What Makes a great photograph

What is a ‘great’ photograph?

OK, here’s a question raised by one of my students. Looking at some photographs by a famous photographer, she asked, ‘Are these great photos because there is something about them which makes them great, or are these great photos because they are taken by people we are told are great?’  So, what makes a great photo?

It’s perhaps worth noting here that there is a category of great photographs that I am excluding from the following. Two of my personal favourite photographs of all time are ‘Pale Blue Dot’ and ‘Earth Rising’. Both are stunning and emotive, but completely beyond the scope of anyone to reproduce in the early twenty-first century. Likewise, images from the Hubble space telescope or similar are deliberately excluded.

To get some responses to the question I posted it on several facebook groups and watched the replies come in. Naturally, they varied considerably, but that’s fine. On one end of the spectrum of replies were summed up by the following comment,

I have to be honest here and say that I feel nothing looking Ansel Adams work. i dont really think it’s great. i look at it and think umm why is this famous. my 7 yr old can take this shot and he has! i let him use my Camera from time to time. so to me is because we are told they are great. so everyone jumps on the train that they are”

Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but frankly not everyone’s opinion needs to be taken seriously. With some responders there was also a basic misunderstanding of the question. Great, in this context, is not the ‘great’ of the hyperbole ridden social media world. It is not the ‘great’ of a satisfied client. Rather it is the ‘great’ that stands the test of time, the ‘great’ that communicates with more than a small group of people whose interests it portrays.

At the other end of the spectrum there were some very considered answers. I particularly like this one,

“Good question, I think what makes a good photo depends about the context of the picture and the intent of the photographer. Many great pictures were taken for people that were in the right place at the right time and had a camera with them, they might have not taken care of anything about composition or light direction or any other technical stuff, they were just lucky to be there and shoot. Many other “great” pictures were taken in places only a few can reach, other were taken from famous people only a few met or have access to.

I think intent is a great way to know if a picture is great, of course you can also say a great picture is that one that moves the audience regardless of the photographer’s intent but as any debate the answer depends of the specification of the question or the wanted answer.”

The points I would take from this are ‘context’ and ‘intent’.

From another poster,

“A bit of both in my opinion. There are so called great photos taken by famous photographers that are no better than photos taken by any anonymous and are just admired and analysed because it’s from a great photographer. Same happens here on facebook for example, a famous person posts a not so great photo and has lots of praises, likes and comments while a less known person posts a great photo and the world moves on. Anyone has the potential to take a great photo once and a while and no one cares about those, but another thing is to take great photos consistently and that’s what makes a good and famous photographer.”

Sometimes it does seem to be the case that the fame of the artist gives an automatic entitlement to an audience for their work, even if in some cases the bulk of that work is carried out by an assistant, but the word ‘consistently’ must have some bearing. Perhaps the advent of social media has given the famous a new and immediate market for new work. On the other hand if an artist is known for a particular form of art, then it is sometimes difficult to break out into new fields. The landscape photographer Faye Godwin, after the huge commercial success of the Land series, found it impossible to find a publisher for her later works of flowers

“ I get what your saying but If not popularity Among the average Joes then what makes a picture great? Popularity among critics ? Among other photographers ? Among artists? Someone has to like it for it to be great. Greatness might just be like beauty. In the eye of the beholder ..unless we can come up with a set of standards that clearly define greatness which I think we cannot”

So is some kind of popularity a sign of greatness?

It’s interesting to ask what popularity means in this context. I posted two images on facebook at the same time. One was of Loch Lochy in Scotland. The other was a studio shot of my Bearded Dragon. Within twelve hours Loch Lochy had had 142 ‘likes’ and the Dragon had had 118 ‘likes’. Does that make them popular images? Who knows? There is no context within which to assess the popularity of an image on the internet. Does the difference in ‘likes’ make one image better than the other? Of course not. Again, there is no objective standard to judge by. In the case of this exercise I did not post the images on my home profile or facebook page, but in user groups for the type of camera I used to take the images. If I had posted them in different groups, I would undoubtedly have got different results. There are those who seem to believe that their work must be good because their friends like it – the ultimate in vanity publishing.

The above comments, and others, lead me to a picture, but an incomplete picture of what ‘greatness’ means in photography.

Great photos are often made by consistently good photographers who are able to purposely create images within a context that others will respond to. If those photographers are already well-known then, then their work will have greater engagement with a wide(r) audience than otherwise.

From another poster,

“Great is in the eye of the beholder, however, it has nothing to do with who made the photo. I’ve spent 40+ years as a photographer, yet, tomorrow, a kid with his/her new camera on auto, if they have an eye for it, can create something great. They may never be able to do it again  but each image (and it’s greatness, or lack of) must be judged on its own merit, without any attention to who released the shutter.

Having said that, most of the photographers whom we call great, have achieved that status based on years of study and practice. Only an understanding of the technical (the easy part) and the artistic, will allow you to accomplish your vision, on a consistent basis.”

I think it would be reasonable to assume that people who share a common background and culture would find common ground when considering the merits of a particular piece of art. After saying that, I have to acknowledge that the background of the person within a shared culture can have an enormous bearing on this assumption. For a photograph or any other piece of art to have an appeal to an audience that cuts across cultures (or all sorts), it must somehow transcend the differences between people.

It’s interesting, however, that so far no-one from the responders to the facebook post has mentioned subject matter in a specific way, Well, actually that’s not quite true, but this poster is really making a point about photographers and their internet fans , rather than photographs, and it’s a very telling point.

“Give me a gorgeous model, thousands of dollars of equipment, awesome make up and hair style artists, some expensive clothes (or none) with fashion experts and I can give you a picture with a thousand likes just with one simple click. Or just give me someone already famous and would work the same.
Or a cute (3 year old or less) kid with cute clothes and perhaps a cute animal in a sunset and a bunch of moms that doesn’t know absolutely anything about art and I can give you a picture with hundreds of likes.
Would these pictures be great? I don’t think so, but popular doesn’t mean great.
I have said it before in this group, shooting beautiful things is very very easy and almost anyone can do it properly and people would like it because of the beauty of the subject and their own ignorance in art not because of the intent of the photographer. Just go to the fstoppers webpage and you can see how many likes the naked girls have (and the amount of female pictures). Anyone can watch a youtube tutorial with a few lighting diagrams and reproduce ideal conditions for a picture, ANYONE, given the right equipment.”

So what kind of photograph is considered great? From a personal photographic perspective I know that what I consider to be good in my own work is often not what other people like. I recently posted two images on more or less the same facebook groups that I posed the subject of this piece. The first was (in my opinion) a fairly dramatic landscape taken on the A82, north of Glasgow in Scotland. The second was a shot of two World War Two veterans conversing after a remembrance ceremony in Buckinghamshire. Needless to say, the candid ‘grabshot’ of the two elderly gents won hands down, despite the fact that it was clearly the inferior photograph.

This goes back to my working definition, above. While people can and do appreciate the beauty of a Scottish Landscape, it simple does not have the same context that the other photograph. There is a smaller human connection with a landscape than with an image of two war veterans. It does not evoke the same response from the viewer. Over a 24 hour period, my landscape elicited a (for me) impressive 250 ‘likes’, but this was roughly one sixth of the ‘likes’ for the gentlemen. A telling point here for me is that technical expertise comes a long way behind personal connection.

From this viewpoint images such as the Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal are always going to stand out as iconic photographs. You could argue that the photographer was already held in high regard and working for the US Government so there was an immediate and ready market for the image, which stands out as one of the great propaganda shots of the Second World War. The same cannot be said of the photograph, Last Jew of Vinnitsa, also taken in the same conflict. In this photograph we see a Jewish man kneeling before a mass grave, seconds before being shot in the back of the head by a German soldier. The unknown photographer (one of the German soldiers) was documenting a small part of an enormous crime, where all twenty eight thousand Jews in the area were murdered. This huge event in recent history is, for some, encapsulated in a single photograph – in a way that Rosenthal’s perhaps is not. If you look at the reasons behind the recapturing of Iwo Jima from the Japanese or the staging of the raising of the flag for the purposes of the photograph, the context could be argued to distract from the image.

However, both images show us something of what it is to be great. The act of taking the photograph was clearly purposeful, both well well-timed and both had great context. Most importantly both demand a response from the viewer. One cannot be impassive observers in either case. The more we learn about each image, the greater our engagement with each image, and the greater the image becomes.

In an interview on the BBC (23/11/14)  the veteran war photographer on McCullin described printing his photographs in his darkroom. In the dark, the subjects of the photos come to him, they speak to him. Little wonder then that his 1994 retrospective was called ‘Sleeping with Ghosts’.

This piece started an exercise in social media engagement, developing an answer to the question through facebook responses. Perhaps, then, for further examples of greatness in photographs, the internet would be a place to test the definition.

Looking at the ageing website, http://www.worldsfamousphotos.com/ or other such sites/lists of the ‘best’ photographs in the world, there does seem to be a common thread that draws them all together.

Firstly, though, perhaps it’s interesting to look at those genres of photographs that are under-represented.  When Warhol was asked what makes a great portrait, he apparently replied that it needed to be more or less in focus and of someone famous. Perhaps that may work if you are already internationally famous, but Warhol’s portraits are conspicuous by their absence in online lists of great photographs. It is, of course, unfair to single Warhol out, as there are very, very few portraits to be found. There are also very, very few sports or celebrity photographs. To stand out they need a context in addition to their obvious subject matter. Which is going to be considered the better photograph of these? Carl Lewis winning the 100m, or Jesse Owens?

In what is undoubtedly an unscientific meta-survey, the area most under-represented, but very popular with contemporary photographers is that which could be broadly described as fashion or fashion/glamour photography. Duane Michals coined the term ‘fartster’ to describe fashion photographers. While fashion photography is often artful, he argues, it is seldom an art.

While fashion photography sells fashion, like fashion it is immediately forgotten. It is forgotten simply because it does not resonate with people’s emotions, reducing its subjects, the models, to the clothes racks that the clothing manufacturers need them to be. Again, there are exceptions, but there really was only one Twiggy.

In almost all cases, the photographs that people consider to be great are those with real, evident human connection. Perhaps this is can be summed up with two examples. The first, from McCullin, shows an albino boy clutching an empty corned beef tin in Nigeria in 1968. Almost at the point of death his white skin marks him out as different, a skeletal figure almost literally resembling a skeleton. The second, by Steve McCurry, is one of the most widely recognised photographs of all time. Afghan Girl was shot in 1984, with the subject, Sarbat Gula, staring directly at the camera, her piercing sea-green coloured eyes framed by a red  head scarf. Her image almost instantly became symbol of both the Afghan conflict and the situation of refugees worldwide.

So, going back to the original question, we can begin to develop a picture (but perhaps not the only picture) of the characteristics of a great photograph.

The answer may well have already been given by in which McCullin. A great photograph speaks. It transcends cultural barriers, but must often be viewed within the context in which it was taken. It is utterly, utterly facile to argue that your seven year old son is better than Ansel Adams at photography. In his autobiography, Adams describes the process whereby he created Monolith in 1927, “I had only one plate left. I attached my other filter, a Wratten #29(F), increased the exposure by the sixteen-times factor required, and released the shutter. I felt that I had accomplished something, but did not realise its significance until I developed the plate that evening. I had achieved my first true visualization! I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the final print”.

These two great photographers give us something more than the usual argument that art (in this case photography) is subjective. Rather, there is something about a great photograph that appears to  cut through human culture, language or history that appear to separate us as humans.

In his 1980 book, Camera Lucida the philosopher Roland Barthes develops a deeply personal discussion of the lasting emotional effect of certain photographs. Barthes considers photography, or at least some photography, to be asymbolic. That is, it is irreducible to the codes of language or culture as it acts on the body as much as on the mind. Through the idea of punctum Barthes describes the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.

If Barthes is right, then a great photograph is visceral – it connects to deep emotional feelings and bypasses the intellect entirely. Certainly that appears to be the case with McCullin and Adams. It is a feeling.

So ……….

Great photographs are often made by consistently good photographers who are able to purposely create images within a context that others will respond to. If those photographers are already well-known then, then their work will have greater engagement with a wide(r) audience than otherwise. The great photograph is therefore one which has the ability to effect the emotions of people by somehow highlighting and resonating with our common humanity, it speaks!

Or maybe that’s just my interpretation!

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