As noted in the last blog on Imagineering Methods for Theme Creation, Theme and Subject are two different things.
A Subject portrays what is descriptively evident by the subject’s matter, the medium that created the image(s), the physical form, and how these three relate to each other.
An example is the image captured by serious amateur photographer, Keith Cunning, of Boats at Anchor on Morro Bay. This subject is easy to understand, the relationship of forms interesting, pleasing, and the digital medium allowed for nuances that add vibrancy and contrast. We can enjoy the lighting that sculpts the boats, how it shadows the rock and fills the frame with twinkling reflections. We understand and appreciate the juxtaposition between the smooth lines of the boats, created by man, and nature’s jagged formation of the famous Morro Bay Rock. The image subject is aesthetically pleasing, engaging, rich in time, and at scale can grace a wall as a standalone, decorative artwork.
A Theme on the other hand portrays what is descriptively not in evidence by the subject’s matter, the medium that created the image(s), the physical form, and how these relate to each other. While thematic photographs can and do standalone as art (usually collected in this manner), they relate within a body of work wherein they may ask, answer or avoid questions. As individual images, we can see the internal context, which is the subject. As a body of work, we then feel the external context, which arises from those elements that the audience interprets or learns from critics, often as metaphors or symbols.
An example are the two images from Tom Lowe’s excellent “50@50” project where he examines fifty cinema craft folks who have recently turned fifty years of age. That is the subject, but the theme reveals lives aging out of the crafts. We see the faces as environmental portraiture, but we feel more than we see due to the color reduction, selective composition, and subject attenuation. The theme explores a pivotal age, the big Five-O; dreams won and lost, life’s intrinsic meaning by capturing and interpreting the symbols and metaphors that accent each individual portrait. (We will present a full review of this work as it goes to gallery).
With a fine art theme, we sense a transcendence that exceeds the obvious, and as a body of work, we can touch the image undertones. As Fine Art Photographer, Alan Sekula (Fish Story) noted, “significance is more personal than meaning,” and a thematic body of work implies personal significance that resonates with each viewer differently.
Developing and creating a thematic project requires a Subject, but how we interpret or treat the subject determines theme. Alan Sekula also noted that ‘meaning is more objective than significance,’ which tends to drive our understanding of subject, while significance drives our feeling about a subject. What is more important is that we can further distinguish between “meaning to” and “meaning of.” Nick Ut’s famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the napalm girl “means to” me more because of my up front and personal experiences with the Vietnam War. For others, without a personal internal context, the image may be the ‘meaning of’ war and its horrific destruction.
As fine art photographers, we can select a subject and then explore the ‘meaning to’ or ‘meaning of’ with additional images that grant the audience a deeper understanding of the subject. Cunning may go on to capture more boat images and could find themes about the peace of lying at anchor, the sense of isolation that one can develop by being a bit off shore and disconnected from other activities, a boater’s nous of independence when he or she disconnects from land and many other thematic possibilities. Lowe has developed a theme and his audience will explore a personal ‘meaning to’ if they are near or past the 50 year old threshold, and involved in the make belief world of movies and commercials. Younger viewers and or viewers disconnected from the industry who are cognizant of their mortality may feel a ‘meaning of’ as they contemplate the future of their careers.
In the next blog, we will explore theme development workflow.