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On Subjectivity

Creativity is an expression of subjectivity. In other words, a work of creative art will be biased towards representing the unique sensibilities of its creator

My great creative passions are photography and writing, and every so often I like to draw parallels between the two. Of particular interest to me are things derived from the maturity of each pursuit, in part manifested in the acceptance of established variations and sub-categories. For example, any reader will know to make the distinction between journalistic reporting and creative writing, and to apply different criteria in their appreciation. The same distinction doesn’t quite apply in the minds of most consumers of photography, where an image presented as creative often is expected to maintain still a high degree of objectivity and factual representation.

Creativity is an expression of subjectivity. In other words, a work of creative art will be biased towards representing the unique sensibilities of its creator. It is curious, therefore, to encounter photographs presented as ‘fine art,’ where the photographer also proclaims their faithfulness to the subject ‘as seen.’

Of all human pursuits, art is perhaps the most subjective; from the things that motivate someone to create a work of art in the first place, through to their choice of tools, composition, style and presentation. Everything about art relies on subjective choices made by the artist; separating their work from that of others.

In truth, subjectivity in art is not an either/or quality, but a point along the continuum between the factual and the imaginary. In some manifestations, the artist’s involvement will be limited to a choice of composition; others may allow a narrow range of refinement to color and contrast; and others still may pursue whatever means necessary towards expressing a personal view. In all cases, the decision should be an explicit one in order for the art to be successful.

Other than the obvious aesthetic implications, the degree of subjectivity in your work will determine also the audience for it. The more factual and easily understood an image, the larger is its potential audience pool. Conversely, the larger the audience, the lower the common denominator, and the more restricted the artist is in expressing a creative voice. This is an important consideration. If you are driven primarily by sales or accolades and want to maximise your audience, the less likely it is that your work will communicate complex personal narratives. And, the more personal and expressive your work, the smaller your potential audience may be. This is not to say that one is better than the other, just that your choices carry implications beyond personal conviction.

Finding satisfaction in your work also is derived directly from the degree of subjectivity expressed. The more personal and complex your message, the fewer people are likely to relate to it. Accept it and don’t try to please everyone. The alternative will be to compromise your message and/or artistic integrity.

The same consideration applies as well to writing about photography. There are countless texts covering the basics of exposure, for example, but far fewer that explore social commentary and personal expression. Before writing about photography, know who you are writing for and what you hope to accomplish. An essay about reading histograms or GPS co-ordinates to scenic locations may net you a lot of hits but is not likely to get your name into the history books. On the other hand, a journal sharing something of your own philosophy may narrow its popular appeal but earn you a more distinguished reputation.

Understanding the implications and sacrifices of your chosen degree of subjectivity is important. Much as many would like their work to be both objective and creative art, the two are opposed in many ways. Make your choice and accept the consequences. Personally, I yearn for the day when photography will reach the degree of maturity where its consumers know to draw a clear distinction between representational and creative work, as they do with writing.

Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 18 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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About Author

I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.

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