Personal Themes

In “Personal Themes”1 JD Marston recounts an event from his childhood in which a bird crashes into a window right in front of his eyes, and he “felt a visceral sensation of emptiness” and realized that “we die alone—into Stillness.”

He uses this story as a way to start a discussion about how “personal themes” are generated by the facts of our early lives. For him, a “personal theme” is the motive force behind any person’s actions, but artists and creative people are aware of their own “themes” and therefore are compelled to express themselves as a way to “work out [their] own salvation.”

In photographic terms, he believes a photograph is successful if it “accurately displays the predominant, driving theme that activated and attracted the artist” and that “without quality inspiration there is only mediocre expiration.”

Later in the essay he has four small anecdotes about famous people whose childhood inspiration informed their future success, and then goes back to his own experience in photography. “[S]ometimes… I’ll have a thought or feeling that flashes me into a space that lubricates the creative moment…,” he says, before reminding us that it isn’t the equipment that creates a great photograph, but the “inspiration of personal themes.”

I am not a spiritual person, so I find the framing off-putting. I am also disturbed at the implication that non-artists are not aware of their own motivations. I also find it difficult to believe that a person can only produce great work if it’s informed by their childhood experience.

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with the underlying concept that the best work is made with intention2 even if that intention is stated as “I wanted to see what would happen.” I have even developed my own version of a “personal theme” though it isn’t rooted in my early life. Some people call it a photographic “mantra” or “vision.” It’s a (private) short statement that I keep in mind when I’m photographing that helps me focus on the kind of photograph I’m trying to accomplish. It’s a wonderful feeling when I show a photograph to someone and they use the same words to describe the image.

At the end the essay just stops, with an observation that Marston’s work will “usually go fairly well” when he stays in touch with his spirituality. The unstated conclusion is that our work, too, will “go fairly well” when we are aware of and attuned to our own motivation for making an image and keep that motive in mind while producing the image.

In other words, be mindful. This is not to say that there isn’t room for the unexpected, but being open to chance is not the same as being ruled by it. Not even if chance is a “personal theme.”

  1. LensWork 25, May–July 1999, p. 59–62 

  2. “Intention” is not the same as “pre-visualization.”