Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Definition Of Interesting

"Photograph what interests you"
"Interest Comes First"
"Look for something interesting"

Sounds like this "Interesting" thing, whatever it is is pretty important so I thought I would talk about it.

Let's see if we can figure out what interesting really means. We could start by describing some things that are interesting, then we might have a better idea of what it means, keeping in mind that we are talking photographically.

It could be something:

1) unusual
2) out of it's normal context
3) near something else which either complements it or completely contradicts it.
4) we have an interest in
5) dramatic/spectacular/best of
6) with emotional connections
7) photogenic

Any of the above could lead to a good photograph, though you might want to ask - good for what?

You might also want to ask - where do I fit in?

Is it my sum contribution to get up early enough, hike long enough and wait patiently enough to capture the best of, the dramatic or the unusual? Apart from reflecting my perseverance it doesn't really say much about me and I think one could make the argument that fabulous sunset, gorgeous beach and incredibly cute baby pictures would fall into this category yet most of us wouldn't think of these kind of pictures as being art - great calendars perhaps but mostly suited to family albums and camera club beginners.

Think about it - how many fabulous sunsets do you see hanging in the Louvre? How many 'hunks' did Rembrandt paint? - not many. Painters had complete license to create images showing the fantastic yet they typically didn't and don't. Perhaps there's a lesson there for photographers.

If we go back to each of the above types of intersting and look at how much we can contribute, we get something like the following assessment.

Photographing something
1) unusual may reflect well on our abilities as a detective but after you have seen it once, it's a 'so what' kind of situation. Interest wanes quickly. Doesn't mean you shouldn't photograph it but images like these are best presented in a book where you can quickly look at an image, go wow, and move on.

2) out of it's normal context - images like these can be very funny or sad, they can easily create emotions and have the possibility to make you think - this has a lot more potential for powerful images. I think of the work of Gary Winogrand as often fitting here. You run the risk of the humour being slapstick and cliched. Often these are ordinary scenes in which the 'fish out of water' is not noticed by most of us.

3) near something complementary or contradictory - another of Gary's strengths - think of the small dog/huge dog image shot from the ground - very ordinary subjects but interesting for it's viewpoint and for it's juxtaposition. Again the realm of the super observant. The response is often not, wow, never seen that before, it's gee, why didn't I see that?

4) something we have an interest in - certainly this is the main advice of most books - shoot what interests you. Problem is, it may not interest anyone else. This venue has the greatest chance of you actually saying something meaningful, but do be prepared for a limited audience. Even landscapes have their 'rocks and roots' detractors, especially when it isn't a calendar type photo but that is a problem for the viewer, not the photographer, unless the photographer has unrealistic expectations.

My work with Indepenent Machinery is a classic example. The place and the people fascinate me (though it was luck that I started the project, it's interest that has keep me coming back). The number of people fascinated by machinery is undoubtedly limited - even if I were the best photographer in the world I would not expect this to be the next coffee table hit book. I'd like to think it might interest those who like form and light and shape and composition regardless of the subject, but again that's a limited audience.

Not everything that each of us is interested in is necessarily good subject matter - it needs to photograph well on top of being interesting. Some subjects have near universal appeal - beautiful grand landscapes, kids, the female form (well for half of us anyway), others are of such limited interest they really need to make up for their limited appeal as a subject with how well they are photographed.

4) dramatic/spectacular/best of - certainly the venue for many landscape photographers who seek only dramatic skies, incredible lighting or the outstanding scene - often shot in exotic places like the badlands, mountains, tropics or whatever. I find images of this type to be of limited appeal but clearly I'm not in the majority as usually these are the images featured on the covers of magazines, both because they are popular and because they catch the eye and amateur photographers want to be able to do the same - so they buy the magazine. How much of yourself is in this kind of image - they are often superbly composed, so there's that, they often leave people disappointed with the real places which look nothing like this when they visit them - one could even think of them as being a little bit of a fraud. Still, it's Ansel's grand landscape images that are most famous and usually feature on the covers of his books and sell calendars. It might explain though why so many calendar images start to look just like each other. Images of this type speak again to the perseverance of the photographer more than his artistry. For Ansel, his artistry was in the making of the prints rather than the capturing of the grand landscape which certainly represented perseverance - hiking through snow bound passes, climbing peaks with 50 lb. of equipment, freezing and boiling and bugs and all.

6) images with emotional connections - well - puppy pictures qualify but most of us wouldn't think of them as great art - on the other hand Dorothea Lange's Migrant Farm Family both generates emotion and tells a story without words and even if were shot today and thought of as a bit of a cliche, it has endured as being the ultimate in that kind of photograph. The skill in the photographer is to recognize the power of the scene and to capture it in a way which shows this power off, often with a split second to react and shoot. Emotions in extreme circumstances may be easy to capture - just go to Africa and photograph some AIDS sufferers or starving children, but to do so within our own milieu and not be a cliche is extremely challenging, rewarding and interesting.

7) photogenic - well some things just photograph well and photographers return to them again and again - the human form, things that are wet, ice, S curves, repetitive patterns, and so on. The trick is to make the image a lot more than just a picture of something that photographs well - through posture, positioning, context, framing and so on.

It's my hope that even if you disagree with me (good chance, I stuck my neck out on this one), it will give you something to think about and might even change your thinking about what you photograph and how you approach said interesting thing.

I'm interested in your immediate feedback but would be even more interested to hear if it changes anything. I suspect that like most of my images which really don't change the viewer, most of my writing is similar, but I think this one might just be important.


Joseph said...


I've been thinking about the subject of interestingness and art recently, and am enjoying again this immortal book:
Whenever I strongly disagree with what he says, I try to remember that when I read Tolstoy, Tolstoy is not on trial -- I am.

Bobby Brooks Photography said...

I suppose the main tradition in photography is the one that implies that anything can be interesting if you take a photograph of it. It consists in discovering beauty, a beauty that can exist anywhere but is assumed to reside particularly in the random and the banal. Photography conflates the notions of the "beautiful" and the "interesting." It's a way of aestheticizing the whole world.

Susan Sontag

Mike said...

Good article George - very thought provoking.

Markus Spring said...

Assuming the overall goal is to take better and better recognized pictures, there is probably at least a triangle of diverging factors: interestingness, preferences, artistic value.

All of those underlie a plethora of possible definitions (and following measures of value) originating even from the different viewers standpoint, and therefore it's very hard for me to set up an objective catalogue of criteria that even would guide me along just the interestingness factor.

The last factor mentioned, artistic value, probably is the one that is most dependent on views from outside. Very often it seems to me that presently underrated works show their inherent value only later in a greater context. So this factor seems not to work as a present guideline.

That leads to personal preferences: Of course this is, depending on the personality, subject to influences of recognition for example, but for my person at least it works.

Harmony and beauty are to of the factors I highly regard as they seem to soothe a longing. Working along those again opens up a great field for expressing ones self. Intensifying this work allows to explore and then the journey is a reward in itself.

So yes, the Susan Sontag quote of Bobby Brook's comment pretty much sums up what is my experience.

Steve said...

I agree with what you say, but I would say the thing that I am most interested in photographing is normal things...but from a different angle.

It's a way of exposing a new way of looking at the mundane, and that's what inspires me.

Anonymous said...

George, Thought provoking as always! A few points:
To quote" Painters had complete license to create images showing the fantastic yet they typically didn't and don't. Perhaps there's a lesson there for photographers." Actually in many cases, freedom of expression was quite limited in many societies as the "artists" were in the court of the king, etc and had to appease them or face somewhat dire consequences. That said, the essence of your idea still rings true.
But is it because so much has already been done (Sunsets, etc - e.g. - think of Steiglitz's Clouds for example) - that it now is passe? We are constantly bombarded with images - is this overexposure causing us to be numb to the beauty of these images? What would a person from a primitive culture think of these images? Are they expressions of the joy of living - some more moving then others? I create because I must - I do not feel "complete" unless I have some means of creative expression. While it is great to have public recognition for my art, it is ultimately for me and me alone that I work at my art. It is the constant search for new, greater results that drives me forward. Did Van Gogh really realize the artistic level he reached? Why did Picasso continue to create for so long? Was his last piece the best work he did? Was Ansel's last print his best in his own eyes? Are his images now a form of advertising or an inspiration to stop and enjoy this thing called life?
Art has both defined the times it was created in and at times existed outside the time. It makes none of it less valid.
It is what it is...joy for some, boring for others. But for that brief moment,for me, it brings pure joy in being a living being, fleeting as it may be...even if I don't want to hang it on the wall.

George Barr said...

Good point about artists being limited in what they could produce, either because they would lose their head, or more often simply not get paid and starve. Still, you'd expect them to go for dramatic and gaudy to cater to the lowest common denominator, and they certainly tended not to.


Anonymous said...

As to some artists still going for the dramatic and gaudy...well there was this one guy......Hieronymus Bosch...don't think too many went for it at the time (although it would be fun to see Monty Python get ahold of this... ;-)

George Barr said...

Yes, wonder what he was smoking?