Of all of the terms that typically appear in discussions of photographic composition, the word “subject” may be the most confusing. In typical explanations, a photograph has a subject when it presents a main feature as being distinct from its setting, which is everything else in the image. These explanations usually assert that the lack of a subject will cause the eye to become restless as it searches for something to lock onto, making the viewer lose interest quickly. Without a subject, they say, the viewer will be left wondering what the photo is ‘about’.
While there is some real value in this concept, the use of the word “subject” to describe a compositional feature conflates the realms of form and meaning, making it potentially confusing for anyone who would like to apply the concept in their own photography. The main problem with applying the term is imagining its opposite, the idea that a landscape photograph could be devoid of a subject. We are likely to see the river, the desert, the ocean, the chain of mountain peaks, or whatever feature might have inspired us to press our shutter button, as the subject of our resulting image—after all, aren’t the features in the image what the photo is ‘about’? What follows in this article is an attempt to answer that question by cutting the cake a different way, to provide an alternative framework for understanding the ideas behind the typical usage of the word “subject” and for determining when these ideas might be relevant for a given photograph. This framework can be explained with three simple concepts: Hierarchy, Intention, and Meaning.
Hierarchy: Providing a Sense of Order
In a previous article for the Photo Cascadia blog, I discussed the concept of visual hierarchy and provided a brief explanation of what it can accomplish and why it is not the only mode of organization that can result in compelling photographs. The use of the word “subject” in discussions of composition aligns closely with what I described as the primary point of interest in an image—the locus where the eye knows to stop between explorations of the frame. While there may be other points of interest in a photo, the primary one will stand out from all else and will generally provide a sort of terminus for eye movement in the composition. Light, color, texture, mass, or form may all contribute to establishing visual hierarchy, but the result will be the same: the eye will have a home base where it can rest, and the overall image will seem well resolved.
Although hierarchy is only one possible organizing principle, it is essentially what discussions of the proverbial subject aim to describe. A common alternative term is “anchor”, a label often given to any compositional element that has the most visual weight in an image. While that term nicely avoids the suggestion of meaning, it comes with its own set of potentially confusing implications. An anchor stops movement, yet it is something that is connected to the ground and that has great mass; therefore, it is an awkward term to use when describing something like a sunstar or a crashing wave that may be at the top of a photo’s visual hierarchy. Regardless of what you call the primary point of interest in a photograph, it will help to provide a sense of order. Besides hierarchy, schemes that can establish order include, patterning, connecting forms, visual echoes, and dualities, among others.
Intention: Providing the ‘Aha Moment’
But is order really necessary? What do we gain from it?
The main benefit of any organizational scheme is that it makes the decisions that went into a composition seem intentional: order indicates the will of the photographer who found or created it. Without any such scheme, a photo is likely to seem random and unresolved, leaving viewers to wonder what they are supposed to make of its various elements. Therefore, a lack of order tends to be less satisfying than compositions that indicate a high level of intention. When a viewer recognizes a clear photographic motivation, they have a satisfying ‘Aha Moment’, which will secure their interest and will encourage them to appreciate the other merits of the photo more fully.
So while there may be artistic arguments in favor of compositions that seem arbitrary or accidental, the most compelling images tend to be the ones that allow viewers to make sense of what they are seeing so that their appreciation can extend to deeper levels.
Meaning: What a Photo is ‘About’
Those deeper levels of appreciation ultimately involve interpretation, the process of deciding what an image is about, which involves more than just recognizing a subject within it. Contrary to what the term “subject” implies, a main compositional element is not necessarily the source of a photo’s meaning. Meaning emerges out of the organizing principle that governs an image as a whole, not merely from any single feature within it. In other words, what a landscape photograph’s various features collectively suggest is ultimately what the photo is ‘about’. If a photo depicts a rainbow over a dried lakebed with arcing mud cracks in it, the photo is not simply about one of those two features or the details within them; the echo of the rainbow’s form in the mud cracks indicates a relationship between the rainbow and the lakebed, and therein lies the potential for identifying meaning, however anyone wants to interpret it. (To read some possible interpretations of the described image, see the article that I wrote about it previously.)
Putting it All Together
In short, the simple answer to the question posed in the title of this article is no, landscape photographs do not need a “subject”. What they need is to hold the interest of the viewer, and that is most likely to happen when an image conveys a sense of intention. An ordering principle such as hierarchy can get a viewer past the point of looking for purpose and onto deeper levels of appreciation. The age-old term “subject” has earned its place in so many discussions of composition because it attempts to identify what is probably the most common method of creating order. Clearly the term has its shortcomings, but the ideas behind it are relevant for many photographs and are worth salvaging. I hope that reformulating those ideas through the connected concepts above may help more photographers to appreciate the value in the ideas and may help to prevent misunderstandings.
As with any compositional decisions, the time for conscious analysis of these concepts may not be while you’re out in the field, rushing to catch some spectacular light. An instructor once said to me when I was in art school, “Creativity is a messy place.” We don’t always arrive at our best ideas by thinking methodically about them, and compelling compositions don’t always result from stopping to ponder the full implications of our decisions. Nonetheless, analysis is extremely valuable when selecting images for editing and when tricky compositional situations present themselves in the field; if creative instincts alone are not quite bringing about that ‘Aha Moment’, a bit of analysis can help to point the way forward. Also, thinking about composition helps us to internalize ideas about it and to draw upon them later subconsciously.
Can you think of any other compositional terms, like “subject”, that may be confusing to many people? If so, please feel free to share them in the comments below. And as always, your thoughts about this article are also very welcome!
Erin Babnik is a landscape photographer, speaker, educator, and author. Immersion in the visual arts has been the one constant in Erin’s life, including an extensive background in various studio arts and a doctoral education in the history of art. Erin is honored to be a Canon Explorer of Light. | Erin’s Website: www.erinbabnik.com