Yet again I'm going to foist a music analogy on you to make a point about images. there are many levels on which one can enjoy music - at a most fundamental level it can be a jolly good tune - the kind of thing you find yourself humming in the shower after hearing it. It can be stirring, possibly without even knowing why. Amazing Grace on the bagpipes does it for me and interestingly it does for a lot of others who unlike me weren't born in Scotland. The 1812 Overture rouses most people and Beethoven's 6th, the Pastoral Symphonie does relate to the countryside, both peaceful and stormy. (different sections though).
People more educated than I in the art of music can appreciate music on other levels - the mathematical progression of Bach, the inversions and complementary notes and such of other composers. I'm sure if I knew more about music I could describe more levels of appreciation. I quite enjoy listening to conductors and musicians talking about their music, even if I don't always understand their explanations of the subtleties and intricacies of what they are talking of.
People viewing our images come with varying levels of visual education. Some can inherently appreciate a really well composed image while others look only at the subject. Some may appreciate the composition even though they don't understand why, others don't get the point of careful placement, framing and relationships to other objects in the print. Lots of people don't get the subtleties of tonality or fine detail, our efforts in that direction wasted on them. Some are both very visual and educated and are capable of seeing what I wanted to do in a particular image and can tell me about it.
As photographers we are presumably the most visual, the best educated in the photographic process and techniques and artistry and therefore presumably the most fussy about what we see in images - is it any surprise that when flipping through the work of another photographer, perhaps only 10% of the images do anything for us and something like 1% get us excited, and that's of really good photographers. We're just so damn picky.
So is this a philosophical discussion or is there a point to this and a practical message someone might take home and apply to their photography?
1) We need to be more visual and better educated than our audience. If you are hoping to persuade a magazine to publish your work, then you are sending your images to someone who is likely very educated in the visual arts and very visual themselves. For this person, a good tune is not likely to be enough and while you might get lucky with an image, it would be not unreasonable to assume that you need to be as educated, as visual, as experienced in the myriad of images out there, and who the greats are and what their work is like in order for you to produce images of a quality which will satisfy the editor.
This goes a long way to explaining how it is that friends, neighbours and relatives can praise your images and mean it, yet getting published is a whole other story. Of course it also helps if what you are submitting is a bit different from what has gone in the magazine before. You don't have to be original to be good but if an editor has two choices of equal quality, one with a fresh viewpoint, can you doubt which the editor is likely to choose.
2) The better we get, the more selective we are - so while with our experience we may see images where someone else does not, we also bypass a whole lot of potential images because they don't offer us enough - they work on one or more planes but clearly don't in others and it isn't enough for us.
3) while to some degree we can create on various levels without actually thinking about them, it wouldn't do any harm to actually enumerate the possible levels on which an image might or could work - interesting subject (a good tune), well composed (good orchestration), offering interesting detail on top of the big picture (intricate melodies).
Next time I'm going to discuss what those various levels might be above and beyond the ones mentioned above.