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On Not Answering the Question: What Makes a Good Photograph?

This is a question that resounds throughout the history of photography. When Robert Frank first published The Americans, one of the touchstones of modern photography, it was greeted with dismay and derision by many critics including the photographer and editor of Aperture magazine, Minor White, who damned it as , “Utterly misleading! A degradation of a nation!”

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The first American edition of The Americans  sold just over 1,000 copies, and the hail of criticism prompted Frank to temporarily abandon photography for film-making.

In 1976, when William Eggelston’s colour work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, many critics were appalled for different reasons. Hilton Kramer of The New York Times famously dismissed the show as bland and boring. In both instances, the work ran counter to the received consensus about what constituted serious photography.

Photography moves fast though, and often it takes a critical eye to recognise what a photographer – or group of photographers – is actually doing when they first show us the world in a different way. To this end, the writer and curator, John Szarkowsy, was instrumental in recognising Eggleston’s new way of looking at vernacular America, just as he was instrumental in defining a new harder-edged aesthetic in the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand, when he staged the New Documents exhibition in New York in 1967.

The work of all of the aforementioned photographers, though, to one degree or another, adhered to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s definition that “to photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality”. In a world where photographs are increasingly made rather than taken, that definition no longer applies. (Neither, though, did it really apply to, say, Warhol when he was shooting his Polaroid portraits or to photographic-artists like Cindy Sherman or Gregory Crewdson.) We are now living in a world where photography is constantly conflated with the photographic and that this has ramifications beyond the purely semantic, not least in the question: what makes a good photograph?.

Consider this year’s Deutsche Borse Prize, which rewards a “significant contribution to the medium of photography either through an exhibition or publication in Europe” throughout the previous year. Of the shortlisted artists – Mishka Henner, Cristina du Middel, Broomberg & Chanaran and Chris Killip – only the work of Killip adheres to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s suddenly old-fashioned description. Killip is, in a very real way, the token photographer in a photography prize that attempts to define contemporary photography. The rest are artists who make photographic work that, in a term beloved of the Deutsche Borse organisers, ‘interrogates” the medium.

In this context, the question “what makes a good photograph and how do we decide?” is an interesting one. We take for granted that we can apply it to Killip’s work using tried and tested criteria: composition, lighting, the capturing of a decisive or illuminating moment, the recording of a time and a place in an often striking or suggestive single image or linked series of images. How, though, does it apply to, say, one of Mishka Henner’s appropriated Google Street View images of sex workers? Is appropriation of this kind another already tired conceptual conceit? Were they good photographs before they were appropriated, blown up and put on the wall? Are they good photographs because they tell us something about how we live now in a constantly mediated world where surveillance is commonplace and the notion of privacy so contested that it seems somehow to have been redefined? Is the work good because the thought process behind it is as interesting as the actual images? Or, are we simply asking the wrong question here? (And, should we, indeed, be asking the same question of a Mishka Henner image that we ask of a Chris Killip photograph?)

As a writer on photography, I don’t think it is my role to answer these sort of questions – and the one big one raised here – but rather to raise them in a kind of ongoing discussion about photography, its uses and its meanings. One senses, too, that these questions are already academic. Artists do what they do and the rest of us try to keep up or make sense of what they do. What I can say is that it certainly looks to me like photography, (the taking of a photograph) is currently being superseded by the conceptually photographic (the ways in which photographs can be used: manipulated, re-appropriated, made into fictions, made to interrogate photography.) This is happening at a time when, as one cursory look at Flickr, Facebook ,Tumblr or Instagram will tell you, everyone is taking – and sharing – photographs all the time to a degree where the sheer weight of the numbers has long since become meaningless. (In January, Instagram reported that it had 90 million users and that 50 million images were being uploaded daily.)

As we struggle to make sense of the sheer scale of this global digital image bank, photography seems to be losing its meaning (even as it remains perhaps the only medium to keep up with this digitalised, mediated, overloaded world.) Or, is it that photography is losing some of it’s traditional meanings once again as new ones arrive to challenge and, in some instances, bemuse us. Whatever, I would like to think that, even as we are living in a moment of fiercely accelerating culture, a great photograph remains just that. It alerts us to something about ourselves, our lives, our world, our way of thinking.

Who decides on – or confers – that greatness is another question entirely, and currently the curator, as the musician and thinker, Brian Eno, predicted back in the early 1990s is the key cultural figure, more important in many ways than the artist. It is, for instance, the curatorial thrust towards conceptualism that arguably drives contemporary photography more than anything else, and that is as much to do with the market as with aesthetic decisions. (Consider the recent vogue for post-Gursky large scale prints, whether or not the work suits the scale.)

Conversely, there has been the recent attendant growth in importance of the photo-book as an artwork in, and of, itself. It is how most people now absorb photography and often without ever thinking that they need to see an exhibition of the same work. Photography reinvents and reinvigorates itself continuously and in often surprising ways. It asks of us that we stay alert and ask new questions of it as a form. The big question – what makes a good photograph? – is always predicated on a number of smaller questions about what it is that we want from a photograph. And, what we want photography to do and say in a world overwhelmed by photographic images.

Published on 15 July 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks

From the series: What makes a good photograph? - Commissioned texts What makes a good photograph? Against what criteria can these judgements be made?

Read more articles from this series

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Sean O’Hagan writes about photography for the Guardian and the Observer and is also a general feature writer. He was named interviewer of the year in the British press awards...

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