Monday, May 05, 2008

How Wow Art Thou?

Some images are more dramatic than others - they have more 'wow' factor. They grab you through subject matter or dramatic lighting or through contrast. Wow landscape images make great calendars, wow people images tend to be dramatic and the subjects either gorgeous or incredibly wrinkled.

A lot of fine art photographers who take their work very seriously don't often make images like the above. Instead their work is often quiet, thoughtful, of rather ordinary subjects. Often the images are about showing parts of normal life that we wouldn't normally pay any attention to in our daily lives.

This raises the question - Which is the better photograph? Are the fine art photographers who produce these quiet images, often made with extremely high craftsmanship; possibly deluding themselves into thinking that effort is in fact talent?

Which images are going to be valued in the future, say 20 - 50 years from now, if any?

Could it actually be that the quiet image is simply that way because the photographer wasn't patient enough or determined enough to show up time after time to capture the one day with the incredible lighting or dramatic sky or to take the trouble to choose the really terrific looking subject for a portrait, or the model with the perfect body for a nude?

I sure as hell hope not!

Is there any evidence to help resolve this issue?

Not much doubt that it's the dramatic images that make it to the top on photo web sites and often feature on book and magazine covers and calendars. On the other hand those are all situations in which they need to grab your attention in a glance.

If instead of looking at contests, we review the work of the masters of photography, we seem to be learning a different lesson. Take Joel Meyerowitz for example. He is famous for his colour 8X10 work - Cape Light, The Arch, his street photography and even his work with the 9-11 site. Although he uses light and atmosphere with great care, he doesn't rely on dramatic sunsets and brilliant colours. He photographs fairly ordinary subjects, porches, sea shore, garages and such, ordinary people (all be it with red hair) and so on.

On the other hand, the Muench family are both famous and highly sucessful for their grand landcape, dramatic lighting, incredible colour. They have sold thousands of coffee table books full of finely crafted but definitely 'wow' images.

Rather than bore you with an extended list of argument and counter-argument as I think of photographers who fit in one camp or the other, I suspect you can probably supply your own list of photographers who fit in one camp or the other.

Ansel Adams 'name' was largely made on his 'wow' images though interestingly when he is criticized, it's often by people who don't like at some of his more intimate landscape and even his industrial work or his portraits or even his work with graffiti before it became popular as a subject. Those of us who continue to admire Ansel as a photographer (as opposed to printer or teacher), often do so based on the strength of these of his images.

So, have I just argued myself out of making a point? Probably? Is there anything to be learned then from this discussion? Well, I think so.

I think the conclusion is that there is room in fine art photography for 'wow' images and 'wow' photographers and just as much there is room for the 'quiet' photographers and 'quiet' images.

Sousa marches are all well and good but sometimes you want Debussy.

2 comments:

mkinsman said...

Well put George. Another perspective on Fine Art images is the "decoration" appeal of the subject too. Wow nature photography is often considered for hanging on the wall as opposed to images strong in social commentary - Nature vs. Industrial, etc. Neither is less significant than the other, just different. People seem to gravitate more towards the pretty over the just profound.

My Camera World said...

To the first question the better photograph is the ONE YOU LIKE.

IF 50 years form now who knows what will be great. Sometimes the ordinary today will be in the future the sought after images because they now convey a time lost and gone and nostalgia come back.

The first photograph, which there is some dispute is the shot out of the Paris apartment building. Who wouldn’t love to on this image, but it is not really great photograph by today’s standards. But it was first and original. A number of famous photographers would hardly rate any reviews on the current phot sharing shots, but are great because they were first to explore a style and they for the most part did take technically correct images and understood light.


If I had a large display screen (your tomorrow article) then I would probably go for the wow factor for the continuous display of images, mainly because they are short in duration.

For a printed and wall mounted image I tend to go for those that have great detail and lots of interest throughout the image and maybe a story to tell but not always.



Niels Henriksen