May 2004:
Everything Is Subject and Kicking Off Your Shoes

May's Visual Counterpoint Picture #8 provides Ben Lifson with a point of departure for a discussion of how to improve your pictures by managing time, dealing with subject matter, and looking at pictures, including your own.

It was a stroke of good luck that my first Visual Counterpoint choice should touch on important matters relating to making photographs generally as many of us are constrained to make them. Our busy, time-consuming and important careers and our important family commitments often make us photograph only intermittently, when we can find time and as subject matter either comes our way or, as is often the case, we travel to it, sometimes quite far. But this is not the best road to good pictures and our growth as picture makers. With a few word changes [mine in square brackets], what the English novelist and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham once said about writing holds true if for photography: “Writing [photographing] every day,” Maugham said, “is no guarantee that you will make a masterpiece [good pictures]. But you will never [consistently] make a masterpiece [good pictures] if you don’t write [photograph] every day.”

As I’ve worked with Michael in the past and keep abreast of his prolific output, I recognize this picture as one of the hundreds Michael has been making of family gatherings in his relatives’ houses in New Jersey. As such, holds an important lesson for serious photographers who place high value on reaching and sustaining a high level of visual excellence in their work, and in their growth. The lesson can be expressed in three words, “Everything Is Subject.”

This simple statement with large implication comes from a story Andre Kertesz told me in the early 1980s concerning a phone call he received in his Paris studio in 1936. It was from a magazine publisher asking if Kertesz would do a series of nudes for the girlie magazine Le Sourire (The Smile). But the man was embarrassed, Kertesz said, to be asking “as he kept saying, ‘so distinguished an artist as yourself’” to do soft core pornography, so he hemmed and hawed until Kertesz interrupted him with, “Don’t be shy with me. For me, everything is subject. Even the girls!” From this assignment came Distortions (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 198TK), one of the twentieth-century’s greatest bodies of black and white nude photographs.

Everything, even the most familiar, the most quotidien sights, like the way your shoes look after you’ve kicked them off at the end of a hard day: where and how they land, what they look like in relation to things around them. Everything is subject.

To the photographer who might say, “Yes. Obvious. So what?” the answer has three important parts.

First, it’s not necessary to walk even ten minutes from your home, much less take long trips to exotic lands or grand scenery in order to work at your craft. You needn’t wait for public events like parades, beauty contests, concerts in the park and the like for subject matter. Everything is subject. You can photograph anything, anywhere, at any time, and if you’re photographing well your pictures will be good.

Second, this means that you can practice regularly, preferably every day. Like playing an instrument, or dancing, or writing, or painting, making pictures depends on constant practice. There is no other way to become good.

Practice what? As Michael’s picture shows, timing, drawing, decoration, composition, the use of the edges. There are many other things: for landscape photographs, the placement of the horizon, the shape of the sky, the recession of planes toward infinity. For small camera work, the combination of sharply-focused and out-of focus passages; blur: how much works, and where? For portraits: the pose (esssential), the shape of a head and the structure of a face, and the tension between the straight edges of the frame and curved lines of the head and figure within the frame. For all kinds of work, the handling of mass, shape, and line. The list could be much longer.

Again, Kertesz provides a good example. He often said, “I don’t do very much. I see the thing, I feel the thing, I make the thing. That’s all.” Being able to see, feel and make all at once comes from practice. Kertesz knew he wanted to be a photographer when he was eight years old. But as his family was quite poor, he had to wait until he was finished with school at eighteen, and had a job, before buying his first camera. And so for ten years he practiced without a camera. Wherever he was, at home, in the streets, at school, camping with his brothers, whenever he saw and felt things he made a small rectangle with his thumbs and forefingers, brought it quickly to his eye, framed and composed the subject within it, noded his head quickly forward and clicked his tongue. His whole being became the camera and he practiced with it all the time. Small wonder that after six years of this. Sleeping Boy, 1912 the second or third real photograph he made is a small masterpiece.

Finally, you are more likely to improve your craft by photographing everyday life and things and scenes close at hand than by waiting for or going to beatiful, grand, dramatic, exotic or otherwise visually pre-posessing subjects, things I call “ready-made subjects.” These include grand scenery, parades, stage performances, street musicians, jugglers, mimes and acrobats in public places, protest marches, press conferences (many of which are planned, staged and executed by professionals highly skilled in the structuring of such events for the camera), and the commonplace poses of snapshots, which everyone can hold. In the history of photography, 1835-present, there are only a handful of good pictures of parades. Only two good pictures of performers in performance come immediately to mind: Kertesz’ picture of a singer on a Paris concert stage, and Weegee’s picture of a singer at her microphone in the 1940s New York dive Sammy’s on the Bowery. Ready-made subjects are difficult because of the fact that the beauty and strength of pictures derive not from the pictures’ subjects but from the artistry of the pictures themselves. The more beautiful, the more structured, the more shaped the subject, the more skill and art are required to turn the raw material of life into the forms, space, composition and meanings of art. Only virtuoso photographers like Alexander Rodchenko and Garry Winogrand have succeed at highly structured things like parades, rodeos, circus acts and athletic contests. It’s the beauty of flowers that makes it so difficult to make a good photograph of them. The most successful ones are in black and white, and are either taken from extremely close or, with bunches of flowers, from far away.

The lens describes things so literally that it takes effort, skill and considerable craft to transform things in life into figures in art. The Grand Canyon, the family Christmas tree, Mickey Mouse at Disney World, the bronze statue at Rockefeller Plaza’s ice rink, are so much themselves they resist all but the most accomplish photographer’s efforts. But a family gathering, your neighbor shoveling snow, a place setting on your dining table or a diner counter (with the glass sugar dispenser and its shiny metal domed top, the little maple syrup pitcher, the saucer of Coffee Mate containers, the napkin holder), fallen leaves all over your lawn before you rake them, your children running from the school building to your waiting car, the person across the gas station from you, pumping her gas while you pump yours, groups chatting on the church lawn after Sunday service, the pictures of your teenager’s rock star, movie star, sports star and super model heroes all over his or her bedroom walls, and, of course, the way your shoes look after you’ve kicked them off at the end of a hard day, these things and millions more in the same realm of the every day, challenging though they be, will put and keep you in practice and, sooner than you think, start to yield excellent pictures.

Moreover, subjects such as I’m talking about here are the very stuff of your experience. They are part of what defines you, for they they are a major source, every day, of the life of your feelings. Not all of us know a great deal about most of what we see every day. Therefore it is difficult to make photographs giving a full, magisterial, authoritative visual account of the subject, define the thing itself. But we all feel the things we see every day, and our feelings are authentic to ourselves (some psychologists hold that the are our selves).

The authenticity of our feelings about a thing has has important implications for photographers when considered together with the fact (the topic of many future columns) that there are no rules for making good pictures. There are only principles, known facts about how visual forms (shapes, lines, masses, planes, etc.) “work” within a photograph’s four edges. The application of these principles is as various as the photographer applying them. Someone standing exactly where Michael was standing at exactly the same moment and releasing the shutter at exactly the same fraction of a second most likely would have made an entirely different composition in an entirely different style. If he were a good photographer it would have been just as good as Michael’s if not better.

Now, when we share our feelings with others we often get at least a little excited. Our speech becomes somewhat rhythmical, our tone of voice rises and falls: there’s a touch of singing. Taking pictures in response to our feelings about what we see is a lyrical practice. Michael’s picture here is lyrical. And this is where the lack of rules about picture making is on the photographer’s side, and where it is most useful not to think about pictures one knows, i.e., about models. As the American novelist, essayist, screen writer and critic James Agee wrote about lyrical photography, “The artist’s task is not to alter the world as the eye sees it into a world of aesthtic reality, but to perceive the aesthetic reality within the actual world, and to make an undisturbed and faithful record of the instant in which this movement of creativeness achieves its most expressive crystallization. Through his eye and through his instrument the [photographer-] artist has, thus, a leverage upon the materials of existence which is unique, opening to him a universer which has never before been so discreetly or so purely available to artists, and requiring of his creative intelligence and of his skill, perceptions and disciplines no less deep than those required in any other act of aesthetic creation, though very differently deprived, and enriched.”

One of the exciting things about practicing every day and letting the world bring continuously unprecedented subject matter to you is that in the application of the principles of good picture making to what’s unfolding in front of your eyes – coming into being, as it were, as at the creation of the world itself – you are also necessarily attentive to the aesthetic reality unfolding before your eyes. And considered as an artist, the world is continuously coming up with new things, continuously fresh and surprising. Thus you stand a very good chance not of imitating and sometimes equalling the good pictures of the past but of making new discoveries of your own, adding to our fund of knowledge and pleasure.

Also, your feelings are the source, the reservoir and the gateway to the truths within you. If you can communicate the truths of your experience in the clear, permanent, accessible forms of pictures that hold the eye of the observer, and if these forms, expressive of your truths, also move and hold his soul, you will have made pictures that matter and will continue to matter as long as they exist.

Michael’s Picture #8 is supporting evidence for the foregoing statements. So is the progress of, and recent work by my student Jim Rubino, of Santa Cruz, California.

Rubino, 57 years old, is a recently retired computer executive who began photographing seriously a little more than two and a half years ago. Until just a few months ago the time-consuming demands of running a start-up company, together with family commitments, left him almost no time for anything else. Yet every month beginning in the autumn of 2002 (with some long interruptions due to business demands) he made hundreds of pictures (sometimes close to a thousand) of Santa Cruz’ main shopping street as seen from his second-story office window, using a D 30 and zoom lenses. Some days he could photograph for only ten or fifteen minutes. But he photographed almost every day. Weekends and some weekdays he photographed his family at home. There are many pictures of the two teenagers doing homework or playing board games, and at soccer practice, Tae Kwan Do tournaments, theater and dance rehearsals and performances. He also photographed family trips and family meals out. While always ambitious to make a good picture, he approached this work also as practice. He practiced framing; the ordering of space and of the light, shadows. shapes, lines, masses and human actions within it; the drawing (via the lens) of non-generalized human figures; the creation of figure groups, and the handling of reflections in mirrors and windows. and of things seen through windows. (I think glass fascinates him.) When in the spring of 2003 he began to have more time he bought a Canon 1D and started photographing at street level in and around Santa Cruz and in public places in the Bay Area, while continuing to photograph his family. In August, 2003, he found the 1D too conspicuous for work in public places and bought a G3. The practice continues with both cameras.

Here are two interesting recent photographs, which even in rough work print form promise to be quite strong. They are of the two childen and were taken during the ordinary course of daily family life.

Rubino’s work this month (about 700 frames so far) includes pictures of ivy growing on a back yard fence, foliage pressing up against windows (seen from the inside), unused items stored in a garage, rocks and grasses along a beach, scenes from the stands at a professional baseball game, Junior Prom night, Mothers Day lunch, and other family activities.

Rubino has agreed to let us publish pictures from the 122 frames he took of the children and their mother during the family’s Mother’s Day lunch, along with three pictures from 67 frames he took a few days later from his seat at a professional baseball game, which is to say, pictures of subject matter around one small fixed spot. Some are technically flawed, in others the craftsmanship is flawed; others show promise and are worth printing further. But the three strips of thumbnails here are a good example of deliberate practice of technique and craft and of one photographer’s awareness of and engagement with the unfolding of subject matter that occurs all around us every day.

Subject is all around you every day, as it was all around great and good picture makers of the past during their days. Rembrandt’s drawings of the beggars on his streets, the landscapes just outside of town...You don’t have to make any expeditions. The thing to go looking for, and seriously, is the artist within you.

Text ©2004 Ben Lifson and PictureFlow LLC
Photographs ©2004 Jim Rubino

Ben Lifson also conducts private photography tutorials with photographers on three continents.
For information please visit his website,

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