Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Subjective versus Objective Photography

So which is better? 

I have had some recent feedback from my tutor with regard an apel submission I'm putting together.  He said something interesting that at first I swept over fleetingly and then later found myself questioning over and over. 

It is something I am finding a lot with photography - I am introduced to a new concept either through the course, my tutor, fellow students or by independent research.  The thought arrives in my conscious, I am initially a little uncomfortable by the new piece of knowledge. I dwell on it, research it, look at what other photographers do. I freeze temporarily in terms of taking my own photos, look introspectively and critically at my own work. It doesn't come right away, but ultimately I start to see the areas for improvement in my own photography. Then finally the idea feels like it is my own thought or cleverness and I recommence photographing with that new piece of knowledge embedded in my psyche.

But equally this bothers me as I can't differentiate between what I think I like and what I have learned. They become one and the same. For example I have learned that Diane Arbus was hugely influential in her photography (see more in this post), but I couldn't claim to have recognised this had it not been done so by many others in the past, even though I truly appreciate her work now after studying it.  I think I lose sight of what appeals to me and what I now appreciate as good art and perhaps lose confidence that the former has any value. 

Another example is Rineke Dijkstra and her 1994 pregnant women project. This touched me immediately and continues to do so. Whereas Nan Goldin's work is something that has definitely influenced my photography in terms of the levels of acceptance in honesty, openness and approach she adopted.  But if I am honest, it doesn't reach me in the same way other artists do.  Maybe it feels too far from my own existence and therefore more voyeuristic than appreciation. Dijkstra I like simply because I like it but equally understand why critically it is an important piece of work.  Hmmm, going around in circles a bit!!

Anyway back to subjectivity versus objectivity, I have the greatest respect for my tutor. Every word in his reports is considered and as such, I read every word carefully and many times. My tutor wrote:

'. . . I think you could make much more from a close, personal reportage assignment where this kind of subject was handled objectively.  And this is the interesting characteristic of your work: it has a subjective quality to it. . .'

He is absolutely right of course.  Much of my photography is subjective and in some ways that is what I was aiming for but I can't say that I had considered how the photographs would have turned out had I taken an objective approach.  Infact, I am not sure how I would have done it objectively or what exactly this means. And this unnerves me. 

I am also a little concerned as I am learning I am photographing less and wonder at some point where the balance will lie.

So going forward, I will have to do a little bit of digging to find some objective and subjective photography, assess it and try and work out what techniques photographers adopt to achieve this. There is little theory I have found that has been particularly helpful so far.  So this research in itself will be subjective.

The first recollection I have of objective photography was that of Bernd and Hilla BecherThis video explains in more detail their rationale. They photographed industrial structures examining the differences and similarities of structure and appearance. They expressly photographed with little subjective input or influence. I can understand why they would take objective images of buildings and structures.  They are documenting a time in history and providing a factual account.

However, I have come to a grinding halt and am not sure where to look for further examples.  I'll post this up for now and may come back to this when I know more! 


  1. Hi Penny,
    You have an unerring knack in your posts of talking about the very thing that's been bothering me. I can identify with lots of what you say here.

    "I think I lose sight of what appeals to me and what I now appreciate as good art and perhaps lose confidence that the former has any value." Just before I read this, I was feeling depressed (about my photography) and trying to pinpoint what was bothering me. It's this: I don't trust my own judgement any more. I feel I have wide-ranging taste rather than bad taste, but I know a lot of what I like would not be approved of in the context of this course. I also find myself, like you, getting to like things I didn't before. In many ways this is a good thing, but how do I know I haven't been 'indoctrinated'? How do I know this is really me?

    As to the question of subjective/objective, this strikes me as a bit odd. Naturally there are degrees of subjectivity, but nothing we do can ever be wholly objective simply because it's us - an individual - that's doing it. Unless they just pulled the topic out of a hat, even the Becher's must have made a subjective decision to concentrate on that subject matter.

    Ok, I do understand that one photograph can be more or less objective than another. But that raises the question of why objectivity should be better; in my own book, I'd rather see someone's subjective take on something. (Although there are types of photography where a more objective approach is required) And if I'm totally honest, I find the Becher's work utterly boring. As documentation, great, but as fine art? (oh good - perhaps I haven't been totally brainwashed after all!)

    Sorry, this is turning into rather a long comment, but the issue you raise is one that has me seriously considering whether or not to continue with OCA. I've gained a lot from doing what I've done with them - my pictures have improved, I've learned a lot about art and photography theory, I've come across photographers that I enjoy and would never have known about, and I've met some great people on the forums too. But when it gets to the point where everything I do is being done in terms of 'what the tutor thinks is OK' then I have to question where this is taking me. And I do seem to be doing an awful lot of reading and writing about photography and less and less pressing of the shutter.

    Oh dear - I'm afraid you caught me at a bad moment, but I do think these are important issues. Thanks for posting this and helping me feel I'm not totally alone with all this.

  2. Oh Gilly I hope you stick tight and continue with OCA. It would be such a shame.

    I suspect with this type of learning we go in to the woods, take a few wrong turns, get frustrated, get lost. Then nightime draws in and there seems to be no hope of any finding a way out. However, at some point we'll see the light, find our way out of the woods. We may end up right where we started but will see things with a wiser head and a clear direction again. I suggest you stick with it. I'm sure the very fact you're asking these questions and challenging yourself is exactly what you should be doing and will ultimately improve your photography.

    But I'm with you in terms of taking less photos reading more. I guess it's part of becoming more contemplative in our photography. I've started to make a division between the snaps I take on a daily basis and the project-based work which in my mind requires different skills. This is just so I don't stop taking photos of my loved ones altogether.

    The Bechers work I also find really boring too LOL. But there must be some objective work out there that is inspiring which will help clarify the skills needed between subjective and objective.

    Don't lose heart, it'll all come good in the end.


  3. Hi Penny,
    Thanks for the encouraging words. I hope you're right about emerging out of the woods; if I thought all this angst would ultimately make me a better photographer then it would be worth it. As it is, I think its likely effect is to make me lose interest altogether.

    I've decided to let the coursework go for the moment. I'm not giving up on it but I want to do other things and start having some fun with photography again. We get given a long time to complete these courses, especially as we can defer for six months as well, so there's no hurry to make a decision. I'm already enjoying my photography more now that I've put the requirements of the course to one side.