October 25, 2018

How Important is the Subject in a Photograph?

During my time in art school there were always those dreaded 3 hour critique sessions during the photography classes. As soon as you walked in the room that day you would scramble to claim the  "best" wall space. My criteria for the "best" space was determined by when I thought that part of the wall would be discussed. Did I want to just get the crit over with first thing, or drag on my torture and hope that somehow we ran out of time talking about the other 9 people that had to present their work that day and maybe get bumped to the subsequent critique day. Once you carefully weighed your options, you'd start pinning your images to the wall. You had to make sure that everything was level, consistently spaced, and generally pleasing to look at as a cohesive body of images.

Now after doing this for 2 or 3 years you start to pick up on patterns regarding what type of details each classmate would pick apart in every single image. Was contrast well managed in the darkroom? Are the leading lines adding to the intrigue? Is the model posed in a pleasing manner? Does it really matter that their hand or foot or even face is cut by the edge of the frame? Or even the most dreaded, worthless question that could be asked: WHAT IS IT!?!?

In one of my advanced black and white darkroom classes (yes I may be young but I did get the opportunity to spend time in black and white, large format black and white and color darkrooms while in school as well as the digital print lab) I had a classmate that would ask for almost every single image, "What is it?" This question was never met positively by our instructor. Bear in mind, we were in a studio art program at the University of Arizona. Art has the ability to transcend reality an bypass functionality. The sole purpose of art is to make you feel, make you question what you're looking at. You apply your personal life experiences and story to what you're viewing, allowing every single image or sculpture or piece of music to have a unique relationship with each person that interacts with it.

With some pieces of art, as soon as you answer the question of "what is it" that allows you to place the art into a tidy box and walk away. The intrigue of uncertainty can be what makes the piece speak to you for an extremely long time. Next time you see an image for which you cant quite wrap your head around try and keep it out of the nice box. Enjoy the forms and shapes and colors. Talk about your thoughts with another viewer. Bounce ideas off each other and investigate what it is that draws you in.

Whatever you do, please try not to ask the artist for a definitive about the subject. Who knows, if they told you, sometimes you may wish you never got the answer!

- Jayme
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