Subject

When an editor tells me they want better pictures in the magazine the first thing I say to them is, “get me better subjects.”

Creating compelling imagery with mundane subjects is best left to great artists. It’s nearly impossible.

When you’re starting out in this business if your friends, your family or where you live is not interesting go find something that is and take a goddam picture of it.

The subject always rules. I know this because when I’ve got a juicy subject for a story I can have the pick of any photographer I want to shoot it.

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. Yes, Timothy Archibald’s “Sex Machines” book is a particulary good and recent example of a subject ruling. Archibald apparently got the idea and met his initial contacts for the book when shooting a magazine story on garage inventors. So, interesting subjects can lead to even more interesting subjects. That being said, Archibald has also made some compelling photographs (and scans!) of his children and their objects at his home. To view some of that work, visit his blog at: http://timothyarchibald.blogspot.com/

  2. It can also be an extraordinarily insightful experience to create an interesting picture of an uninteresting situation. You live somewhere uninteresting… tough… make it interesting. Rent a bunch of strobes. Paint a building blue, get all the old ladies in town to dress like firemen, get a ladder and a box of sparklers… whatever, find some way to shoot it to MAKE it interesting.

    It is so much easier when I go to Vegas or Santa Barbra. I see places and things and my mind races… It is tough as hell when I gotta do a shot in Phoenix where I live all the time. But digging deep is hard. It is tiring, exhausting and in the end, sometimes rewarding.

    So while I agree that having interesting subjects can be a super boon to creativity, once in a while it is necessary to struggle and twist and beat a boring shot into something cool.

    And when you are starting out it is even harder… but oh, so much more exciting when you actually pull it off.

  3. But I’m supposed to be a photographer not a location/subject scout!

    That said, I agree. One of the most striking examples of this concept is photographing wildlife. I could spend months trying to get some decent photos of wild brown bears around my house. Or I could spend $500 and take a one hour flight to Katmai National Park and have bears walk within 15ft of me all day. Wildlife isn’t my specialty but this simple truth is helpful when planning other photographs. While I’m on this wildlife idea I have to mention that I live in the Bald Eagle capitol of the world, any given day in the winter I can take a 10 minute drive and see at least 100 of them. Too bad they are eagles, and not celebrities, seems the celeb photos are much more valuable these days.

    One thing that I’ve noticed easily happening to me if I work to hard to make a boring subject ‘not-so-boring’ is a unrealistic attachment to the resulting image. If it was boring to begin with, no matter how much work I put into it, it probably still shouldn’t be a portfolio image. Whereas, with the right subjects you just need to be there and click the shutter to get that portfolio image.

    Good thoughts, thanks PE. I’m really enjoying the blog, and surprised you can keep the content flowing so steadily!

  4. Actually, I think in most cases it’s an extraordinarily gimmicky experience – if you don’t believe me, look at Wired. Especially ones from the 90s when everything was cross-processed. That magazine is the KING of boring subjects.

    As for me, I prefer shooting movie stars and models in amazing fashion. Much more interesting than wonky guys in ill-fitting suits…

  5. The most valuble lesson in photography was given to me by a Park Ranger in The Northern Territory,I was looking through his photo albumn and was blown away by the amazing photos he was taking.
    His reply to my enthusiasm was” I’m not much of a photographer , I just take pictures of interesting things”…. Duhhh, so thats why my Black & White pictures of family members against a white wall shot on square format are not setting the world on fire..I Moved!

  6. Hey there-

    Thanks for referencing my book up top there, Brent Clark.

    Photo editors in NYC, when I came around to show that ” Sex Machine” body of work in person, often said ” This is an interesting project, but it really helps me more to see what you can or can not do with much more mundane subject matter. Our typical subjects are not so inherently charged.” True enough, no one can really argue that.

    As a parallel point, I read a quote about 6 months ago from photographer Misty Keasler who said: “Early on I had a professor who said there are many great photographers in the world who have nothing interesting to shoot.” Which really resonated with me when I heard it. People want to see stuff they’ve never seen before. At that point it’s not about being a great photographer, its really just about being a conduit for this fascinating thing and figuring out how to stay out of it’s way.

  7. lucky bastard. It’s nice to have a killer assignment.

    Will you go for someone totally new, or go with someone you know and you love, who is of course right for the job…

    Word up to CONTENT and SUBJECT.

    In order to build a good house you need good raw materials. It’s that simple.

  8. The flipside however, is that if the subject is automatically compelling, it almost doesn’t matter who takes the picture, right? I think it’s important that there’s a balance between the two. Or rather, it’s important how that balance between subject matter and photographic technique is achieved.

    Take for example, war photography or celebrity photography. I’d like to see what people’s ideas are of the good work where the photographer is still able to make a statement, as opposed to just “pressing the button.”

  9. Actually, a compelling subject doesn’t automatically make for a great photo. There are plenty of crappy celebrity photos out there (that earlier thread about Ashton Kutcher comes to mind) and plenty of great celebrity photos of the same celebrities. It 100% depends on who is taking the picture. Crappy photographer + great subject = crappy pictures.

    War photography is another story – part of the skill of being a great war photographer is not getting yourself killed in insanely dangerous cirucumstances. The other part is coming out of it with some great pictures.

    To paraphrase the comment above, to build a good house you need good raw materials and a builder who knows how to put them together. A good architect helps too.

  10. “Boy, when you’re dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody. ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 20″

    I can’t find my copy to check it out for sure, but, the thing of it is, he says goddam.

  11. This really makes me feel even better about some compliments I got earlier this year about taking really interesting pictures of banal things/situations. So many people kept saying that, like it was such a rare thing, and I don’t think I fully understood it because it’s what I’ve been doing for a long time. You know what they say about familiarity and contempt.

    Anyway, thanks for the slight unintentional ego boost for this unemployed former photographer.