Abstract stream of water splashing off stones. Photograph by Mark D. Whitney
Artist: Mark D. Whitney
Media: Digital Photograph

The Unity of the Photographer and the Photographed

What’s the relationship between an artist and the subject that they’re expressing? More specifically for our purposes between a photographer and the thing photographed.

In my post Photographs: Gone in a Hundredth of a Second I wrote about an interview with photographer Lee Friedlander and how there is a certain point in time when the subject and the artist are working together in harmony. To strike at that moment is essential in creating a significant image. In his comment on that post fellow blogger fencer brought up the idea of the unity between the observer and the observed.

I personally have experienced this sort of thing while taking photographs. When I’m “in the moment” so to speak, something clicks between the subject and myself. As soon as I take the first photo, another suggests itself. I take that one and another takes its place. I’m not consciously thinking “I should try such and such angle next” or “remember the rule of thirds” or anything like that. I just try things based on what the subject is saying to me.

Anyway nobody cares what I think so let’s see what some famous artists have to say about it.

I figure it’s go big or go home so let’s start with Ansel Adams.

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.

If you know anything about Adams, you know that he was serious about technique and craftsmanship in his photography –  remember the Zone System? Are his photos just formulaic? Nope. Ansel knew that something more needs to go into creating a work of art. A postcard photo. A documentary image. Those can be taken by a robot or maybe your Aunt Matilda with her Brownie. An Ansel Adams work always includes his unique emotional response to his subjects.

Adams’ fine art photographs were more than just pretty pictures to him. He loved nature and was especially drawn to the “great earth gesture” of Yosemite. There are a lot of photos out there of Half Dome and other iconic locations, but what sets Adams’ work apart is the resonance one feels between the scene and the photographer.

Here’s one from American painter Andrew Wyeth, National Medal of Arts award winner and creator of the uber-famous painting, “Christina’s World“.

I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it… I always want to see the third dimension of something… I want to come alive with the object.

The “realness” of the subject isn’t specifically about its color or its shape – for Wyeth the realness is in the feeling of the subject. He comes alive with it. His art is not reproduction, it’s a melding of the artist and the subject.

Now what happens when there isn’t an actual physical subject? How does someone like abstract painter Jackson Pollock approach his work. The subject, if there is one, is in his head.

When I am in a painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about… It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.

His non-representational art has no specific subject. A man after my own heart, Pollock stopped giving his paintings conventional titles and used numbers instead so that he didn’t influence viewers with any preconceived ideas of what his paintings are about. Even without a concrete subject there’s still a give and take, a harmony between the artist and in this case the concept he has in his head or perhaps even the canvas itself.

There is a long quote from Hans Namuth included in Jackson’s Wikipedia entry that describes how he went about creating his famous ‘drip paintings’. Namuth writes that at some point Pollock forgot that anyone was watching and became completely engrossed in his work. The paint flew and the image took shape until at some point he decided it was complete and stopped. Perhaps abstraction is one of the purest forms of joining the observed with the observer.

We’ll close with a quote from one of my favorites, Minor White – the poster boy for the mystical side of photography. Adams once quipped that White used the Zen System in his work instead of the Zone System.

The state of mind of a photographer while creating is a blank…For those who would equate “blank” with a kind of static emptiness, I must explain that this is a special kind of blank. It is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time. We should note that the lack of a pre-formed pattern or preconceived idea of how anything ought to look is essential to this blank condition. Such a state of mind is not unlike a sheet of film itself – seemingly inert, yet so sensitive that a fraction of a second’s exposure conceives a life in it.


Comments on "The Unity of the Photographer and the Photographed"

  1. Hi Mark,

    Interesting discussion – glad my question prompted a response….

    In my amateurish way, when I’m out trying to take photos, often I feel like a subtle physical or electrical switch is thrown, or maybe it’s just a shift in a few neurons, and my sensitivity to pattern or visual configurations alters. I’m open to seeing in a slightly different way, and I feel the shift as it happens. Everywhere I turn, I’m more likely to find visual interest that I would normally overlook…. I think it’s become conditioned to happening when I have a camera in hand!

    Of course whether the photographic result is any good may be arguable, but I feel like I’ve made a different, and better, kind of connection with it.

    Thanks for those quotes….


    1. Although your blog isn’t mainly about photos, when you do post some I can tell that you look at things a bit differently than the average snapshot taker. They’re worth looking at. In a world where millions of photos are produced every day, it’s a rarity to find any with real substance. I fear that photography as a means of exploration and expression is dead or dying. Ah, we hardly knew ye.

    1. Thanks fencer. This was a really interesting article and there are some good related ones too. I’ve been to the art blart a few times. I guess I should get over there more often.

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