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defining the "subject" in fine art photography

Updated: Apr 15, 2021

Many photographers or people in close relationship with photography would argue that the presence of a subject is a crucial matter in every frame made. Indeed, a well-defined subject can elevate the meaning of a frame, more so when we are quite familiar with the selected subject. However, this is not the norm in fine art photography, at least not for me. In my photographic works, I am almost never (if ever) trying to connect an image with an actual scene and quite often I choose a different approach regarding what would qualify as a subject. It is a photographic genre that challenges our perception of reality and as such, it offers a vast field of self-improvisation regarding mood, impressions, thought process, senses and of course, the definition of a subject in an image.

Once we abandon (reject?) the idea that a subject should be a familiar part of our common life or our well-known environment or even a commonly used object or construction, a new field of perception opens up. It is not easy to imagine a scene with a strange subject or even a total absence of a subject (I suggest you take a look at the “seascape” series by Hiroshi Sugimoto or think of the meaning behind “4:33” created by the composer John Cage…).

"serene velocity", Stomio - Greece: a fine art image without a subject

As I’ve already mentioned, a fine art photographic work often challenges our perception or, may I say, definition of reality and in this respect, it challenges/broadens what can be considered to be a subject in photography. Usually, while we are in the process of interpreting an image, we try to get familiar with it, we connect the visual information with a story told with pictures, we expect to see a familiar scene, a classic landscape, a street scene, a beautiful portrait or a subject frequently seen in our everyday life. Things can be very different in fine art photography…

"sting of Delimara", Delimara bay - Malta: landscape details used as a subject

So, once we are ready to make a substantial deviation from the common thought process in subject selection, a wide field of possible subjects reveals itself. From architectural details to tiny branches and from vague shapes to total absence of subjects, what we are entering is a world of possibilities, a world of suggestions and alternative views on what reality could be.

"concrete silence", Axios Delta - Greece: wall debris perceived as a subject

This thought process behind selecting a subject for a fine art image is almost always related to the mood and overall impression that we are trying to convey through a photographic work. It can be a statement, a “shout for attention” in unseen details of a building or a combination of light and shadows. It is part of the process of presenting a more desirable reality by photographic means or even finding visual gems in a pile of trash…

"fluid intrusion", Agia Marina - Greece: utilizing a moving subject as a cardinal element in the frame

So, once we realize that what we are dealing with is (or can be) a strong deviation from the known reality, we are standing at the beginning of a “no rules” subject selection process and of course, this can only be a process that expresses or reflects our inner self.

detail of a modern building based on the creative use of cast light in a fine art image. Inspired by the futuristic cityscapes of the film “Blade Runner”
"dawn over Tyrell corp.", Thessaloniki City Hall - Greece: architectural details perceived as a subject

You may ask, how can I make this happen? How can I find a subject perceived by everyone as trash and turn it to a visual gem? How can I think out of the box regarding subject selection? Quoting a universal phrase of knowing thy self, “the answer is within you”. Once we become familiar with the types of visual themes (aka photographic genre) that we have an urge to see, image editing techniques that we like to apply as a way to elevate the presence of an image and once we feel a growing desire to present an unexpected subject in an unexpected way, subject selection becomes second nature. It is the expected outcome of our lurking need to put our passion in fine art photography.

Do remember though that throughout our relationship with photography, we will like maybe four or five different genres but we will fall in love and be passionate about only one of them and this will be the genre to which we will devote most of our time and spend most of our energy during our photographic activities.

However, this needs to be revealed through a constant “exposure” to such type of photography. It should be cultivated as a constant need to adore such images not by forcing ourselves to do it but by finding out that we lose our breath when we see such images. Eventually, we will first have to constantly look for the presence of such subjects in photography not because we have to but because we need to. Once we build strong connections with fine art photography, a whole world of possible subjects opens up. But not for everyone out there. In other words, the realm of fine art photography is not compatible with every photographer's mindset as much as portrait or macro or landscape photography is not on the priority list of every photographer out there.

"perhaps a small curve", Kalohori - Greece: the shape of a sunken branch and its reflection, used as a subject

In this thought process, the long exposure technique can be of tremendous help. Not only it offers a way to create a serene image, it is mostly used to create the necessary negative space and “reveal” subjects that nobody would care to pay attention to or consider them to be used as subjects in an image. This technique, once applied with a conscious mind, can remove all distractions around a subject and create order out of (visual) chaos. Considering the fact that fine art images can also create a strong impact even without the presence of a subject, this is an indication that a whole universe of subjects exists in front of us and this also reflects the grandeur of fine art photography as a genre. Long exposure is probably the only process that transforms the presence of a subject not by manipulating the subject’s shape or form but by altering the presence of its surrounding elements. A subject reborn…

"arrogance", Kalohori - Greece: careful framing in order to enhance the presence of one boulder over the other

As an example of what I have used and perceived as unconventional subjects in the past, I can refer to moor points, debris, car tires, interesting shapes of branches, boulders, details and textures of buildings, floating boats, wavering reeds, fishing nets and then some. It goes without saying that when I am in the process of “hunting” for subjects there is no right and wrong way to find them. It all depends on the mood that I want to create or my need to push the envelope of what can be accepted as a fine art image. So when this thought process is presented as a finished work to the viewers, it makes them think out of the box regarding what can be perceived as an artistic photographic work versus a classic photograph. This is similar to abstract art expressed in paintings, sculptures or even ambient music. My opinion is that once you are working with such subjects, be it photography or another type of art, you reach to a point that you really don't have to explain the reason behind such subject selection. It is art, it is expression, thus it should be interpreted with perception...

"hints of land", Stylida - Greece: negative space and unconventional subject placement (tension and visual contrast)

Throughout my body of work, I have decided to move away of compositing regarding subject selection. It is really easy to add a subject to a scene where it isn’t actually there or insert ready-made subjects via editing software. For example, making a capture of a mountain tree and “planting” it in the sea was never of my interest. I think it is more challenging and “mind-bending” to create something out of nothing, to exercise yourself to find visual gems where no one has found them. I think that by rejecting compositing is the best way to alter a dull scene and convert it to a fine art photographic work. It is a creative process where you express your artistic footprint in a way no one has tried before and you also don't cheat...

"moor point", Volos - Greece: a subject reborn by applying the LE technique and negative space

Most of the preparatory sessions of my fine art workshops rely on the way a photographer can put to use all this creative process and make inner-driven subject selections. This process alone might need a day's long session to spend and I believe that this is the most important element in the process of successfully developing a personal vision...

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