What Makes a Great Photograph
“What, to me, makes Walker Evans a great photographer, is that sense that his lens has cut like an especially sharp knife into the light and drawn out a radiant fact.” Tod Papageorge
Photography, at the moment of the shutter’s release, is a formal business. For any photographer, whatever he or she may think prior to or after that crucial instant, they are faced with an aesthetic problem how to arrange forms in space and time.
The very act of respecting an object and recording it with the utmost perceptual clarity is in itself a transcendental, almost mystical act. The recognition of the object by the photographer and his donation of the gift of ultra-lucidity through the agency of the camera in effect raises that object to a higher plane of reality. It becomes “a thing, yet more than a thing,” to paraphrase Edward Weston. Our awareness of the object becomes intensified, much more so than if we were to confront it in actuality, outside the photograph. Every last detail, every subtlety, every minutia is immutably frozen and preserved for our elucidation, our delectation, and our dissection. But such clarity, far from displaying the dry, dull hermetic quality of the plain empirical record, may almost engulf and dazzle us with its intoxicating intensity. The spots of reality picked up by photography must be searing. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Because all knowledge is assimilation to the object of knowledge, as the power or genius of nature is ecstatic, so must its science or the description of it be. The poet must be a rhapsodist.”
Here, the question of intentionality might be dealt with. Some photographers develop stylistic or compositional traits in a deliberate and self-conscious manner. It is the way a photographer tends to repeat patterns of composition, over many photographs, establishing a visual signature or “way of seeing.” Particularly today, where the art market demands an instantly recognizable style that can be neatly packaged, photographers tend to limit both their range of subject matter and its treatment in a search for brand identity.
What makes a very good, or a great photographer? Is it a steady accumulation of stunning single images, in the manner of a painter, the standout pictures that catch the eye in an art gallery and immediately attract their imitators, perhaps forming the beginnings of a school? Is the great photographer characterized by style? There is a presumption, with the recent art market interest in the medium, that photographers who are artists rather than mere photographers distinguish themselves as such by exhibiting a marked style. Therefore there is a tendency, to progressively distill one’s vision, reducing the range of subject matter and its treatment until it can be claimed - usually by the glariest - that so-and-so has developed an original and instantly recognizable style. Style equals branding, and branding means sales, so we get the fairly common phenomenon of the photographer who hits upon one extraordinary image and then repeats it, with minor variations, for the rest of his or her career.
Or are the really great photographers drawn from the ranks of those who reject visual style in favor of visual sensibility, those who recognize that the medium is profligate rather than reductive, and more akin to the film or the novel than the painting? Those accordingly, who tend to put content before form.
Of course, there are no rules for creating great photographers. Great artists, great photographers, reach such a pinnacle because they do not follow the norm. They break the rules. They follow their instincts and convictions, not the herd and the smart money. But in my view at least, the best photographers tend to come from the last category, those whose style and individuality emanates from deep within them, and is not, as is the case I feel with all too many, something grafted on from outside.
In my view photography is a kind of discipline. Each clicking of the camera shutter should be a new adventure, an imaginative and appropriate response to a problem. I feel suspicious of an insistence upon consistent style within photography. Style in photography - at its best - should emanate from a particular response to a particular subject and a particular set of circumstances, acted upon by a particular sensibility. So we can identify almost immediately a Walker Evans, a Robert Frank, a William Eggleston, or a Robert Adams, but we cannot ascribe to them a particular style, a predetermined aesthetic, as we can to so many other photographers who take care that their look, pared down to the reductivity of a signature, makes them easily branded in the market.
Artist is a pretentious, somewhat meaningless term if you put it on your passport to signify your occupation, but one that means everything if you gain the approbation of your peers for doing an excellent job and making work of a standard to which they might happily aspire.
The Pleasures of Good Photographs
The Importance of Criticism
“The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” - Oscar Wilde
Photography and the nature of photographic communication attracted debate throughout the twentieth century. The photograph is a particular sort of image, one which operates through freezing a moment in time, portraying objects, people and places as they appeared within the view of the camera at that moment. Photography has thus contributed to the dislocation of time and space, enlightening and enlivening history and geography. As such, it has attracted scrutiny from philosophers concerned with its semiotic structure and phenomenological impact.
Photographs often do not activate individual memory directly, but operate through soliciting identification with needs, desires, and circumstances. Obvious instances of this include advertising, fashion or travel imagery which may mobilise memories - from childhood, of romantic interludes, of family events, or whatever - but the links articulated are more indirect.
Photography encompasses a range of differing types of social and artistic practices engaging various audiences in a wide variety of contexts. As critical photo readers, we need to link considerations about the photograph as a particular sort of artifact with questions of uses of photography and its effects. Through such discussions, we can consider how and in what circumstances, we use photographs. As photographers, curators or critics, we can move from thinking about photography to thinking about the world differently, and, indeed, reconsidering our place and and contribution.
Prior to asking what we need to know about photography we might also ask why criticism is of interest to us; how it helps practitioners, curators, historians and media analysts. Given the inter-relation of theory and practice, critical skills inform and support artistic development as well as contributing to more general involvement with ideas and cultural processes. To lack the analytic skills, knowledge and confidence in judgment involved in critical engagement is, in effect, to be disempowered.
The Photography Reader
Liz Wells, editor