A conundrum of sorts

abstract red mocko jumbie

Mocko-jumbie Red -- 2010

The past few months I’ve been puzzling over the tension that sometimes occurs between the content and subject matter of an image, and its more abstract qualities of composition, color and design. Ideally, the two should complement each other, with the design qualities strengthening the emotional impact of the subject matter — and vice versa.

However, I have found that is not always the case. Sometimes color and design can compete with the subject, distract, and actually weaken the image’s impact. Photographers working in black-and-white know this well. In other cases, an image’s content can distract and interfere with the emotional and sensual appeal of the colors and design — especially when those elements are an important quality of the subject.

If there is a focus to my work right now, it is experimenting to find a balance for each image that is right for me where subject matter and design work together to make the images stronger. The images in this post illustrate one direction the experiments have taken.

Caribbean fashions

Hung out - 2010

16 Comments on “A conundrum of sorts

  1. My head has exploded!!!

    I’m glad I just put up a photo and say something stupid underneath it on my blog.

    I leave photography to photographers … I just click.
    … but I’m glad some people think about this stuff … because I really like it.

  2. Oh, planetross! I hope that explosion was purely an internal matter, and not caused by anything you saw here. Explosion or not, glad you like the pictures. Thanks for your comments!!

  3. I like the ethereal quality of your work. I think you are totally right about the colors vs. subject issue. If it doesn’t balance with the colors or I can’t seem to get the colors right. I will ultimately choose black and white, ESPECIALLY if the subject is a person or people. Or if I want to emphasize the subject a great deal such as a lone, crippled tree in a field of grass.

  4. Hi sweetiegirlz! Thanks for the visit and compliment! These last two images are sort of ethereal, aren’t they? I hadn’t thought to apply that word to them.

  5. I agree that there should be a balance between the impact of the subject and that of design. I have to admit that I like to recognize what I am looking at in an image. I don’t want to work too hard at that part . So I guess I like an image that is “pushed” rather than distorted. I am struggling with this as well, trying to add abstraction to my representational images but find myself going back to my comfort zone a lot of the time. I guess its somewhat the same in music. As a musician matures in his work, he often ends up doing Jazz. If you want to add marketing into this conundrum, well, we all know what kind of music sells the most.
    The first post is very strong visually. The red grabs the eye and won’t leave it alone. In Hung out, I see two young girls under a light. I like the soft watercolor look to it, but found myself working too hard at recognizing the subject.
    We need to keep producing to find where we want to be, and know some people may not like it. My daughter looks at my paintings now and asks me when I am going to finish them!

  6. I do tend to go on and on…. One thing you don’t want to forget in this mix is your ability to tell a story with your photos. You have an eye for catching interesting moments, and using irony, humor, contradictions, (as well as visual design elements) to draw the viewer in.

  7. Thank you, Catherine, for your comments, both thoughtful and wise. While there is some satisfaction in thumbing one’s nose at what is “marketable” in favor of a focus on pure self-expression, the market (and our audience) is also telling us something. Indeed most people do not want to have to work too hard to understand what they are looking at. If they give up, shrug their shoulders and walk away, then what has been communicated and was the piece a success?

    From this perspective this discussion is also about finding balance between the role of art as pure self-expression — and its role as a medium of communication. There is certainly no right or wrong answer, and like your daughter, I have also wondered sometimes “why that artist never finished his painting”.

  8. I really love these images.

    I think that whatever works…. works. Sometimes subject content or narrative is important and that should drive an image. In the case of the images above I’m very happy to enjoy the colour and composition on their own and I don’t need a subject or narrative.

    I think the conflict comes into your mind when you think you have to be doing one thing. I say to you, just do what feels appropriate.

    For way too long, photographers have let dogma get in the way of expression.

    Remember those silly old duffers from about 100 years ago who were up in arms about cropping? Let’s face it, the image composition dictates the format ratio, rather that the format ratio dictating the image composition…… ad infinitum.

  9. Thanks, razzbuffnik. Glad you like them.
    I thought you might have something to say about this subject. In many ways you are right… that one should just do what works for a particular image. There is a tendency to think about things too much sometimes, and artists can become boxed in by what they believe their “style” is or should be.
    As an example, there are still many “duffers” around who make a claim to greater authenticity and superiority because of a refusal to crop or in any other way manipulate a photographic image so it tells it’s story better. While that may demonstrate expertise in use of the camera, it is as you say, a dogma that can limit expression.

  10. I’ve just looked at a post of yours I missed, the one with the image titled, “Bulge” in it..and now this…I’m crazy for the Bulge image but not these two which I share for one reason: abstract images can appeal (or not) based on unconscious things. I think such pieces are created this way as well as “seen” this way. It’s exciting. It brings me to what I love about abstract images…they either get you boom right out of the box or they don’t. You can try and articulate what the meaning is, what has been communicated, etc…but, good luck with that…I just know I love looking at something or I don’t. I want to keep looking at or I don’t. The first time I went into a room with three Rothkos (National Gallery of Art in DC) in it, I felt every thing between my ears disappearing and I was just two wide eyes. Not for any reason I was conscious of..it was simply visceral)

    Some folks stop at abstract paintings (or representational ones for that matter) in a museum that I totally pass by. Why? Are they better paintings or less because I pass them by? No.

    I’d rename “Bulge”, tho!!

  11. Thanks, Pat. Glad you like the “Bulge” image, if not the name! You are right about abstract images eliciting an unconscious or visceral all-or-nothing response, and the attempt to verbalize their “meaning” is in many ways a fool’s errand.

  12. there’s a looseness that i really like though i couldn’t say exactly what or why.
    but i’ll try:
    it has heart yet lets it fly. it is valiant and yet discrete, gutsy yet unpretentious, fearless yet
    how’s that? ok i think….

  13. Don, one of the first things that attracted me to your images was the seeming effortless abstract foundations of the representational themes. I love good abstract and I love realism but the best composition for me is representational built on a solid abstract foundation…..and you almost always pull it off ….Last three posts….fantastic!

  14. Thanks Robin!! Comments on this subject have been interesting… a variety of takes on the question. I like yours, too… “representation built on a solid abstract foundation.” If only it were effortless to find that elusive balance where they complement rather than compete with each other!

  15. For where I am at present this is an extremely interesting question you discuss here – catching the balance beween emotional content and representational image so that viewers understand the FULL impact of what you are saying. I have been struggling with this concept for some time now and can’t quite get my hand on it. To tell the story my images are far too representational yet when I focus more on the abstract the emotion might be there but the literal meaning lost. It almost appears that you have struck this balance in this image. I say “almost” because it is still a smidgen away from being clear to me what the story is. Then again, who cares? It is an excellent image that certainly caught my eye and caused me to think about it!

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