Taking vs. making photographs; know the grammar of art

Is everyone a photographer? The words we use matter.

Viewfinder Vol 1, Issue 10See all issuesSubscribe to Viewfinder

A special warm WELCOME to new subscriber: Barry! And a huge THANK YOU to all subscribers, old and new, for reading and being a part of this community!

In this issue:

  • Next issue: Dec 27
  • Making vs. taking photographs
  • The grammar of art, the dialect of photography
  • Impermanence photos
  • Very large, very close, very small… images

Next issue: Dec 27

Skipping the Sunday issue of Viewfinder next week… a fresh-and-tasty email coming your way on Wednesday, December 27th. Happy holidays!

Cameras are amazing; point them at something, push a button, and you’ve taken a picture. With digital photography, you can see what you took in an instant. More pictures are taken now than at any time in history. People are swimming in images. Anyone can take a picture with their mobile phone, and it seems like everyone does, as each new generation of phones are made to store more and more of them.

With all this picture-taking, does this mean everyone is a photographer?

Making vs. taking photographs

I believe, except perhaps for writing, photography should be the most populist form of art. It is one of the most eminently-doable, most non-elitist, most available-to-everyone-who’s-interested art forms. Photography can tell your story and share your point of view with the world. With mobile phones, everyone has a camera and everyone can easily share their images. Everyone could be a photographer, but are we correct to say they are?

Ummm, no.

I’ve gone back-and-forth about how to talk about this. After all, I want to reduce all barriers to entry to art makers. My not-very-secret, totally audacious and very unlikely-to-succeed mission is to get everyone making art. I believe that art, and especially photography, is for everyone. If you choose to make art, if you choose to make photographs, no matter how you do it or how often, or how “successful” you think you are, you should feel empowered to call yourself an artist. Being an “artist” doesn’t require a fancy degree, or exotic materials, or a studio to work in, or an exhibition history. “Artist” isn’t a label reserved for people of a specific age, or race or gender, or economic reality. If you choose to make art (and you do it) you’re an artist. Full stop.

However, I assert that it’s the ‘choosing’ and the ‘doing’ that are the differentiators. Intent and action are everything. You are not an artist, photographer or otherwise, unless you decide to be, and you do your work, with intention. There’s no such thing as “accidental artist”. There’s no such thing as “accidental art”. You have to decide to do, and then do.

Photographers “make”, they do not “take”, pictures. Like artists working in any medium, they immerse themselves in their craft. They master their tools. They grapple with the myriad of decisions that go into their art and make them intentionally. Most importantly, photographers become fluent with the medium’s inherent language; they work within the grammar of art. It is by speaking with this grammar that makers (active creators) are separated from takers (passive consumers).

The grammar of art

Photographers know, or at least work to understand, the grammar of art. Like all art forms, a photograph is the product of the subject, form, and content within the frame. These things don’t arrive there by chance; photographs are constructed and assembled, no different than in a painting, a block print, or a bronze casting. They are put together using the grammar of art to create the meaning of the photograph.

We’ll use the image below to talk about the various aspects of grammar.

A color photograph of a young boy holding a starfish directly in front of him. The boy is mostly out-of-focus, and the seashore behind him is more out-of-focus.
05-12-2012 (Starfish), from Messages and Metaphors, ©2012 Ron Johnson

Subject: this is what the photograph is “about”, the “why”. In literature, this is called “theme”. The subject may, or may not, be obvious or even present in the image. Subjects can be connotative or denotative in nature. They can be subjective or objective, psychological, intellectual, spiritual, political, and more.

In this example, the subject is “childhood”; the image is about youthful innocence and exploring the world with open eyes, learning about the world interacting with it in ways an adult would not.

Content: these are the things present and visible in the photograph. Content is easy for the viewer to connect with, it’s what’s identifiable in the image. It’s what the photograph is “of”.

“Young boy”, “holding starfish” and “seashore” (though out of focus) are present in the frame; these are the content of the image.

Subject and content are separate but interdependent components of the photo. The content you include in your image supports the subject and vise versa. The best photographs have equally strong aspects of both, working in tandem.

Form: also called “composition”, form is the design elements of the photograph; the line, shape, value, texture, color, quality of light, and framing. It’s the “how” of the image… how it looks. Variations in form are what separate two images with the same subject and same content from being identical.

Notable aspects of form in the above image includes: texture (the starfish, the boy’s clothes, the background), quality of light (the boy is lit brightly relative to the background), and framing (the boy is centered, in a very static / balanced composition).

On that bright day in 2012, I made many other similar images with the same content, but all were slightly different. The specific aspects of the form make this image unique among the all images made that day, all images already existent, and those yet to be made.

Two images: on the left, Sultan's image of his parents. In the color photo, his mother poses against a green wall and his father is turned away from the camera, seated, watching a baseball game in television. On the right, Hockney's painting of his parents; in it, his mother is seated facing the viewer, and father is seated, looking at a book.
Left: My Mother Posing, from the series Pictures from Home, 1984, Larry Sultan, courtesy of the Yancey Richardson gallery. Right: My parents 1977, David Hockney, in the collection of the Tate.

The dialect of photography

Extending the idea of the grammar of art, form is like a dialect that separates the various art mediums. Look at the painting and photograph above; they have the same subject (“the work is about the artist’s relationship with their parents”) and nearly the same content (“the image depicts an older man and woman; the woman is posing, her gaze is squared directly at the viewer; the man is looking away, his attention elsewhere”), but of course these two images look nothing alike. They differ mainly in form.

The specifics of photography’s “form”, its particular dialect, are unique among art mediums, related directly to how photographs are made (which is to say, with a camera). They include:

Frame: the frame defines the photograph. It includes (and more importantly, excludes) the potential content available in the scene and helps organize the content in the image. There is no photograph without the frame.

Vantage point and perspective: this is the distance and position of the camera relative to the subject. The vantage point changes the spatial relationships of the content and how it is depicted in a two dimensional image. Perspective expands or compresses space, compared to natural vision.

Juxtaposition: the relationship and interaction within the contents of the image. This is very connected to vantage point, as changes to the vantage point will affect how contents are juxtaposed. In Sultan’s photograph, he chooses to include the drapes, television, and other specific details of the room to describe his parents.

Picture plane: the way 3-dimensional space is rendered when flattened to two dimensions though a lens (single-point perspective). The picture plane can be parallel to the camera (e.g photograph of the flat side of a building), diagonal / receding (e.g. a flat wall with part of it closer), or have overlapping contents (e.g. includes multiple elements each depicted differently, relative to the camera). 

In the images above, the scenes are rendered very flat and with a perspective close to that of human vision. In both cases, the father overlaps the background, creating the only sense of depth in the scene.


Subject + content + form, and the relationships between them, combine to create the meaning of the image. This is the grammar of all art, including photography. Photographers use these with intent to create, to make, a photograph.

Text: "Impermanence"

Your impermanence images

I’d like to express my gratitude to the two subscribers that shared their images of impermanence. When you share images, you help show that we are a group of interested artists and curious creators. Reminder: everyone–regardless of medium or experience–is welcome here.

A color photograph of a mostly deflated balloon with the words printed "Happy Birthday" on it.
A month and a half old balloon. ©2023 Kelli J.
A close-up photograph of melting ice, taken at near dusk.
Impermanence #2. ©2023 Craig L.
Four color photographs of a banana in a bowl; in each image, the banana is showing increasing ripeness.
Banana; days: 1, 4, 7, and 10. ©2023 Ron Johnson

Looking for images for Very large, Very close, Very small

As a quick reminder, I’m looking for your images for last issue’s project prompt: to depict something very small as large, something very far away as nearby, or something very large as small.

Please email ron@startphoto.com with an image of your art; I’ll feature some of them in a future installment of Viewfinder.

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Your pal,

Cover image: Interstate-5 #245, from Interstate-5. ©2016 Ron Johnson.