The potential is infinite; as a photographer you are only limited by your capacity to find subjects and imagine.
Assuming that this premise was valid, it had some interesting implications for the way I could approach my art. Firstly, it is possible to re-interpret the same subject many times. The act of photographing the subject, by you or anyone else, does not put that subject off limits – what matters is your own interest in and connection to that subject. In other words it is the interpretation that is unique and belongs to the photographer, not the subject. Secondly, the act of photographing a subject increases one’s knowledge of and relationship to a subject – and that experience and knowledge can be used to inspire a new way of seeing. Finally, the potential is infinite; as a photographer you are only limited by your capacity to find subjects and imagine.
I think the ability to see is a bit like a muscle – it needs to be exercised and stimulated in order to grow. I find myself looking at other photographer’s pictures more and more from the perspective of not just what I think about the picture but also attempting to understand that photographer’s way of seeing and what potential these ideas might have for my own work. One does not need a camera in the hand to practice seeing. I have spent a fair amount of time walking in the mountains of the UK. Thirty years ago, I would speed to the tops of mountains, marking the quality of the day by the number of tops and ridges I managed to bag. Today I still walk, but I am forever getting distracted by potential interesting subjects – trees, hills, leaves, stones – and how to see them. I see more than I ever did. My non photographer walking companions think I am mad. The curse of the photographer is that once it is formed, the ability to see never seems to switch off.
This text is an updated version to chapter three of my book ‘Vision and Craft’. In Part II of seeing the subject I will explore the difference between representational subjects and abstract subjects. (c) Jon Brock 2011 and 2023.