Photography: What’s it about?

Cement Works, Gole di Breggia, Ticino, Switzerland

Cement Works, Gole di Breggia, Ticino, Switzerland

“Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.”

Gary Winogrand.

I showed the above photograph recently to a non-photographer and she immediately told me she didn’t like it simply because it was a picture of an old cement works. In fact, she then decided she didn’t like the remaining images in the set, despite them representing my best efforts to make a visually interesting and varied group of shots, as they were just images of an ugly building. When viewed out of context, it was not even possible to see where some of them were taken, they were so abstract. Yet the subject matter was deemed non-photogenic and therefore the images were unworthy of attention.

It then occurred to me that people, more often than not, judge an image based purely on how they perceive the attractiveness of its subject-matter. It’s the same effect that blinds people to badly-focussed, poorly-exposed and sloppily-composed pictures providing that the image is of a loved one. They simply don’t ‘see’ the photograph; effectively it’s a window – perhaps one in need of a good clean – through which they see what they want to see. Could it be that it’s only other photographers and artists who are more concerned with the image itself than the reality it represents?

When I looked at this part of the factory, it was the varying patinations of the three different materials (metal, concrete, wood) that grabbed me as much as the placement of the different elements. Composing this took a good half-hour of tiny adjustments and careful consideration of details (should I include the door-handle? Do the horizontal lines at the top really work?) to bring together. So it was by no means a grab-shot. I wanted to show a sort of formal beauty in a very unlikely setting.

Here’s another image:

Trapped Rock, Val Verzasca, Ticino, Switzerland

Trapped Rock, Val Verzasca, Ticino, Switzerland

I consider these two to be very similar in intention if not in subject matter. Both are abstractions; both received a great deal of care over the relative weighting of the different visual elements and small details of composition; both were taken in similar lighting conditions. Yet one is of wild nature and the other of a brutal, purely functional, industrial structure. Needless to say, the same person much preferred this one.

Maybe the cement-works image is more self-consciously ‘arty’ and therefore to be treated with suspicion? Or perhaps there’s something deeper at work here: the perception that landscape photographs should only show unsullied nature and that an ugly industrial building is not a valid subject?

That’s not my view. If it’s there, in the landscape, why shouldn’t it be as valid a subject as attractively-patterened rock, for example?

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4 Responses to Photography: What’s it about?

  1. Mike Green says:

    I think this is a manifestation of the rather prevalent view that photographs are, or should be, ‘of something’, and that if they are ‘of something’ then that something needs to be intrinsically attractive. The photographer’s view is that what they’re doing is creating art, not representing something (at least in part if not wholly, and clearly there are plenty of people who want solely to represent). Personally, I don’t care what the subject is so long as the end result has some merit as an image. Unfortunately, the majority of people do (even though they might accept a painting of the unattractive subject more willingly!).

    Annoying, isn’t it :-\

  2. Indeed. Should photography be about simply documenting the conventionally ‘beautiful’ or should it be about showing the viewer something they might not otherwise have seen?

    If a photograph to be anything other than purely documentary then the photographer has to ‘bring something to the table’ – and revealing hidden beauty seems to me to be as good a way as any…

  3. sheila 77 says:

    This abstract image is right up my patterned street. Beautiful, with the little curved design bottom left, the stripes and the dots, and the grey colours. Let’s not worry about those who will never “understand” it.

  4. Robert says:

    Photography can be various things ranging from art to pure technical documentary. As photographer the view on and the intention of photographs differs a lot from the general public. For most people the subject determines their first impression. A photographer might also appreciate the complex technical achievement to capture a shot. But the normal people seldom care about the technical skills or the equipment involved.
    For every photo I show on my website, I asked myself first what is the artistic value of this shot? Would I put it on a wall? Only very few of my photos fulfill the 2nd criterium, so I focus the time consuming post processing on these few pictures.

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