Wednesday, June 04, 2008

What Makes An Interesting Photograph?

In the past I have written that in choosing a subject to photograph, first you must have an interest. Then I wrote that that interest could simply be in discovering interesting compositions and unique subjects or view points. Then I wrote that sometimes the interest comes from working on a project for a time and learning to appreciate the subject (as happened with my Independent Machinery series). After that I wrote about the worth of the individual image which isn't part of a project, or at least, is the only or one of a few images resulting from a project (like Pepper # 30).

Of course, all of the above relates to the viewpoint of the photographer. Given that we are the photographers, I felt this was entirely justified. However, should we wish to have an audience for our images, it doesn't hurt to talk about interesting from the point of view of the audience.

I have also written about the elements of great photographs but now I want to discuss in a more general way what makes a photograph interesting to viewers.

It's incredible the variety of images which are shown in galleries or sold or whose creator becomes famous.

Often photographers don't 'get' photographs of the mundane. We admire the work of Walker Evans, but when someone like Stephen Shore shows images of modern streets we can't understand the point of the image. Oh, we can see the images are well composed and so on, but in the end, it's just a picture of a street. We tend to discount the fact that this street image is representative of and illustrates modern society - life in the burbs or whatever and that images which show this especially well will be admired and appreciated in the future, and someone needs to take them now - before they change.

I remember years ago seeing an image by George Tice, of a gas station with a water tower in the the background, taken late in the evening. Sometimes photographers make their reputations based on capturing the quaint and disappearing before it's gone. This is what David Plowden has done. Is he any more clever than someone who has the foresight to capture similar images while they are still ordinary, when every street looks like that?

In my book in writing about levels of skill, I talked about the picture of your nephew which could be very ordinary, or catch him being uniquely himself or when he was especially cute, bad, mad or whatever, or catching him in a fashion which stands in for all the kids who ever had a temper tantrum. We admire the latter image but tend to discount the same when it's applied to other aspects of our lives like our gas stations, corner groceries, bingo parlors or whatever.

Since some people have become famous selling work of this type, clearly some people find it interesting and are willing to pay money for it. This would suggest that many of us photographers are very poor judges of what our audience might like. Editors already knew this and that's one reason why they usually insist on making the selections of images for publication.

Perhaps we should therefore not worry too much about what types of images would do well and simply photograph what catches our fancy. Maybe we should leave the externally imposed assignments to the professionals who when assigned to photograph toilets at least have the satisfaction of taking a pay cheque home at the end of the day and who's working reward comes in accepting the challenge and successfully tackling it.

If we make some assumptions.

1) you belong to the human race. If you don't then the following may not apply to you.
2. you are not insane, hugely perverted or a sociopath. (you might need help with this one)
3.your life is not totally unique and unprecedented, not to say freakish.

On that basis, it is reasonable to conclude that whatever you find interesting to photograph, someone, and likely several someones; share your interest or are at least curious about your interest or at least appreciate your interest and will enjoy whatever work you happen to think is significant.

I may not be interested in mud bogging, or even approve of it, but that doesn't mean that I couldn't appreciate a really good series of images about mud boggers and their lives.

So, go ahead and photograph cutlery, candle stick holders, weirdos, rocks or whatever and if you are technically competent and know a bit about composition and presenting your subject well and can make a half decent print, more than a few people are going to appreciate what you do.

It may not make you rich or famous, but that takes lots of luck, a huge ego, more luck, the right contacts, a politically correct subject matter, more luck, brass balls (or the female equivalent), a tad extra luck, and impeccable timing. Oh, and usually it takes all your time including that which would normally be given to your job or your family, all your energy, and did I say luck?

1 comment:

mkinsman said...

Well put George. I find sites like Flickr a prime example of a social network for photographers, on which, you see this idea in action. People from all walks of life and all types of photography styles, can view and comment on the results of your work.
Some like it, some do not. But a sympathetic chord is struck with another soul sooner or later.