Sunday, September 27, 2015

What makes a great photograph?

William Eggleston - WTF?
Yesterday I was host to a bunch of enthusiastic book lovers who came to my home to hear me talk about the contents of my library. This was at the invitation of fellow photographer Simon Devitt who has started a project he calls Reading Room. Judging from the lively discussion people seemed to enjoy themselves. First incarnation was at the home of architect Marshall Cooke, I was second and next is at the studio of painter Judy Millar.

The Reading Room at my place - 26-9-15

Not surprisingly yesterday's discussion turned to the subject of photographs. As I've just finished the edit on a new bookwork it got me thinking about what makes a great image. I hesitate to use the word great, because so many pictures (mine included) are simply not that at all, so let's settle for the descriptor good. So what does make a good photograph?

To me it comes down to several simple attributes - enigma, mystery, surprise and poetry.
Authenticity too where the work is intelligent (not clever) and comes from the heart and the head. That's content dealt with but let's not leave out form. Henri Cartier-Bresson called it geometry. The picture has to look good, have a visual structure that's pleasing to the eye. Eggleston has it, he knows exactly how to structure the frame, what to leave in (and what to leave out) and his control of the picture edge is masterful.

If you, we, can make pictures that have all of the above going for them the pictures will be good and will work. To work, the photograph has to pull the reader in and give them something to do. Something to work out, offer the start of a narrative where the reader can bring their own life experience, make their own story. I call images like that What The Fuck images. What The Fuck is going on here? The reader is invited, compelled even, to try and work it out. On the other hand most pictures are not WTF images, they sit dead in the water, offering nothing beyond a pale attempt at description. I call these images So What photographs. Nothing more than what you see is what you get. There has to be more than that!

Of course you may ask, how do I make WTF photographs when it seems every possible image has already been made? Good question. John Baldessari says why make a photograph when somebody else has already made one just like it. And he's right. Two possible ways of  dealing with this. First, get to know the history of photography and find out who has done what. So many students I speak to have no idea at all about what has gone before. Second, consider making photobooks where the images speak and relate to each other, holding hands to make a work that is greater in impact than the individual parts.

Enigma: a puzzling or inexplicable occurrence or situation.

Mystery: anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown.

Surprise: an unexpected sudden feeling of wonder or astonishment.

Poetry: to evoke meanings beyond the prosaic ostensible meaning.

Authenticity: real or genuine, not copied or false, true and accurate.  

William Eggleston - WTF!

William Eggleston - WTF!

And a last word from William Eggleston - I am at war with the obvious. Of course Eggleston has made some crap pictures in his time too. None of us are immune. 

Finally, a post script from John Baldessari - I will not make anymore boring art. 

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