Month: March 2015

What makes a great photograph? – The results

Going back to the beginning, this is where I started this experiment.

“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?”

By the end of the first phase I’d reached a conclusion of sorts, which I summarised with the following;

“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!”

By the term ‘context’ I do not mean the genre of the photograph, or even the socio-historical placement of the photograph, but rather I mean in it terms of habitus, a shared cultural understanding of the medium. If this can be applied to photographs, then it goes some way to arguing that photography is outgrowing its historical roots in ‘art’. This is something that requires more thought, but is an area that I will be coming back to in the near future.

By this reasoning, a consistently excellent photographer’s work should, even in isolation, be recognisable as good work, regardless of whether or not we know who has taken the photograph. It would not be unreasonable, therefore to expect the Magnum photographs to feature strongly in the final scoring even though many of the students did not know who or what Magnum is.

So ……………….

In first place Nick Brickett – NOT a MAGNUM PHOTOGRAPHER (30/45)

In second Bruce Davidson – MAGNUM (27/45)

Third, David Hurn – MAGNUM (23/45)

Fourth, Steve McCurry – MAGNUM (17/45)

So, Magnum in three of the top four, but not number one!

 eightDAB1959007W00198-17-18FRS1986004W00016-19INDIA. Old Delhi. 1983. Tran station platform.

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What makes a great photograph? Experiment methodology

When I posed the question, ‘What makes a great photograph?’ I got a lot of thought provoking answers. I then came up with the idea of testing the conclusion.

I asked people from various facebook groups if they would ‘donate’ a photograph for an experiment. Within a few hours I was inundated with some frankly stunning photography. There is definitely a modern street photography book there waiting to be published, but that’s for another day.

I then ‘lifted’ four photographs taken by Magnum Photo Agency photographers. These are recognised as some of the best social documentary photographers in the world, so much of their work is instantly recognisable. I then had to make a judgement call about the Magnum work chosen, and the ‘donated’ work.

The experiment was to show the members of my photography class eight photographs and then get them to rank the photographs. They were asked to give the photograph they liked the best five marks, the second best four marks, and so on.

The judgement call I had to make was balancing the work so that none of the photographs seemed anomalous. For example, Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’ would have been too recognisable too be included. At the same time, all the photographs needed to have a contemporary feel about them. It was important that the students were not drawn to a particular photograph because it was clearly different from the others.

This was a hard choice as so many of the ‘donated’ shots were of outstanding quality, but having made the choice, all eight photographs were printed out, four to an A4 sheet, using a laser printer, and distributed to the students.

The students were randomly placed in nine groups to discuss and rank the photographs. This meant that the maximum score achievable was 45 marks.

The results were collated on a spreadsheet, and showed not only the ranking, but the scale of the popularity of each photograph.

I’ve posted the eight photographs that the students ranked. Before I post the results, have a go yourself!

eight seventeen INDIA. Old Delhi. 1983. Tran station platform. FRS1986004W00016-19 one DAB1959007W00198-17-18 twenty four HUD1962017W00034-20