more subject matters

by julie posted March 14, 2008

I’ve just read Ian Roberts’ Creative Authenticity and it’s given me loads of thinking fodder. I don’t necessarily agree with all his opinions as set out in the book, but I don’t like to let that stop me from taking something useful from it anyway. Even if I don’t agree with something – that’s a starting point for thinking about it, forming my own opinion on it, and being better off all round, so there’s certainly no harm there.

It seemed more tricky, though, when I found other areas of the book that struck particularly true to me – but I feel like there’s a slight conflict between them. As an exercise to get the most out of the book (I tend to skim when reading and can lose the benefit of a lot of the material from skipping over it too lightly) I underlined particularly interesting/useful sections as I read, then after finishing the whole book I went back and tackled each section in turn, copying it into a notebook and replying to it, sometimes adding my own thoughts, sometimes relating it to a more specific experience of my own, sometimes just translating it into my own language to really get a feeling for what it means.

I got to the section which discusses subject matter, and found two separate points that seemed to resonate at a fundamental level with my own thoughts. He talks about how we can find awe in the mundane and everyday subjects that surround us, how our feelings towards these subjects, if we can distill the essence of them, simplify and translate them onto paper through our work, it will show in the final product. Our relationship with the subject and our feelings towards it are more important than the subject, per se. Bang on (as they say in Glasgow). That’s just how I feel. I’ve always had a problem with boring pictures of amazing subjects being held up as photographic triumphs, and frustrated with people who say they need to go to a rainforest and hunt down an endangered species of frog for an interesting shot. You’ll find me in the back garden with the weeds, thank you very much. It’s a conclusion I’ve only just been reaching of my own accord recently in fact – your relationship to the subject, whatever that is, is far more important than the subject itself. So no matter what you shoot, it has to be important to you, in some way. You have to make a connection with it. But… I also agree with a point Ian makes further along in that same section:

“When looking at paintings, most people are distracted by subject matter. But subject matter is really just an armature to hang the blue and the green on to, to place the abstract shapes on, like notes of music.”

If I see a beautiful shade of blue/grey/silver, and a gorgeous texture, I don’t care if I’m actually looking at the weatherproofing on the side of an old building. I’ll shoot it, and be happy that I’ve made a good image. Now, how does that relate back to the previous point about having a relationship with the subject? I don’t care about the building, or the materials used to seal it, beyond their visual attraction as someone who appreciates colour and texture. Does that mean the resulting image is always going to be boring? How can it have any authenticity if I have no connection to the subject, beyond that visual appreciation? Is this what results in pretty, but empty pictures? The chapter in the book does go on to talk about how music is the most abstract art and the visual arts sometimes aspire towards that abstraction that music enjoys, in having no separation between matter and form. I wonder if it’s inherently near-impossible with such a representational art as photography?

I think that’s going in a scary direction that my mind isn’t ready for on a Friday afternoon!

2 Responses to more subject matters

  1. i think that the whole thing becomes a lot simpler if you consider that ‘art’ can operate on multiple levels. the ‘beautiful shade of blue/grey/silver, and a gorgeous texture’ are low-level biological sensations. you can enjoy them for their own sake, like you would enjoy the purely sensual pleasure of a street massage where the person giving it is irrelevant to the experience. (damn they’re good, and one the best reasons i can think of for going to sweden!)

    then there are the images with some kind of ‘meaning’ at either a social or conceptual level. they are more like a massage from a loved one, which carries connotations above and beyond the purely sensual, i.e. caring, sharing, intimacy, etc.

    er, not sure where the massage analogy came from. massage/message maybe?

  2. As always, you provide good food for thought! Bang on!

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