WHAT MAKES A GOOD PHOTOGRAPH? OR A BAD ONE?
For some time, but particularly since starting this course, I have worried about the fact that a lot of what the cognoscenti consider to be exemplary and innovative photographs I find uninteresting, lifeless and/or unattractive no matter how long I look at them or how much I try to discover the photographer’s motivation and intentions. Indeed many such photographs feature in major exhibitions, achieve top awards and are avidly collected. By unattractive, I do not mean that they repulse me – indeed I am often drawn to images that shock and disquiet. I mean that they do not inspire me artistically or emotionally and they do not engage me. I also find them disturbing, again, not because they are in any way distasteful, but because looking at such images leaves me feeling disconnected from them, the photographer and myself. Indeed, I feel alienated from the whole photographic movement which they represent, and experience a range of negative emotions.
I have wrestled with this as those who have read my Blog will know but have felt that any rational explanation is as hard to grasp as an eel fresh from the mud. However, since my exploration of the work of photographers that I admire has led me to finding a piece titled ‘Philosophy’ on the website of Pal Hermansen, the Norwegian photographer, I have found some crumbs of comfort and understanding as well as inspiration. Here is the piece copied from his website. I will explore some of what I have got from it below.
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PHILOSOPHY By Pal Hermansen
Pictures provide an exciting medium through which to communicate. They speak a universal language, one that every human being – on one level or another – can experience a relationship with and attempt to comprehend.
We talk about how some pictures are good and others poor, yet it puzzles me that so few bother to define what they mean by a ‘good picture’ or a ‘bad picture’.
What makes us stop and notice a picture? What distinguishes a good picture from a bad one in the visual melting pot of this current age? Mass mediated and private pictures, film, the web, art and popular culture melt together for most of us without rhyme or reason.
To photograph is to sort out and organize impressions, evaluate and pass on bits of your own experience to others. Thus it is particularly challenging to produce pictures which are something other than copies or spitting images of things one has already seen. Unless you yourself have made certain choices and created your own ‘world order’ out of the universal chaos. First one has to find one’s own platform, set one’s own bearings.
The art-critic and –philosopher Roland Barthes is but one of many who has attempted to describe the ability a picture has to fascinate; why do some pictures touch you deeply, while others do not? It is his contention that most pictures do not grab us. However, some do; they incite us to investigate them, to embark upon a study (studium lat.) of them. The majority of such pictures still convey only a simple history, and after further investigation and study, we nevertheless let go of them.
However, on rare occasions, a picture has something engaging about it, a detail perhaps, some strange attraction that enables the spectator to make some special connection or association. Such a picture attaches itself to one’s consciousness and remains, it somehow emanates a punctum, a certain point. This sort of picture is the kind which ought to be the goal of every creator of images.
A picture consists of two main ingredients: form and content. A lot of today’s photography builds upon the ideals of modernity, which emerged the first several decades in the early twentieth century. Within modernity, the picture’s form, the visual impression, was the all-important issue. Often it was the sole criterion to go by in the evaluation of an image. Pictures with strong form and loud colors has had – and still has today – a dominating position on the commercial market. We witness this especially in the press, fashions and nature photography.
Within post-modernity, many of modernity’s ideals were turned upside down; now the content – the idea itself – took precedence. Frequently, a strong visual appeal was perceived as undesirable, to be avoided, since it easily could obscure the idea itself. What ensued was a view of images that was almost opposed to the aesthetical. It led to the creation of some pictures which were unpleasant to the eye, boring and uninteresting, as seen through the eyes of the modernist – whose eyes were conditioned to value form.
Today, in our era of post-modernity, these two expressions of images live side by side. Yet there is often scant mutual appreciation between the camps. Within the art community, the appreciation of form is possibly dwindling, but now modified by the influence of post-modernity. It seems to me that the most engaging pictures – from my vantage point – are the ones that somehow merge a simple and stringent, but not visually overwhelming form and a clear content.
Content does not necessarily mean documentary messages. I often prefer images which have a quality of evasiveness – they don’t reveal their true selves without a fight – some quality which unnerves the spectator and takes one’s attention captive, be they images of a documentary nature, or be they still-life or stilted.
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Whilst I am not sure what is meant by his use of the word ‘stilted’ in this piece in this context, the rest of the article makes complete sense despite the fact that it has clearly been translated from the Norwegian. Pal’s idea that there are two camps, the modernists for whom form is the dominant element in an image, and the post-modernists for whom content is the key, and that the two camps often have little meeting place is one that I can see and understand.
I have been conditioned over the years to principally look for form and impact in an image whether it be a painting or a photograph and then to look for content. The two qualities affect me differently. Form when set apart from content can create an immediate visceral impact that hits the central, more primitive, core of one’s being. Content without form on the other hand has a quieter, more gradual effect which seeps into one’s mind rather than one’s body as one scans an image for the detail.
In its early years, photography was more about content, largely through limitations on equipment and technique at the time, and the fact that photography was principally being used as a record rather than an art form. However, even as early as 1869, Henry Peach Robinson published ‘Pictorial Effect in Photography‘ in an attempt to acquaint fellow photographers with aesthetic concepts in their work. The fact that the work of some early photographers such as the portraits of Julia Margaret Cameron and the depictions of rural life of Peter Henry Emerson were able to combine the two qualities to a considerable extent is a testament to their abilities and the creative groundswell of the times. Increasingly, content gave way to form as photography was accepted as a valid method of artistic expression as well as a means of capturing a record.
In the early 20th Century, painters such as Georgia O’Keeffe , the ‘Mother of American Modernism’, through a move away from Victorian pre-occupation with record and content to a concentration on form, helped to shift public perceptions of art. In photographic circles, the work of artists such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Man Ray built on this movement leading to the highly publicly acclaimed images of masters including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams in whose work form and the play of light was vital. In the field of art photography, black and white images were the norm and form was king!
Towards the latter end of the 20th Century, a movement towards content rather than form took pace and the use of colour was introduced. An early practitioner of this style and a great influence on those who followed was the American photographer, William Eggleston, who specialised in taking shots of mundane and commonplace scenes and objects with colour slide film. The concentration on content is principally used for depicting three types of image: –
1). the depiction of everyday and intimate aspects of peoples’ lives and their environments as exemplified in the work of artists such as Jeff Wall, Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore and Martin Parr.
2). staged scenes to depict aspects of peoples’ lives, to pose questions or to make observations as in the the images of Cindy Sherman, Erwin Wurm and David Spero.
3). the often large-scale and emotionally detached works, often landscapes or urban scenes, referred to as “Deadpan” by Charlotte Cotton in ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art‘ by artists such as John Davies, Andreas Gursky,
Such images are often categorised by flat lighting with little contrast and a rather bland, unemotional and un-engaging quality which can only be overcome by spending time with the image to explore its detail and possible intended meanings. As Hermansen says above, in post-modernist work “frequently, a strong visual appeal was perceived as undesirable, to be avoided, since it easily could obscure the idea itself. What ensued was a view of images that was almost opposed to the aesthetical. It led to the creation of some pictures which were unpleasant to the eye, boring and uninteresting, as seen through the eyes of the modernist – whose eyes were conditioned to value form“.
Whilst the practitioners of the two forms may have little common ground, there are photographers who incorporate a mix of the two in their work in that their images have both strong and alluring form and also emotionally engaging or surprising content. This often applies to war photographers such as Don McCullin and Robert Haeberle and to documentary photographers including Bill Brandt and Dorothea Lange.
As he himself suggests in this article, Pal Hermansen tries to incorporate both form and content in his pictures, whether they be of landscapes, wildlife or human activity. Another wildlife artist to do so successfully is the Frenchman, Vincent Munier, whose images are noted for their powerful use of light and contrast and also for the fact that the wildlife subject often appears as a small secondary element only found within the larger landscape frame as a surprise after time and closer inspection.
So where does this take me? It seems to me from my experience of the OCA course, the tutors, the recommended reading list and the study visits to date that there is a tendency towards focus on the post-modernist movement. Whilst I appreciate the opportunity to explore this style of photography more fully and with open eyes, it is not a style that I take to naturally, that I find easy to engage with or that gives me any lasting emotion. I find it reassuring and heartening to read Hermansen’s description of post-Modernist work often being ‘opposed to the aesthetical, unpleasant to the eye, boring and uninteresting’ in the eyes of the Modernists. I am not alone or weird!! I am a Modernist!
Having said that, I do not only look for form in an image. I am also drawn to content in terms of subject and detail and how these have been handled by the photographer. Maybe this makes me a Post-modernist but I am no longer hooked into labels. I want to get a sense that the image has been taken with care, thought and skill rather than just being randomly snapped and that the photographer was engaged with his / her subject. Nowadays we are bombarded by a constant stream of instant random shots on phones and tablets, selfies, holiday snaps and the like, and whilst they have a place, I am uncomfortable with the fact that many images used to illustrate books on contemporary photography are to my mind indiscernible from these. I recognise that blandness, uninspiring lighting and lack of interest may be exactly what the artist is wanting to portray but that will only be true in the minority of cases. The result is that it often leaves me unable to evaluate either form of image in terms of whether it is a ‘good’ photograph or a ‘bad’ one. At the end of the day, to use Roland Barthes word I guess it is down to the question – does it fascinate? If it does, it is ‘good’.
In summary, when I look at a photograph I look for an aesthetic attraction and an emotional response, be it humour, wonder, sadness, fear, joy, empathy, enlightenment or whatever. For me, that will only come from an amalgam of both content and form. To find both in an image is what, for me, separates the good from the not so good, the memorable from the forgettable, the one that I want to return to and the one that I don’t mind if I never see again.
It is also what I want to create in my own work. To use Hermansen’s own words, I want my images to be ‘ones that somehow merge a simple and stringent, but not visually overwhelming form and a clear content’. Again to quote him, I would ideally like them to have ‘a quality of evasiveness – they don’t reveal their true selves without a fight – some quality which unnerves the spectator and takes one’s attention captive’. Whilst I will probably only seldom attain this, it is still a goal to aim for in my attempts to take a ‘good’ photograph.
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‘The Photograph‘ by Brian Clarke. 1997 Published by Oxford University Press.
‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art‘ by Charlotte Cotton. 2014 Published by Thames & Hudson
‘Philosophy‘ on Pal Hermansen’s Website http://www.palhermansen.com
‘The Portfolios of Ansel Adams‘ 1986 New York Graphic Society. Published by Little, Brown & Co. ISBN 0-8212-1122-6
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