The 5 Elements of Photography – the Subject

Ok. First, there is Light, and, second, a human to capture that light (by accident or with purpose).

But light, in a void, is meaningless, and, indeed, it takes Two to Tango.

So we need something to take a picture of, a fleeting moment or static to capture, to fix in a more permanent form than is allowed by our biology. This something can be fascinating or banal, static or moving, candid or posed, abstract or realistic, or pretty much anything else. It could be human, animal, vegetable, mineral, or something else entirely, but it must be something. Indeed, there can be no photographs taken of nothing.

craptacular photograph of not much

True, I’ve taken photographs of nothing, such as this craptacular piece:

Granted, I shot this from the hip in an effort to practice a sneaky sort of street photography. There were a couple of interesting looking people on the left (outside of the frame), and I wanted to capture them while pretending to check text messages or email or a map or getting ready to call someone on the iPhone. Alas, I ended up missing them entirely, and instead ended up with… nothing, really.

In reality, though, this is a photo of stuff, it’s just uninteresting and rather boring stuff, in an uninteresting arrangement, under flat light, and with no skill whatsoever (again, this was practice, and I’ve yet to master the craft). There are some posts, some pipes and valves, a light, some doors, an exhaust fan, some bricks and concrete, parking signs, some paint, a couple of benches, a podium, some reflections, a little drainage grate, and etc. However, the photo has no subject, and this is (partly) why it fails.

It’s still, I suppose, a photograph, even though it has no subject.

So it might be more accurate to say that a photograph requires something to photograph, something to reflect light, to be framed by the photographer, gathered through the lens, and captured by the camera.

This may seem like a fairly obvious claim, and it is. There is nothing surprising or revolutionary here.

But the subject plays a huge role in photography nonetheless, only second to light and the photographer, for the subject determines the content of the photograph, makes the picture a portrait or a landscape, pornographic or kid-friendly, documentary or artistic, etc., and this is wildly important, as the subject determines the use(s) to which a photograph may be put.

Snapshots of friends and family members get pulled out from time to time and aid in reminiscence. Portraits hang on walls and show an idealized or extraordinary version of the subject. I would show a picture of Olive to my mom, but probably refrain from showing her a boudoir photograph of a girlfriend. A picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Oswald is newsworthy; a photograph of Mr. Ruby napping in front of the television, not so much.

In fact, the subject would be the most important part of a photograph if not for the influences that light and the photographer have over the image. Without light to reflect off of (or serve as) the subject, there can be no photograph at all. And a skilled photographer could probably make something of even the scene of nothing shown above. After all, Bernd and Hilda Becher shot famous and highly valued photographs of water towers and coal tipples, for X’s sake.

Of course, the Bechers had both vision and skill, and made their photographs under exacting conditions, and with purpose. This is what makes them photographers, and this is what elevates the photographer to a level of importance beyond that of the subject.

Ok. So I bet there’s more to say about the Subject, but I think I’ve demonstrated its relative importance. If I’ve forgotten anything, maybe you’ll tell me in comment, or maybe I’ll beat you to it.

Next up: The Lens…

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