• Charles W, Hummingbird

    Charles W, Hummingbird

  • Brad Evans, Stanford, CA

    Brad Evans, Stanford, CA

  • Sally Mack, Rocks at Dawn

    Sally Mack, Rocks at Dawn

  • Steve J Murray

    Steve J Murray

  • Michael Howard, Stonehenge

    Michael Howard, Stonehenge

Ideas Series: Looking for Answers

Prompted by Photoworks to answer What makes a good photograph? I decided to put the question to photonet forum, asking this same question to the contributors, who are mainly photographers.

Their responses are interspersed with my own and quoted without attribution, but you can read- and respond to- the full thread here.

Thanks to:
robert c. anderson, Q.G. de Bakker, David Bebbington, Brad, Michael Chang, Michael Dougherty, Fred G., andrew gardiner, Michael Howard, Lex Jenkins, Stephen Lewis, Thomas K., Mark Keefer, Landrum Kelly, Alan Klein, Sally Mack, Line Martel, Wayne Melia, Steve J Murray, Arthur Plumpton, David Smith, Dan South, Charles Stobbs, Chris Waller, Charles W, Wouter Willemse, Ellis Vener.

What, in your own opinion makes a good photo, one you are happy with, a successful photo?

Might as well ask what makes a good book, or what makes good music; a virtually impossible question to answer, that I suspect will result in generalized answers in broad strokes. There are simply too many variables to extract common attributes which will determine what constitutes “good”. “Popular”, perhaps, but “good” would be a stretch.

Which over time comes to mean the same thing: there are more people favouring the Ansel Adams’ landscapes, Brassaï’s photos, Anne Geddes’ babies or Avedon’s portraits, rather than, say, yours or mine. Is that just sheep following the herd? Are they any better as photographs, or are they just popular?

A pointless question, since once you know its a Brassai, you’re looking at a legend as well as an image, and it’s impossible to separate the two. The audience, past and present, gives life to the image, and to the artist.

You give the audience too much power; I have no audience, nor am I aiming my photos to one. A good photo is an intimate relation between the artist and his art. Once you go beyond that and involve the judgment of an audience it becomes marketing. Which is in an art in itself, of course.

But shouldn’t you consider who sees your photos? Millions of people are posting personal pictures on social media of themselves and friends pulling faces into the camera [phone] while drunk. To any third party not involved in the original bacchanalia, such pictures are totally tedious. Unless it’s somebody you secretly want to be, in which case it makes you feel lacking in some way. Like marketing, I suppose.

Well, I take photos for me- like others talk to themselves or sing while taking a shower. Which can be dangerous when there are other people around because I sing songs that betray me, like ‘only love can break your heart’ or ‘you know I’m no good’. But pictures can betray you too: you can’t take back an image that’s said too much.

Heartbreak, betrayal, feeling something rather than nothing. That’s good photography- it stimulates an emotional reaction in the viewer. It can be any emotion, as long as it causes a “ripple”: a good photo is one that pisses off all the right people, that disturbs you and makes you edgy. Or it makes you smile and makes you feel at one with the universe, makes you feel in love. It makes you dissolve and forget yourself.

The question then is where the photo ends and where you begin- like good conversation, when viewing the photos of others, I care about communication most. Though it can be hard sometimes to work out if I’m speaking in your mind or mine; talking to myself is not communication. Similarly a lot of photos show beautiful scenes, objects, people, and that’s it: I’ve often come across high-end commercial photographers showing landscape photos that are simply atrocious. And there must be a billion pictures of Stonehenge. They’re an image of something, and do not go beyond that. They’re not the photos that will stick with me, inspire me or wow me. They’re nothing special.

So, I ask myself, does the photograph communicate an emotional and/or aesthetic statement that is unique or exceptional? For example, I just want to be exceptional to you, but your ex-girlfriends keep coming up as suggested friends. Though there aren’t too many couple pics. Or any pics at all, unless they’re untagged, which is a form of mystery too. Withholding information can occur through choices made at capture time, using shadow, light, composition, ambiguity, mystery, etc. And by not sharing everything, it keeps our attention, because what is hidden matters.

But a photo that needs a full explanation of what we are supposed to see because it doesn’t show any of it itself is a perfect example of what is not a good photo- a good caption, maybe. There Is No Explanation, as you say, but I keep asking anyway. And a good photo is different from a photo I like, or care about. For example there are family photos that are records of people and occasions that are meaningless to others, but are more important than any other photos in the world just because they exist as records. A document is much more meaningful in the long run, even if ‘objectively’ it’s a terrible photo.

I hate the word “objectivity”, there is no such thing! I don’t believe there are objectively good photographs at all: it is a judgment, and you and your particular criteria decide what does or does not deserve to be called good. According to you. Stop thinking you can escape who you are when you look at things, or when you look at me.

Personally, I allow for my history, my cultural proclivities, even anger and sadness and especially my subconscious all to influence me to some degree when I take- and view- photos. And because we are all different, these can vary a lot from person to person.

For example, a photo, such as the one below, that I consider “good” and “successful” a friend considers “depressing.” But we often like depressing things: think of all the tear-jerker movies people like. And depressing photos are big business, for charities and newsfeeds. Also, they fulfill a purpose, and for me, a good photograph is one which fulfils its intended purpose. Period. It makes a connection to the viewer that accomplishes an intended reaction or purpose. So, photos taken by traffic cams are supposed to catch cars running red lights. A good traffic cam photo is one that does. In general, a camera makes a good photograph.

Not that the camera has ‘intentions’, like a photographer does- you couldn’t call a traffic camera insincere, unlike so many photos you see on Instagram. Which, like all photos, are experiences that are made by others for our consumption, though some are more satisfying to consume. The best works of art take you to places you have never been –mental places – where we create new models of thinking, and new possible ways of seeing the world. And that’s a tremendous responsibility. Which is beyond even the best traffic camera.

I came to this thread hoping to sort out some of my confusion, and it’s not working! We’re starting to go round in circles. You’re not convincing me and I sense I’m not convincing you. But fleshing out these things helps in our creative pursuits and getting different perspectives widens our scope. And maybe that was the whole point of your question anyway.