Ideas Series: Sparking attention and desire

So, what makes a good photograph? Before we even ask what 'good' means in this context, I should probably enumerate the various perspectives from which I approach this question: as a cultural historian, but then also as a fashion historian, and with an eye to what makes a fashion image good in a purer, that is non-academic sense.

I have also approached this from the standpoint of more traditional dress history – dating photographs for family historians and auction houses, and through research in museum dress storerooms. I therefore look with four, maybe five different gazes (not counting my subjective view), and evaluate in relation to purpose and needs – Am I searching for evidence? Or just flipping through a magazine for inspiration? In each context, a variety of criteria are brought to bear, and these seem to focus on issues of context and use – with the historian shaping notions of how ‘good’ the photograph is in relation to the project in hand.

While the word ‘good’ immediately implies moral worth – perhaps a modernist ideal of art and design with a positive, restorative message, or, alternatively, a formalist attention to technical and aesthetic matters, neither of these may apply for historians, and perhaps just the latter for fashion editors, and consumers. Already this suggests that the initial question is complex and mutable – with no direct, fixed answer, or criteria to follow.

But let’s backtrack and think in terms of examples. Perhaps this way some kind of answer can be found. The first is Martin Munkacsi’s famous photograph of a model running along a beach in a bathing suit and cape, for Harper’s Bazaar in December 1933. It is ‘good’ by many criteria: as a fashion historian, I value its evocation of the sportswear and beauty fashions that were emerging in America at the time. Munkacsi’s framing of the figure in motion against an ocean skyline is sensual and emotionally resonant. Arguably, these latter points are central to what makes a fashion photograph good – in an editorial, or indeed advertising, context, the photograph must connect with the viewer not just as a visual experience; it must go beyond technical and aesthetic matters to spark attention and desire.

The viewer is also a (potential) consumer and wearer, she must ‘feel’ the photograph – in both senses of the word. Thus a good photograph in this context uses body, dress and setting not just to seduce the eye, but, to provoke sense memories – in this case the feel of sun and wind on skin, the movement of fabric on body and the smell of the ocean. Munkasci achieves this, and enables the contemporary viewer, in this instance the fashion historian to ‘see’ how fashion was thought about, visualised and sold through imagery. As a cultural historian it takes me further, Munkacsi uses his sports photography background to show the model as strong and athletic, with light bouncing on thigh muscle and the pull of her body’s momentum as she runs. This speaks of women’s changing roles, and shifts in ideals of femininity and beauty in the interwar period. However, although the photograph is good on its own terms, and as evidence for varied types of historian, is it a good fashion photograph? Well, yes and no. Yes, for the reasons cited, but perhaps no in commercial terms – we all remember the model, the beach, her smile, her running stride, but how many of us remember that the cape is by B. Altman?

In archives, and as a historian, a good photograph is the one that answers a research question, and provides the final piece in a puzzle. One such image is Toni Frissell’s photograph of a model in a silk two piece bathing costume from Harper’s Bazaar in February 1947 – (it is perhaps no surprise that both these examples – each my first response to the question – are drawn from the magazine’s glory days, when Carmel Snow was editor and Alexey Brodovitch was art director – maybe a good photograph needs a good team behind it?). Finding this photograph solved a mystery for me and identified a previously anonymous garment from a museum’s collection. Frissell’s photograph, with its natural light and attention to detail showed that the label-less clothes that had only been known by their museum accession number, were in fact by the renowned American sportswear designer Claire McCardell. So the photograph brought the actual clothes into clearer historical focus, as well as showing how they looked on the body.

And, finally, what about when I want to date a photograph? Well, almost always, a good photograph is one that includes a young woman – her hair, make up, accessories or clothes will give me the date more easily than anything else. Occasionally, very occasionally, the answer to a difficult question can be that simple.