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Subject / Object

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[11Jan22] This is now part of UTP.

[3Aug21] The distinction between subject and object in photography has plagued me for a long time and has been aired on the site before, see below.

Although it can be argued that the thing the lens points at is technically the object, it is commonly referred to as the subject.
There is a tendency for photography to objectify the subject.

I resolved a few days ago to dismiss my concerns and simplify the matter by calling it the subject.

From the blog, 26th Feb et seq.

One of the first things I wrote on this site and on this course (as a whole) on 18th June 2018 was a list of my ambitions from it. They were modest: 1. a better technique and 2. to understand Subject and Object. A month later I added a 3rd, to establish a workflow.

I haven't really touched the page since. My technique has improved, I'm sure of that, not a great deal but to a satisfactory degree with more to come. I have established a workflow that is more effective and efficient and still improving, last formally defined during EyV Asg.5 and gradually refined since.

But the matter of subject and object remains untouched, despite the fact that I still think about it and usually check the indices of new books for any helpful suggestions, so far without success.

The reason we are here today is a last page article in the Winter 20-21 issue of the Contemporary Photography group of the RPS by Adrian Hough that is right on the money.

Photographers often speak about the subject of their photographs and the subject of other people's photographs. However, the stuff that we photograph is, according to grammar, not actually a subject at all. If I perform an action on something then I am the subject and the thing is an object. So when I photograph something, it is really the object of my photography and not the subject. That's why the lens furthest away from the eye in an optical instrument is termed the objective lens. Adrian Hough, Contemporary Photography, no. 82 p. 38

He goes on the draw the familiar distinction between photographs of and photographs about but fails to reach the clear conclusion that the 'of' category tend towards the objective end of the spectrum, with 'about' photographs at the subjective end and some way the subject/object distinction has come to be applied to the photographer who interprets the [insert new word here] in their way.

Under the various pejorative forms of gaze it is possible for the photographer to subject his [insert] to objectification so those words are of no further use.

As regards our new [insert] word or phrase, one thing we know for sure is that it will not be Weston and Szarkowski's the thing itself because that was all about photographs of and we are now engaged in photographs about.

While this matter is being considered, we could use the word 'input' and consider the parallels to non-visual data processing where a program (or app or photographer) acquires data (chooses the input - I nearly said subject) and then processes it to produce output. It is said that computers are soulless and objective, but programs are (until recently) written by humans at the direction of other humans so there is a lot of subjectivity involved, even if this mostly comes down to limiting the capabilities of the process (a banking system will not tell you your weight or your horoscope). I'm drifting way off topic here, but my destination was to be that the old art vs. photography debate (long since decided by the venal acquisitiveness of dealers and galleries) used to rest on the passionate, subjective painter and the photographer using the mechanistic, objective camera: but photography in all its technological phases has always been about the subjective choices of the photographer and the subjective interpretations of the viewers.

To be continued.

[28Feb] I have noticed an existing blog quote from Sep '20', from Here's Me! or The Subject in The Picture in Thirteen essays on photography (1990) p.4.

The transformation by photography is the metamorphosis of a subject into an object Robert Graham in Here's Me! or The Subject in The Picture, 1990

He goes on to examine how the subject might reclaim or roll back the process of objectification through various types of discourse between the photographer and the photographee.


As noted in the C&N blog, Weston wrote that,

The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh. Edward Weston

I do not yet have a citation for that. Szarkowski used the phrase in The photographer's eye as one of the five aspects of photographs, the others being the detail, the frame, time and vantage point. To be fair to Szarkowski, he did write that a photograph is not reality but it "evokes the tangible presence of reality … a simpler, more permanent, more clearly visible version of the plain fact" (p. 12). And, as noted in C&N Part 2, it is well worth reading Hurn & Jay's on being a photographer (2001, 3rd edn., pp. 32-3) on the matter. I could quote at length but let us just note, 'most photographers would do the world a favour by diminishing, not augmenting, the role of self and, as much as possible, emphasizing subject alone'.

[18Apr] A new revelation in Part 5:

Again I am clearly parking my tank on the photography of lawn but I had an insight this morning: while an individual photograph of a piece of litter, a grave ornament, a building or a sculpture may be (and usually is) a snap of that particular item, a series of photographs of littering events, or buildings of a specific genre becomes a project about a subject.
We have two birds with one rock here - the of/about dilemma and a piece of the subject/object conundrum — the individual images depict objects, the project concerns a subject.

Part 5

[30Apr] Barthes, writing about being photographed, comments, "I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object" (Camera Lucida s.5 p.10)


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I&P Part nReferences

Bloomfield, R (2017) Expressing your vision [EyV]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. (2019) Identity and place [I&P]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

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Page created 03-Aug-2021 | Page updated 11-Jan-2022