Book Excerpt: Finding Compelling Subject Matter Pt. 1

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming e-book on art photography.  The book will be released in July 2015, until then, enjoy this snippet!


One of the museum exhibits I went to this weekend featured platinum photo prints of a variety of subject matter, but a few of them were of gas stations.  The show was about the process- a finely tuned, costly printing process with unique materials- so the fact that it featured some of the most dull, surface subjects appeared secondary.

This particular case is an example of concept failing format.  The artist spends time and money on a process to present us with an image that shows us something we see everyday, and tells us nothing about it, except what a gas station looks like when shot and printed on platinum paper.

Should people shoot whatever they respond to, or make what art they have time to make on the side of actual work and family?  For sure!  But I’ve sat at tables, read the artist statements, heard the lectures where the gas station-or-equivalent photographers claim this is some big statement of the state of humanity and it so clearly is not.  Similar tales were told when I taught high school and the students were too lazy to leave their neighborhood or have an interest or opinion when photographing. It’s the Kevin Smithing of photography. Lazy, boring, no thought to craft, no attempt at decent production, no effort.

As art photographers, we have an obligation to think about our art and not just assume our daily lives are perfect creative fodder.  If it were that way, then we’d have more songs about folding laundry, people going to the bathroom all the time in movies, more tv shows about pumping gas and answering emails.  The bitter truth is the daily lives of most people are not that interesting.  Even the lives of, say, generals or astronauts or assassins may seem dull if approached with the most surface of qualities.  It’s when we have an opinion, or an exploratory curiosity, that we- the artists- have a Point of View.  And that POV is what generates content, and leads to the proper format for that content.

What do you have a POV about?  Is it something social, personal, political?  What makes you get excited- in either a positive way or negative way- about a particular subject?  That’s what you should be shooting and presenting to the public.

Ansel Adams was passionate about natural landscapes and their preservation, so he delved deep and worked thankless years to create what is widely considered iconic imagery.  Ralph Eugene Meatyard had an interest for Zen philosophy and a working knowledge of optical illusions thanks to his employment as an optician- both of which were expressed in his photography.

Often it’s not easy for us to understand what we have a POV of, in our normal lives, much less our artistic lives.  Most people have a few political opinions- not necessarily good subject matter for photography- and hobbies.  We have jobs that may lend themselves to photography.  When I took up art photography in 1997 I was working in group homes and did portraits of the developmentally disabled clients with their guardians’ consent.  These were people I liked and knew personally who were part of a subculture and experience not typically seen by the average American.  I had unique access and a point of view, and though my shooting skills weren’t that great I can still look at that work and feel connected to it.

Fast forward to my early years in Arizona, where I made a bunch of trips to National Parks and shot scenery.  Although the experience was great, I had no POV, no insider access, to a subject that millions of people experienced each year.

During college I moved on to a subject that was new to a Midwestern kid like me, which was the phenomenon of roadside memorials.  They commemorate car crash victims and you see them all over Arizona, particularly near the Native American reservations.  It was a smaller scale subject matter than the natural beauty of the Southwest, so I shot these for a few months and for a class final presented a collection of color medium format memorial prints.  The work had no personal ties to me, as I didn’t know any of the people and had no real POV other than “car accidents (and the presumed drunk driving or texting associated) are bad.”  That is a POV, but it’s a completely surface POV.  Would there be anyone in the world who would argue car accidents are great?  Also, it’s a phenomenon I consider a “copy of someone else’s effort” aka “the Puff Daddy syndrome.”  We may see a mural that inspires us, but to merely take a few steps back, photograph that mural and present it as our art is lazy and thoughtless.

Let’s go back to our “gas station” example.  It is conceivable that material that grants easy access to most people and is intentionally dull subject matter could have an interesting take.  Though I’m not a fan- as evidenced by my earlier mocking of his work- filmmaker Kevin Smith definitely had a POV on what goes on inside a convenient store, and with his access and experience made the film “Clerks” while still working at the very same store featured within.

Would a portrait survey of store employees be interesting?  How about those employees pre- and post- makeover?

Would a time lapse of a “day in the life” of the store make for some interesting visuals?

Polaroids of the store with journalistic notes attached?

Fashion models or unique animals shot within the gas station environment?

If it’s a subject you, the artist, bring nothing to, then nothing will be added to the work you make and the audience will get nothing out of it.  Discover what interests you and even if the work isn’t immediately compelling, you’ll stick with it longer and find you have more to say.  The audience will look to you as a person with some secret information that they share in by virtue of looking at your work.


If you enjoy any of this work I encourage you to like it and share it!  For more photoworks goodness peruse my Etsy shop, follow on tumblr and twitter and instagram, and rummage around on my full site.


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I'm a multimedia artist in Phoenix, AZ. Main Site - Instagram @primordialcreative + twitter @dbmillerphoto

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