The Object of our Focus

It's not what you look at that matters, but what you see.

Henry David Thoreau


As photographers, we are told how important it is that we have something to say in our photographs.  Exemplars from Alfred Steiglitz through Brooks Jensen have reinforced this basic art tenet in photography.  Convention holds it as fundamental to the craft and some would argue it is essential to each picture we make.

Having something to say in our photography, about a subject or an idea, places the importance of any statement squarely on us, the photographer.  In other words, it is not the thing that is speaking, but rather the photographer.  If the photographer is speaking, then the focus is on the photographer, not the subject. 

Some would argue that this is the essence of art: the personal expression of the artist.  And that may well be true if the point of art is to celebrate the artist.  

However, perhaps another role of the photographer is to convey to the world that which the object has to say.  To do so it is imperative that the photographer listen to the object, not merely hear it.  That requires empathy for the object, which means the artist first must let go of self and become the object.

How often have we seen two photographers by a stream at the base of a mountain.  One arrives early and looks around before setting up her camera and tripod.  Likely, it is not her first time at this location.  She instinctively checks the light values, sets her aperture, frames her composition and waits.  All the while she continues to immerse herself in the scene, blocking out all thoughts of anything else, communing with the wind, the light and the mountains.

The second photographer walks into her frame, possibly steps on the flowers in her foreground, fires off a series of shots at different focal lengths on the zoom lens, chimps the back of the camera, then wanders off to the next viewpoint.  (This actually happened to me recently.)

The latter photographer had something to say to his Instagram audience after a few tweaks in Snapseed.  Look at these hasty, heavily-processed shots I took 10 minutes ago with my fully automated, image-stabilized camera with focus and exposure bracketing.  See what a great photographer I am.

The former photographer had something to convey.  Listen through my lens to the mountains speak of their magnificence, power and strength.  See how great they are.  Observe the life generated in the valley by the water streaming down from its frozen reservoir in these mountains.  Listen to the story it tells of the genesis of life.  

As photographers, are we speakers or listeners?  Do we exploit the subject, or experience it?  Is the photograph about the amazing artist, or the sublime subject? 

The truth is, we can have it both ways.  Sometimes the object speaks through our camera, and sometimes we use the object to express ourselves, to say something.  That is the real beauty of photography.  There are no rules and anyone can do anything with their camera without fear of moral turpitude as long as we don't take ourselves too seriously.  

But please don't step on the flowers!