Diane Arbus' Untitled and the Importance of Subject Matter / by Neal Auch

The internet is full of listicles with titles like "10 tips for becoming a better photographer" or "5 tips to make your photographs more compelling", usually focusing the discussion on technical stuff like depth of field, hard vs soft light, the rule of thirds, the importance of having a clean background, etc.  This is all great stuff and I have nothing against articles of this type, but here I wanted to emphasize something that's often omitted (or perhaps left implicit) in these discussions: subject matter.  The most important part of making a compelling image is putting something interesting in front of the camera.  I sometimes think about this in terms of a (decidedly non-vegan) culinary analogy: the subject matter is like the steak, post-processing is like the seasoning, composition/lighting/F-stop/etc are like the cooking process.  If you have a garbage cut of meat then it may well be possible to make a tasty meal, as long as the chef is brilliant and the seasonings are incredible.  However, as a general rule, your dinner is going to end up a lot better if you started with a good steak.  It's the same with photography.  While a great artist can perhaps make interesting imagery out of some completely banal quotidian subject matter, most viewers would probably rather look at a poorly executed shot of something they've never seen before.  Given the choice between a brilliantly composed, well lighted, gorgeously retouched image of a fire hydrant, and a cell phone snapshot of a 6 legged tiger, I'm probably going to ponder over the latter for quite a while longer.

This is certainly not a profound point that I'm making, but I'm often surprised at how often articles about how to create more compelling photographs seem to omit the fact that the most important part of the process has nothing to do with the camera or editing or lighting.  This is the reason that great fashion photographers hire professional models, rather than just shooting their friends and family.  This is the reason that great landscape photographers hike out to amazing vistas, rather than just shooting at the park down the street from their house.  It's no different for fine art photography.

Diane Arbus was a brilliant photographer and her book Untitled makes for a fantastic case study in the importance of subject matter.  This was Arbus' final project: a series of intimate candid portraits taken at residences for the mentally handicapped between 1969 and 1971.  There's a legitimate discussion one could have about whether this work is exploitative, how/if consent was obtained for these shots, and the ethics of photographing the most vulnerable members of society in order to make an art book.  But here I'm going to side-step that discussion and treat the images on their own merits.  (For what it's worth I personally find Arbus' Untitled to be tender and humane and raw, not exploitative, but I am aware that not all viewers will come away with this impression.)

Here are a few images from the book to ground the discussion:

I think there can be little question that these shots are compelling.  And yet, it's easy to nit-pick and find technical "faults" here.  All these images are shot in harsh midday sun, the backgrounds are often messy and distracting, the horizon lines are often crooked, in some cases the subjects are dead centre in the frame, feet and shoulders are cropped out, ...  But I would guess that 99% of viewers don't notice or (like me) don't care about these things because every one of those images is absolutely affecting.  This wasn't a camera setting, and it wasn't something Arbus did in the darkroom, and it's not a trick of composition.  Those portraits are fascinating because Arbus put something fascinating in front of the camera before she fired the shutter.