Second Thoughts
Seeing Beyond The Subject

"It's an old barn, sure," Tony Sweet says, "but what it really is is a series of graphic elements."
Photos © Tony Sweet, 2000

The phrase "the art of observation" appears at Tony Sweet's web site (, but Sweet's photography depends on more than merely observing. "We all see the same things," he admits. The difference in our photographs, then, is not necessarily due to initial observation; it's what we choose to do with what we observe.

"Get close enough and it's no longer a barn--it's texture and pattern."

"Trying to see things in different ways is the name of the game," Sweet says. It's what sets you and your photographs apart. "A lot of people would see a barn, take a picture or two and then walk away. For me, when I see an area or a subject worth working, I begin to look at it really hard. Usually there's so much to a subject that I make a real effort and commitment to work at it." And the time and effort is almost always rewarded. "Things come to you once you're there for a while," he says.

Tony Sweet used a shallow depth of field to isolate one element of a poppy--the hard red line. "This isn't a picture of a flower--it's a study in line."

"Photographers generally start wide, and then narrow in to find different sections of the whole to work with. I always try to do that, to get as tight as I possibly can," Sweet says of some of his photographs. Often the abstracted image is unrecognizable, at least at first. Typically he'll take a photograph of the overall subject--as in the case of the weathered barn--and then take steps to turn it into an abstraction rather than a literal or pictorial representation. For these pictures, elements--form, line, color, shape, texture--are everything, and he uses selective focus and framing to isolate and emphasize them. Ultimately, the images are about seeing subjects not as themselves, but as these graphic elements. "They're not canoes, it's not a barn, it's a color, a texture, a series of shapes," Sweet says.

"This is all about shape and color," Tony Sweet says of this abstract image of four freshly painted canoes.

When we see an interesting subject, we think, here's a picture. But it's the second thought--where are the other pictures?--that frequently produces the really interesting images that become part of a photographer's signature style. In some cases, the sum of the parts can be greater than the whole.
--Barry Tanenbaum