I just dashed this off, and I’ll probably think of more things as soon as I post it, but I want to get it up. Feel free to add things as comments.
The following was cited recently on dpr as a list of the important things for good photography:
- Quality of light
- Proper exposure
- Shot in RAW
- Price of Lens
- Camera brand
I could quarrel with a lot of this list, but its big problem is that there are a whole slew of things that are more important than anything on it.
In no particular order, here’s my list:
Passion. If the photographer doesn’t care about the image, her audience will figure that out. If she doesn’t care, why should they? If the photographer doesn’t care about her images, she’ll stop making them after a while.
Emotion. Not all pictures emotionally involve their audience, but many depend on emotion. If the viewer is emotionally unaffected, he’ll need something else to keep him interested in the image. If he’s hooked emotionally, that may be enough right there.
Story. Some pictures impart a narrative. Some invite the user to supply one. Both deepen the viewer’s connection to the work.
Mystery. If the viewer gets everything there is to be gotten in the first 30 seconds, she’ll move on.
Ambiguity. Related to, but not quite the same as, mystery. Another thing that keeps the viewer engaged, and a reason to have an image on your wall year after year. Ambiguity can be strictly visual. Michael Kenna is a master of that.
Thought. Many pictures make the viewer think. Many good pictures are the result of clear thought on the part of the photographer.
Power. Can you make your viewer gasp, like Eugene Richards? Laugh, like Ted Orland?
Action. Great pictures often stir their viewers to do something. Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter knew that.
Timing. Weegee said it: f/8 and be there.
Intimacy. Capa said it: if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.
Point of view: Why was The Americans so powerful?
Practice. Who was it who said: the more I practice, the luckier I get?
Work ethic. 100% of the exposures you don’t make won’t turn out. To use a military phrase, there is no substitute for time on target.
Pushing boundaries. Your own or your audience’s.
I believe great work possesses, in no particular order, some or all of the following rather subjective ideals:
sensual apprehension of poetic truth
Good list. I thought of historical awareness as I was writing the post, but it slipped my mind.
tex andrews says
Although short, this list is a good one for me, except for the poetic part which is trying but failing to describe something very, very difficult to describe.
Want to take a crack at it, Tex? I’d appreciate your insights.
Craig Arnold says
Your list is categorically different from the Dpreview list.
Your items relate to artistic intentions, theirs to the craft or technical skills.
Technical skills are a lot easier to learn. Crucially if you have an artistic vision you can retro-fit the skills you need to realise it. If not then you are limited to never being able to do anything really interesting.
Yes. I’m making the point that craft is not the most important thing in photography. It isn’t even close.
tex andrews says
Jim, I’ve got so much to say about this that we’d need drinks, dinner, and nightcaps to cover it, just. If I’m ever out your way, it’s on me.
But I will say a couple of things, or actually ask questions and then comment. The question: Why “Photography”? Is it because of the mundane reason that this is a photography blog? That you do photography? I ask this because I am increasingly intrigued by Photography’s (capital P) on again, off again, now largely self imposed apartheid from the other visual arts.
The list from DPR is very pertinent and probably correct to/for the DPR general readership. Your comments in this blog post leave me scratching my head a bit, though, largely by the evidence of some of your recent work: to whit, the 60×60 succulents image, for one, and this whole series of stitched pieces. I don’t really feel the overwhelming presence of “timing” (but if you had said, “moment” then *), “intimacy”*, “action”, “power”*, “point of view”*, “story”, “passion”*, or “emotion”* in these images…..unless * we think about these things in other ways, as in “passion”=rigorous intent, or “moment” &”intimacy”=the moments of time, and the intimacy of that situation, between the initial apprehension of the work by the viewer and their evolving apprehension of the work, and like expansions of your explanations above.
What I see in the succulents image and others in that series is a kinship with certain kinds of non representational painting, and in these latest copse series of stitched image I see a more thoughtful way of assembling differing individual and specific points of view into another sort of whole, which to me shows conceptual kinship to drawing and stylistic kinship to cubism and its relatives (simultaneity of vision)—which typical trimmed panos /stitches hide/erase. Both are far from good timing sorts of moments to me, and much more about process—not as an end in itself but as the handmaiden of the work. And their Power, Emotion, Action are all differently presented as part of an aesthetic system derived from rigorous intent as opposed from narrative in the normal sense of the word, a narrative of the actions of elements of the subject matter. Here the action is in the process of the thing itself, so again a kinship with certain types of non-representational painting(largely). The power and emotion pertain to the thinking process on the part of the viewer, and part of the intimacy (beyond that of the always-intimacy between viewer and aesthetic object) is that there is a process to process correlation going on: your process (manifested in the image) :: the viewer’s process of viewing and comprehension.
And that’s just a little bit of what could be said….
Tex, thank you for your — as usual — thought provoking comments.
I’m writing about photography because I know something about it. I realize that some of it probably generalizes to all art-making, but I know how little I know about other kinds of art-making, so I’m trying to limit the scope of what I’m saying.
I didn’t mean that everything on the list has to apply to every photograph, or even to every photographer. There are great photographs that just hit a few of the items. Take intimacy. I’d love to have made many of Eugene Richards’ images, but I’d not put myself through what he’s done to get them. Same with Larry Clark’s Tulsa and Teenage Lust images.
But you caught me. I made the list thinking of pictures that I find powerful, beautiful, significant, or moving, not as an list of qualities that I necessarily see in my own work.
tex andrews says
“But you caught me. I made the list thinking of pictures that I find powerful, beautiful, significant, or moving, not as an list of qualities that I necessarily see in my own work. ”
So, that is very interesting. I don’t know all of your work, but I would say from what I’ve seen that the earlier work (I’m assuming earlier in some cases)—the street photography and Alone in a Crowd, (and some of that is some of my favorite street photography, btw—there’s one I must get a print of) and Auto Racing, is very “Photographic” and very tied to Photography’s common tropes, while other things you are doing are less so, in some cases more related to other things in the visual arts than to Photography.
“I realize that some of it probably generalizes to all art-making, but I know how little I know about other kinds of art-making, so I’m trying to limit the scope of what I’m saying.”
Mmmmm, as in saying in your blog, which answers the mundane question I posed above, but not really in your recent or current work, in terms of “limiting the scope of what I’m saying”. So, you’re sort of half in the pool—fully in, in terms of the work you are doing and how it turns out, and probably where the work is taking you, but still not in in terms of some potentially crucial ways you still seem to be considering it (at least publicly in this blog post), via an overarching structure of Photography, which however rich is still this kind of ghetto (original sense of the word), or perhaps now “gated community”. This seems limiting to me (although de facto the work speaks loudest for us all, and it is clearly not limited…), even as I acknowledge that it is your deep understanding of the medium that got you to this point in the first place.
Tex, this is a lot to think about. I’ll give it the consideration it deserves, and respond in a few days.
Tex, here’s a rundown on how I got from a conventional HCB-wanna-be street photographer through the Alone in a Crowd work:
Craig Arnold says
Mike Johnson’s recent column was very insightful I thought:
I’d like to propose and try to defend what may be a novel assertion about the matter, because it happens to be what I believe: that photography is not an art, but that some photographers are nevertheless artists.
I also picked up a very enjoyable, somewhat along the same lines after visiting the Tate Modern recently.
Craig, thanks for the link to the Mike Johnson piece. Well written, and thought provoking. At one point he says: “…Even if photography is not automatically an art, then at least some photographers can be artists…” with the word “automatically” added, I’m more comfortable with the point.
But is it qualitatively different to say, “Water color painting is not automatically an art, but some water color painters can be artists.” I think not.
Here’s something that is different about photography. It is the most democratic of the visual media. Nearly everyone makes photographs.
Jack Hogan says
Excellent post Jim, and good comments. My humble contribution:
photography (art in general) is all about different types of contrast. Bright and dark, big and small, near and far, yellow and blue, disquieting and soothing, smooth and rough, clear vs hazy, round and square, in-focus and out – and on and on and on.
Mike Nelson Pedde says
Well said, Jim.