One of the most enlightening exercises in the visual journaling workshop is to come up with five adjectives to describe a photograph. Do this for ten or so favourites and see which adjectives come up most. These words will give you insight into your purpose or vision (inspired by the post, The Purposeful Photographer).

An adjective that’s been coming up for me recently is ‘subtle.’ In this post, I’ll look at the meaning of this word and reflect on how it shows up in a photograph or any work of art.

According to Merriam-Webster, to be subtle is to be so delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe. Or, how about this? Delicately complex and understated. This is something to aspire to – in a photograph, a wine, or even myself. More words associated with subtle are elusive, perceptive, refined, artful, crafty, canny, and cunning.

Subtlety is often cleverly hidden and needs time and attention to discover.

In a photograph, subtlety is closely connected to simplicity in that the composition has been refined to get to its heart. There are connections to other contemplative habits as well. I found many quotes about subtlety that give more insight into its power and value.

“Sometimes all it takes is a subtle shift in perspective, an opening of the mind, an intentional pause and reset, or a new route to start to see new options and new possibilities.” ~ Kristin Armstrong (Read more at: Brainy Quote)

“Acceptance looks like a passive state, but in reality it brings something entirely new into this world. That peace, a subtle energy vibration, is consciousness.” ~ Eckhart Tolle (Read more at: Brainy Quote)

That subtle energy vibration is often barely perceptible.

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson (Read more at: Brainy Quote)

What is that subtle something that emanates from a forest of trees? Perhaps a sense of connection, not just beauty.

“Art is the concrete representation of our most subtle feelings.” ~ Agnes Martin
(Read more at: Brainy Quote)

Creating art (or a photograph) can be a way of opening to ourselves and the world around us; we become more aware of our feelings and responses. These are hidden from us unless we’re paying attention.

Subtlety as the Whisper of the Order of Things

In this fascinating On Being interview with painter Enrique Martinez Celaya, he speaks of the secret in all things.

“There is a secret in all things. And that secret is in everything, in my shoe and everything that there is. It is I think what makes life and reality and the moment so full, so vast, that only the kinds of attitudes that people describe as religious attitudes have the possibility of approaching that fullness with any kind of sincerity and with any kind of possibility of getting anywhere.”

Celaya procleaims that all artists should be prophets in some way, at least ‘minor prophets.’

“The prophet is not a martyr or mystic who seeks transcendence, but one who turns humbly and curiously towards the world.”

There is no special gift or talent required to do this. All you need is the resolve to do what you consider important. Pay attention and photograph the secret when you find it. Celaya uses the term ‘the whisper of the order of things’ when speaking about art. He says “The whisper is faint (think subtle), but the best art helps us to hear it.”

Truth is not loud. Truth is subtle and subtlety gets to the truth.


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