"Photograph what interests you"
"Interest Comes First"
"Look for something interesting"
Sounds like this "Interesting" thing, whatever it is is pretty important so I thought I would talk about it.
Let's see if we can figure out what interesting really means. We could start by describing some things that are interesting, then we might have a better idea of what it means, keeping in mind that we are talking photographically.
It could be something:
2) out of it's normal context
3) near something else which either complements it or completely contradicts it.
4) we have an interest in
5) dramatic/spectacular/best of
6) with emotional connections
Any of the above could lead to a good photograph, though you might want to ask - good for what?
You might also want to ask - where do I fit in?
Is it my sum contribution to get up early enough, hike long enough and wait patiently enough to capture the best of, the dramatic or the unusual? Apart from reflecting my perseverance it doesn't really say much about me and I think one could make the argument that fabulous sunset, gorgeous beach and incredibly cute baby pictures would fall into this category yet most of us wouldn't think of these kind of pictures as being art - great calendars perhaps but mostly suited to family albums and camera club beginners.
Think about it - how many fabulous sunsets do you see hanging in the Louvre? How many 'hunks' did Rembrandt paint? - not many. Painters had complete license to create images showing the fantastic yet they typically didn't and don't. Perhaps there's a lesson there for photographers.
If we go back to each of the above types of intersting and look at how much we can contribute, we get something like the following assessment.
1) unusual may reflect well on our abilities as a detective but after you have seen it once, it's a 'so what' kind of situation. Interest wanes quickly. Doesn't mean you shouldn't photograph it but images like these are best presented in a book where you can quickly look at an image, go wow, and move on.
2) out of it's normal context - images like these can be very funny or sad, they can easily create emotions and have the possibility to make you think - this has a lot more potential for powerful images. I think of the work of Gary Winogrand as often fitting here. You run the risk of the humour being slapstick and cliched. Often these are ordinary scenes in which the 'fish out of water' is not noticed by most of us.
3) near something complementary or contradictory - another of Gary's strengths - think of the small dog/huge dog image shot from the ground - very ordinary subjects but interesting for it's viewpoint and for it's juxtaposition. Again the realm of the super observant. The response is often not, wow, never seen that before, it's gee, why didn't I see that?
4) something we have an interest in - certainly this is the main advice of most books - shoot what interests you. Problem is, it may not interest anyone else. This venue has the greatest chance of you actually saying something meaningful, but do be prepared for a limited audience. Even landscapes have their 'rocks and roots' detractors, especially when it isn't a calendar type photo but that is a problem for the viewer, not the photographer, unless the photographer has unrealistic expectations.
My work with Indepenent Machinery is a classic example. The place and the people fascinate me (though it was luck that I started the project, it's interest that has keep me coming back). The number of people fascinated by machinery is undoubtedly limited - even if I were the best photographer in the world I would not expect this to be the next coffee table hit book. I'd like to think it might interest those who like form and light and shape and composition regardless of the subject, but again that's a limited audience.
Not everything that each of us is interested in is necessarily good subject matter - it needs to photograph well on top of being interesting. Some subjects have near universal appeal - beautiful grand landscapes, kids, the female form (well for half of us anyway), others are of such limited interest they really need to make up for their limited appeal as a subject with how well they are photographed.
4) dramatic/spectacular/best of - certainly the venue for many landscape photographers who seek only dramatic skies, incredible lighting or the outstanding scene - often shot in exotic places like the badlands, mountains, tropics or whatever. I find images of this type to be of limited appeal but clearly I'm not in the majority as usually these are the images featured on the covers of magazines, both because they are popular and because they catch the eye and amateur photographers want to be able to do the same - so they buy the magazine. How much of yourself is in this kind of image - they are often superbly composed, so there's that, they often leave people disappointed with the real places which look nothing like this when they visit them - one could even think of them as being a little bit of a fraud. Still, it's Ansel's grand landscape images that are most famous and usually feature on the covers of his books and sell calendars. It might explain though why so many calendar images start to look just like each other. Images of this type speak again to the perseverance of the photographer more than his artistry. For Ansel, his artistry was in the making of the prints rather than the capturing of the grand landscape which certainly represented perseverance - hiking through snow bound passes, climbing peaks with 50 lb. of equipment, freezing and boiling and bugs and all.
6) images with emotional connections - well - puppy pictures qualify but most of us wouldn't think of them as great art - on the other hand Dorothea Lange's Migrant Farm Family both generates emotion and tells a story without words and even if were shot today and thought of as a bit of a cliche, it has endured as being the ultimate in that kind of photograph. The skill in the photographer is to recognize the power of the scene and to capture it in a way which shows this power off, often with a split second to react and shoot. Emotions in extreme circumstances may be easy to capture - just go to Africa and photograph some AIDS sufferers or starving children, but to do so within our own milieu and not be a cliche is extremely challenging, rewarding and interesting.
7) photogenic - well some things just photograph well and photographers return to them again and again - the human form, things that are wet, ice, S curves, repetitive patterns, and so on. The trick is to make the image a lot more than just a picture of something that photographs well - through posture, positioning, context, framing and so on.
It's my hope that even if you disagree with me (good chance, I stuck my neck out on this one), it will give you something to think about and might even change your thinking about what you photograph and how you approach said interesting thing.
I'm interested in your immediate feedback but would be even more interested to hear if it changes anything. I suspect that like most of my images which really don't change the viewer, most of my writing is similar, but I think this one might just be important.