Ever heard, “a good photograph must have a center of interest,” “a photograph has to have a subject,” “you need to glance at a photograph and know what it is about right away?”
Good photographers might follow this approach and do well. They could see the world like that, and it pleases them. Iconic photographs do have centers of interest and subjects, and people remember them.
Other important photographs do have a center of interest, however, the subject could be much deeper than just a picture of a person sitting on the sidewalk or a green car.
Some photographs have no center of interest at all, yet people stare at them, finding them compelling. In the world of painting, people have been known to cry, mesmerized by Untitled (Maroon Over Red) by Mark Rothko.
Imagine stepping into a yard with a high reddish concrete block wall around it. There are gravel paths around plants with walking stones having a litter of gravel and brown leaves on them. A Japanese maple stands on one side and a pine tree on the other. A blue wheelbarrow tips sideways against the wall with leaning garden tool handles beside it. A white plastic table and three chairs are on the right next to a red, yellow and blue kids plastic picnic table. A greasy BBG sits under the pine with the lid up and a green plastic trash can beside it. It is 4PM on November 29th in the Northern Hemisphere, and black and slate blue clouds show above the wall in the gray light.
What do you see?
You take one photograph with your phone.
Is your photograph better or worse then that careful picture of a mountain with stars over it you fussed over for two hours on a trip in the American Southwest last summer?
What do you see? What captures your attention? Which photographs matter more? Does Mark Rothko’s painting have a center of interest? Does it have a subject? Does your image of the stars and mountain have those things? What about your image of the yard? Which photo or painting will you stare at, think about, or pass by?
Go to the library, used book store, or amazon to look at The Democratic Forest by William Eggleston. The book is all about “photographing democratically” as Eggleston named it.
“I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more important or less important. You want to make the photograph work in every way possible. Doesn’t matter where it is in the world. Something new always slowly changes right in front of your eyes – it just happens.”
Here are three photos by Ansel Adams. What is the center of interest in them? What is the subject of the photos?
Here are three photos by William Eggleston from The Democratic Forest. Same questions.
I compare Adams to Eggleston to really piss off Adams’ ghost! You know all about their opinion of the other: “If you can’t make it good, make it red!” “The Zone System is bullshit!” and so on…
Now compare two iconic images by both. You decide what the center of interest is, what the subject is, which photograph is better and which is more important.
You may wish to consider neither was a carefully thought out image, planned and executed with thought and care. Nope. Both photographer saw something spectacular and took the photograph–snapshots. Lose the “maker” fantasy, didn’t happen.
The same question: “What do you see?” Make “you” in bold italics: you.
One final caution might be in order: don’t worry yourself about “composition.” When you see something you are compelled to photograph, just do it. Composition can be a crutch holding you back from capturing what you see in front of you. Screwing around trying to put a magic grid on your photograph before taking it, to please others you think might not consider it a good photograph otherwise, or incanting photographic rule spells from the More Better Grimoire of Photography might cost your vision.
Blindness does not contribute to compelling photographs.