#892. What makes a photograph great?

By pascaljappy | How-To

Aug 19

If we could answer that one in a few simple sentences, producing great photographs could probably automated. But that doesn’t mean that worthwhile pointers can’t be examined in a brief post, right?

 
Parenthood (Hassy X1D, XCD 90)
 

Very few things can irritate me more than someone trying to reduce a complex situation to a single metric. That’s what politicians do day-in, day-out, dumbing down complex issues to extract some meaningless number out of them to serve their own agenda.

75 000 000 Turks waiting to invade Europe and steal European jobs gave us Brexit. Points added here for the single metric being 110% a lie and a special mention for getting away with it.

Automobile pollution being equated to CO2 is why we will have a million ton heap of dead batteries we can’t recycle lying around in nature within ten years (if CO2 is such an issue, why are cities chopping down trees everywhere in France?????) It’s why tiny turbo engines abound, scoring high in that single metric in the lab and doing harm in the real world.

Equating quality with the number of likes – when appealing to the greatest number actually means being the most average – or pixel count are reasons why amateur photography has often tripped on the art carpet and cameras are losing the battle to phones.

But …

 
I made you loo-ook (I hope πŸ˜€ ) (Hassy X1D, XCD 45)
 

… that’s exactly what I’m going to do right now, because I believe there is one metric that can cover a lot of bases in human psychology and our appreciation of art.

So, let me venture that a great photograph is one that grabs your attention for a long time.

Nothing new here, probably. But this definition has the advantage of transcending genre, style, targeted audience … If someone, anyone, is mesmerized by an image for a long period then, to me, that’s a great photograph. If it has that effect on crores of people, then it’s also a bankable one πŸ˜‰

 
Honey, I shrunk the sea (Hassy X1D & XCD 45)
 

Let’s consider two opposite examples, here.

On one side of the ring, an Andreas Gursky photograph. I’m not even inserting one here. Just close your eyes and picture it with me (if you can read the rest with your eyes closed, that is). A large (3 meters-wide) photograph of a bland building. Hundreds of windows, all very similar. Low contrast, low colour. Viewed head-on. No compositional trick to direct your gaze. Your eyes don’t know where to settle or what to look at. You either move on ’cause you’re not interested, or slow down, look for a long while and let a feeling of solitude and emptiness fill you as you realize this pictures a home and a very dull one. That the photograph isn’t about a subject but about an idea (dehumanisation), a feeling of alienation (for more guided meditations, see our award-winning CD/mp3 store).

Then you move in closer and notice furniture through a window. A TV and some chairs, maybe. Evidence of life, of families, of actual dwellings. Tiny details that you can only take in with your nose on the print. You inspect a few similar windows, some lit some dark, it’s like watching Blow Up over and over again. And you realize you’ve covered 2% of the frame. You move back out to consider the whole picture again. And can keep at this game of contrast between global dullness and close-up humanity for hours.

 
Cap Canaille at sunset (Hassy X1D, probably XCD 45)
 

On the other side of the ring, your average top-performing Instagram photograph.

Now I lack the talent, dedication and know-how to create one of those, so the photo above will only serve as a poor stand-in for what is being described here. But, hopefully, you get the idea: that incredible view of Santorini, or of a bright blue glacier or red and orange forest under the most exquisite sunrise this side of the BigBang.

It’s like a scene out of the Lord of the Rings. It really is every bit as good as the most spectacular scenery in the best produced films ever. And that’s the rub.

Imagine Rivendell without Aragorn kissing Arwen (awww). Imagine Helm’s deep without elves, men and orcs fighting to the last for the very survival of their race. Imagine the might of Moria without Gandalf the Grey taking on pure evil and perishing in the process. Some film, right? 10 hours of that and you’d pay Uurk hai to gouge your eyes out.

And that’s the problem with so so sooooooooooo many landscape photographs you see on the web: they are pictures of backgrounds. By the time you’ve circled the emotions of awe (where is that? how the heck did she not have tourists there? what lens is that sharp?) – self loathing (why can’t I do that? why are my vacations always at grandma’s? …) – and resent (the &@$%!! must be rich, DPreview made me buy the wrong camera, Tony Northrup made me buy the wrong lens, yeah, with my lousy job, no way I can have time to be out in Iguazu 8 times a year for the best light …), well, you’ve grown bored of the pic anyway and are mentally ready to move on to the next. Whew …

Now, in the good old days of painting and glass plates, Instagram-worthy images were few and far between. But, thankfully, the web and it’s paraphernalia of algorithm-fed content, hate-fueled forums and mediocratic business models have given us tremendous practise. So we’re now super efficient at that fast oscillation between – pure, ingenuous, gobsmacked, – awe and instant need to click next. Evolution.

 
United lemmings of Saint-Malo (Hassy X1D, Zeiss C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM)
 

Because you’re too kind, you’re not asking. But I will πŸ˜‰

So, how do you create an attention-grabbing photograph, right ? πŸ˜‰ Hasn’t this just displaced the question and done nothing to get us closer to finding an answer?

In a way, that’s true. But “attention-grabbing” is (somewhat) charted territory. So there are more pragmatic paths to explore when trying to grab attention than when more generally seeking greatness.

 
Pow-wow. (Hassy X1D, XCD 45)
 

Again, from a cornucopia of potential avenues, let me pick one which, to me, echoes with a deeply-rooted psychological trait of humans: storytelling. (Let me repeat, this is just one example. The majority of successful photographic artists are not storytellers).

Elves and orcs likely have their own attention drivers. And my guess is immortal beings must have evolved incredibly potent ones so as not despair from the exhausting duration of eternity, particularly towards the end.

But we, puny flesh-and-bones humans, still have a propensity towards telling and hearing stories to pass on tradition, while away a rainy evening or woo our future mate for (insert duration). Again, just fake a 21st century Byzantine invasion, not a particularly evolved or credible one, and you can split a continent. So, surely, you can make a pretty interesting photographs taking a leaf from the books of the great storytellers of our kind.

 
Sirens (Hassy X1D, XCD 45)
 

It’s a deep-rooted trait visual influencers have been trying to exploit for ages (Internet ages, that is, so a few years, really). By inserting some gorgeous lass in front of that jaw-dropping background others waste on emptiness, they can sell cosmetics or clothes using the story that you too will have gravity-defying bodies and wobble-free cheeks with no effort, surgery or Photoshop. Except, surprise, you can’t always (sell that way).

We may be puny, we’re not stupid. The story has to be compelling and well told.

So, how do you do that?

To be honest, I had thought of ending this here in a way that’s even worse than reducing a complex field to single metric solution: by saying “I’ll tell you later”. Hang the cliffhanger πŸ˜‰

And that would probably have been smarter because the truth is I have no idea. I’ve studied storytelling quite a bit for marketing, the most potent story forms, the roles and who must play them. But none of this applies to photography and it can sometimes feel less than spontaneous and authentic.

 
 

So I’ll just end with a few notes and ideas instead, hoping that someone reading can add valuable insights.

A good story should be simple and should appeal to very deep feelings. Think about that Gursky photograph again. It’s worth millions and focuses on dehumanization (a deep feeling) by showing that the termite mounds politicians have built for less wealthy humans can and do host real life (simple story). Hiroshi Sugimoto created blurry images of buildings to represent how they must have looked in the architect’s minds before they were built. And long exposures of seascapes because they represent Earth and Water in various points of the globe. Photojournalists have told stories from around the world for decades, creating some really attention grabbing images. All brilliant photographs based on very simple stories about deeply human motivators (spirituality, creativity).

A good story should leave loose ends. Another problem of high-ranking landscapes is that they leave absolutely no room for the imagination. It’s a common flaw in the landscape photography community: this is the perfect time, this is the perfect spot, this is the perfect composition, this is the perfect focal length …

But we humans tend to run away from prisons, when we can. In a very real sense, those photographs are mental prisons.

We humans are willing to pay for 2 things (and our attention is a currency that has made Zuckerberg one of the richest men in history) : personal transformation and inspiration/dream.

So don’t try to say it all. Expose some facts you find intriguing and let others find answers for themselves.

 
Stone and water, why not? (c) SP
 

None this has made the issue any easier, so much for selling transformation πŸ˜€

But I hope it has given you ideas. A good starting point would be to look at your fave pics in the light of this deep trait / simple story principle and see how many fit the theory.

And I hope it will trigger reactions and suggestions. Any takers? What other forms of image making can grab the attention? Who can you think of who uses that approach? What approach do you recognize in your own style, or mine?

 

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  • Michael Fleischer says:

    To me, what makes a photograph great, is simply when something great or greater
    appears out of the photo to the viewer, be that touching a special feeling or wonder
    or perception about life and the human condition;
    Or a mental/visual appreciation of light, colours or shades, patterns, timing etc.

    As one is caused to revisit and “look through that window again & again” perhaps a greater depth
    or meaning may emerge!

    The movie “The Bridges of Madison County” by Clint Eastwood carries the sense
    of some inevitable sparkling human story/moment must be told!
    A great photo may do that too… in one take! πŸ˜‰

    As always, what defines as great to one, may not be for another –
    and that is natural.

    Michael.

    • pascaljappy says:

      What’s interesting is that this quality you describe can be – as you explain – created via the nature of the content, the composition, the light, the evocation of feelings, … but it most often has to be about human condition or art itself. The bedrock ideas aren’t legion, but there are many ways to represent them. To me, art is the intentional following of these paths. Thanks Michael πŸ™‚

    • Pascal Ravach says:

      Agree completely, Michael…
      And funny, “β€œThe Bridges of Madison County” ” is one of my 10 favourites movies… from a guy I usually don’t like πŸ™‚
      Such deep moods…

  • Dallas Thomas says:

    Pascal, some great shots, I just the love the unlimited lemmings. Your article is very thought provoking Michael Kenna has a style I would love to be to imitate, maybe one day after lots of misses I may get one.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Dallas. I like the lemmings too πŸ˜€ Crazy colours and the general shape. Michael Kenna has always been an inspiration for me too. You need to love the square and long exposures πŸ˜‰ Really long exposures. Some of his run for more than 5 hours. I generally don’t like long exposures myself, but he does them in a meaningful way, not a gimmicky one. He also spends a lot of time alone in inhospitable environments. Must be a tough life. Cheers

  • Sean says:

    Pascal: This is quite an articulate and thought provoking article. You’ve certainly covered a ‘river deep, mountain high’ topic here. Myself, I have no definitive answer; and most likely, neither has anyone else. It’s a very nuanced subject, fraught with many forks in the road, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune from opinion and ideas – which can help drive and secure a better understanding of the subject.

    Your words certainly help and guide one to confront what essentially, to me, is the ‘Why?’ – meaning what caused the ‘me at the time’ to accept, appreciate and remember a particular photograph, as you put it, and I quote you “… a great photograph is one that grabs your attention for a long time…”.

    For me, what can make a great photograph is one that holds my minds eye – it stays there to be recalled, regardless of technique, equipment and author – we do have our favorites, though; and I’m not referring to the mass of authors peddling their visual fodder on certain social network forums. To me, these forums only create authors of short-lived fame – flying too close to the sun – where the notoriety lasts as as long as an exploding roman candle firework. Thud – the end result. Others may not see it this way, and that doesn’t bother me.

    One other aspect that makes a great photograph for me is when I appreciate the image being about ‘life’. Such images don’t have to be crafted using the latest and greatest equipment, do they? Well, it didn’t require such an up-to-date resource in the past, did it?

    Sure some authors make use of, say, curiosity; surrealism and geometry; critical distance; not recording the obvious; rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself. The photographs that speak clearer are the ones that retain, for me, my minds eye memory of some aspect of life; not necessarily, with or representative of, human content, but something emotive, I feel.

    What I have said above hopefully makes sense. πŸ™‚

    Sean

    • pascaljappy says:

      Photographs about life certainly need more help from the eye of a photographer interested in life than from gear, that’s for sure πŸ˜‰

      That quintessence you mention is one of the subjects that fascinate me most. There is a “density” in photographs that capture it that simply keep you coming back for more. It’s all about eliminating the fluff and being very receptive to the inner meaning of things. Not easy to do in a photograph but certainly worth trying. I’m preparing a series called “travel essentials” based on that very idea.

      • Sean says:

        Sounds like a very worthwhile endeavor you’ve got planned, being your “travel essentials” and how it is to address “quintessence”.

        Other ‘bits’ that come to mind of ‘what makes a great photograph’ may possibly come to include aspects of: recall and invoking an emotion that speaks to a viewer; placing an author and or a viewer in a particular state; finding creative style – and editing – so as to help reveal an authors narrative of what they had seen, not simply what they looked at; crafting an image that actively draws in and engages a viewer sufficiently to care, and appreciate, on those emotive and quintessence levels, as a respectful acknowledgement for a photographer.

  • For me, a great photograph prompts a single question: “Why?”

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    That’s the best promo for Hassy that I’ve ever read!
    I have it on the best authority** that one member of our group shoots with a plastic VP Twin pocket camera, with a bloomed “Bolco” lens. And his photos are simply astounding.
    **[A confession, no less – signed and sealed!]
    And the rest of us shoot with everything in between.
    So it is quite clear that the answer is not “gear” – it must be something else.
    You suggest “attention grabbing”. I take your point – but I think it’s something more than that. At least, it is, for me. You see I slid into this sideways. I come from a very mixed bag of “ancestors”. Some traits are hereditary – others are acquired (generally, by imitating others – or perhaps dinned into us by outsiders). Before any form of visual representation “grabbed” me, I found myself obsessing over music. Not that’s not quite true – first was a painting, and it’s one which happily has pursued me throughout my life and now hangs in my dining room – but that’s another, longer, and rather irrelevant story, so we’ll ignore it.
    So – music – I drove my mother nuts, demanding that I be taught to play the piano (which, BTW, I still do – pretty much every day – play the thing, I mean – not demand stuff from mother, she’s long gone!)
    And to avoid making this as long as some of my other comments on DS, I’ll go straight for the jugular. Music has been my heart, my spirit, my love, my life, my constant companion, for three quarters of a century. Even when I am not playing it, it haunts me – it is in my head, in my heart, in my soul. I cannot put it down.
    There is a criterion. Most people talk about “classical” music, “pop” music, “jazz” music, and so on. I ignore this – music is either “good” or “bad”, and classification stops right there. Beyond that, it’s just words. It’s like listening to “wine buffs” – I grew up surrounded by vintners, my father was winemaker, the vintners’ sons mostly went to the same college I was sent to. The reality is quite simple – sommeliers can describe what they “like” with a whole heap of nouns and adjectives, from a dictionary for “connoisseurs” of fine wine – while the “common people'” can’t get much further than saying “I like this wine, but I don’t like that one” – and you know something? – their choices coincide with the sommeliers in something like 98% of the taste tests. So the terminology of the dictionary for sommeliers makes no difference to the quality of the wine.
    The same with “good” or “bad” music. But interestingly, here there’s a factor at work that cuts across the lines of “good judgment”. If you’re a teenager, you can’t go round saying you like “classical” music – so you choose one of the “modern” forms of music – “rap” perhaps. Now in this case the choice is no longer being made on the basis of “quality” or what the listener really “appreciates” – instead, it’s a process of yielding to peer group pressure, and ignoring any personal opinions or preferences, just to “fit in”.
    This also happens with art. And, by analogy, with photography.
    So when everyone else in the group responds to your post, Pascal, and tries to answer your question, I’m going to be fascinated reading the answers. My mind, my very being, functions in a kind of “sixth estate” in this context – which I can basically explain, so – “oi knows what oi likes!” – but I also know WHY I like it. Like one of Adrian’s photos, which he didn’t appear to think was as special as I do. I guess now is as good a time as any to confess this – that’s perhaps because I took his photo and did some post processing on it – and I wish to hell I could get hold of a TIFF file for it, to do the job properly.
    And what that illustrates is that we don’t all see the same thing. So there’s never going to be “one answer”. Sorry, Pascal. πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Oh well, you sure reeled me into that one πŸ˜‰

      OK

      Wine. I agree with you. Entirely. In fact, the downside of all the snobbish nonsense that sometimes surrounds wine tastings and art is that the ordinary person learns not to trust herself. And that’s bad. However, it is important to share a common language to describe subjective concepts such as taste or music. We don’t all have the same tastes, so the conversation is going to be pretty short if we limit oursleves to dualisms such as I like/I don’t like. Knowing how to express why gives us more of a spectrum on which to found a conversation.

      Don’t be sorry. It would be a shame if there was only one good asnwer for such an important question. And I’d be silly for asking it πŸ˜‰

      I’ve always been a teacher at heart. Professionally as a young adult and in all my subsequent jobs. Very often, when a question like that is the title of an article, the content is going to be very philosophical. Interesting but frustrating. I don’t much care about what famous blokes had to say about a concept centuries ago if it doesn’t help us move forward in a very practical way. If the answer can’t be “step 1, do this, step 2, do that”, I’m rarely interested in the question in the first place.

      Art photography is neither rocket science nor Jedi arts. There are paths you can follow to learn how to make you photographs more compelling. As you and I know, gear isn’t one of them. But storytelling is charted territory. So are performance arts, and many other successful forms of photography. I’m looking for answers along those lines, that readers might have experimented with (otherwise, they are all in books and not that hard to find πŸ˜‰ )

      Cheers.

      • jean pierre guaron says:

        Something else I didn’t explain – my habitat in the “sixth estate” gives me abnormal reactions. I don’t just “see” what I’m looking at. I “experience” it. I think I’ve mentioned before, that when a particular piece of music, or – more commonly – a particular performance of it, “strikes a chord” with me, multiple reactions set in. Totally outside my control.
        People sitting behind me at concerts sometimes notice, as my ears start living a life of their own, and flap around, with the related muscles going into convulsions, as I wallow in a musical experience that I really love. – and either start muttering about it, or laughing at it.
        Similar reactions set in when I am confronted with a painting or a sketch – or perhaps a sculpture – or a photograph. If it really “strikes a chord” with me, the impact is way beyond mere analysis of the visual structure in front of me. Yes that’s there too. But that alone doesn’t cause the reactions inside me that “great” art does.
        The underlying reason for mentioning music is (1) to depersonalise this comment, taking it from photography to music and (2) introduce something which has become common in musical circles and which freezes my blood. Music, for me, has always been not just an aural experience, but an emotional one. It absorbs me – I absorb it – I need “booster shots” from time to time, but in between, I carry it in my head and my heart – always there, and playing INSIDE me, long after the concert, or turning off the HiFi. (I do get a similar reaction with art, etc, but that’s not “for here”, right now, this instant). So when the musical “modernists” took over and started promoting their message, that music was nothing more than a “mathematical construction”, I was shocked – appalled – horrified – aghast. And frankly, I can’t believe it – if that’s what they are choosing to write, then I don’t want to listen to it. I have a mathematical mind, and I really cannot see any connect between the two – such an approach would simply remove from music the very thing that makes it special, for me.
        Some of which has little or no relevance here. But some does – this morning, before I woke, during my REM sleep, I found myself dreaming about Adrian’s photo. I do NOT dream about “rap”. πŸ™‚

        • pascaljappy says:

          What is the photo of Adrian’s you mention? I’d like to see it for myself πŸ™‚

          Some people are just dry inside and refuse to believe in feelings. It must scare them. Others, I guess, try to analyse feelings, which is an interesting topic, but shouldn’t in any way diminish our enjoyment of them.

          Music is essential to life.

          • jean pierre guaron says:

            The thing is – other people see “art” and “photography” as a two-dimensional creation. Something absorbed through their “senses’. Whereas I “feel” it, if it’s “great” art. And that difference makes discussion of the what, the why and the wherefore rather impossible. How can I possibly describe to any of you, why a particular piece of sculpture (for instance), left me rooted to the spot for – dunno exactly – over an hour, anyway – bawling, every time I looked at it? Or why, when I was in the MusΓ©e Marmottan Monet, confronted by that painting from an artist I’d never heard of, who was apparently a relation of Monet’s, by marriage, and I was completely blown away by it – stuck to the floor, couldn’t move.
            The impact was way more than “aesthetic” in the sense other people see art. And as with the impact of music, it’s something I can’t even explain properly in words. I couldn’t delineate a path for others to follow – like the so-called “rules of composition” – which would generate this inside me, when they produced a work of art or a piece of music or a photo which “fitted”. There IS no path like that.
            I think I’ll leave this here – it’s not mainstream anyway, and it’s a distraction from your theme. I just felt it was appropriate to mention that there’s not just one “aesthetic”, attainable by attending art classes. To me, that merely shoves people in the right general direction – with no assurance as to where, exactly, they might land.
            A classic which might appear more relevant is Picasso. He certainly studied art – did the usual, of seeing how the great masters of the past had drawn or painted – practised imitating them – and then cut loose, to do his own thing. That was when he became a “great” artist.
            When we analyse our own photos, or each others, and apply traditional “rules”, there’s a terrible danger of derailing the process. Of creating a lot of pistache. Of encouraging people to be the same, which has a nihilistic effect on creativity. It depends very much on how we say it all, and what we say! πŸ™‚
            BTW – your photo of Cap Canaille at sunset reminds me of my pastel of a seascape, with breakers crashing onto the rocks at the base of a cliff, at sunset – the scene bathed in an orange glow, and the most extraordinary colours in the sea, where the light of the sun did or didn’t catch the water. And the horrified reaction of one of my partners, telling me “you can’t possibly paint the sea bright orange!”, to which I retorted “I thought we were only having this conversation because I just DID.”
            And Adrian’s photo is “Distant Horizon” in ##882 – The Non-Camera.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    “it can sometimes feel less than spontaneous and authentic”… hah! The real dilemma…
    If we have a real project (like W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Mioko in “Minamata”), the way we take our pics can serve the purpose… retaining authenticity at the end.
    But yes, framing our mind in advance *does* impacts spontaneity…. pushing us to leave interesting things on the side… blocking surprises.
    As for authenticity, I believe is is more linked to the picture itself… we all know that framing is a lie in itself; it the lie does not affect the intent, then great πŸ™‚
    How many times do we read “get a project”… Ming said so often in the past πŸ™‚
    But I think that a project makes sense only if it deeply concerns us; then it is our feeling we photograph, and that’s authentic πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ming’s correct (what else is new?) we should all have projects. And, as you say, only projects that deeply concern us.

      Because, to be honest, why take photographs of subjects that don’t deeply concern us? What’s the point? It’s a complete waste of time, energy and resources.

      Projects direct our energy and make us more aware of what surround us. They give us focus. All real artists are project-oriented. Photographers without projects are just tourists. Most of us have projects, but simply haven’t formalised them in our minds. Cheers

  • jean pierre guaron says:

    This post is such fun – I’m going to have another (hopefully completely different!) try.
    You ask “What makes a photograph great? If we could answer that one in a few simple sentences, producing great photographs could probably automated. But that doesn’t mean that worthwhile pointers can’t be examined in a brief post, right?”
    1 – Genius!
    2 – If I knew the answer to your questions, I would have been 1 above, years ago
    3 – All these tips are “helpful” and “well intentioned”. But they have always seemed to me like the beginning of the path – somewhere between primary/elementary school and high school, but not a post-graduate degree like a master’s or a doctorate.
    It reminds me of a 1960’s film produced in the UK when British cinema was still great – “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. The lead role was taken by the redoubtable Maggie Smith, and her title role was “as an unrestrained teacher at a girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh”.
    There are all sorts of descriptions of the plot – but the one that resonated with me, and still sticks in my head, was the defence she put forward to the Scottish School Board, when she was hauled up before them to explain why she was so unconventional in her teaching methods.
    She informs the Board that “My role is not to ‘instruct’ the students – from the Latin root ‘instruere’, meaning ‘to drive in’. My role is to ‘educate’ them – from the Latin root ‘ex ducere’, meaning ‘to draw out’.”
    With that, she dismissed the whole approach of the School Board, which she regarded as creating a flock of parrots, all reciting the same stuff and none understanding any of it. Instead, she wanted to help the children develop within themselves, and build to a much higher level which would see them through their lives.
    When I was young, I started out – quite accidentally, as it happened – reading up on “composition” in photography (and I still have the first book I ever found on this subject). And my photography immediately jumped up a notch. But I soon found I was “doing my own thing”, copping flack from other photography friends for not following the path, and isolating myself, so that I could enjoy what I did, without regard to other people’s opinions. Half a century passed before I began to understand the real basis for my distaste for “opinions”, but that’s a distraction from this discussion.
    In the interim, time was passing, I was continuing to mature and learn stuff about practically everything, and becoming more aware of “what makes a true artist”. A Michelangelo. A Da Vinci. A Monet. A Van Gogh. A Rembrandt. A Picasso. A Rodin.
    And it ISN’T just a set of cards, that you can buy online from Photzy or PhotoWhoa. They’re the start of the road. They’re – like – how to turn the camera on.
    The pace quickens once you pass that stage, and start to see and think like “a photographer”. NOT “imitating” – that leads nowhere – it just generates pastiche – stuff that may (or might not!) be “technically correct”. But devoid of “it” (as in “the ‘It’ Girl!”) – devoid of soul.
    This is the fork in the road, for me. Where I choose to dump the 99% and their annual output of trillions of photos. Where I look, instead, for a “picture”. Something that makes me stop dead in my tracks, like that painting in the MusΓ©e Marmottan Monet – or the day I sauntered into a Museum, and INSTANTLY, as I came through the door into a hall about 30 metres wide, I could see on the opposite side of the room, a single object on a column about 80 or 90 cm tall – a bronze! And at that instant my heart beat faster, because even at that distance, I could see at once what I was looking at – and simultaneously ignoring the whole of the rest of the exhibits in that room. It was a copy of Rodin’s “hand” – and it had completely blown me away!
    You cannot produce that effect, for me, if you simply “do as you’re told” and “follow the yellow brick road”. You have to BE an artist. BE yourself. Picasso did all that “instruct” & “yellow brick” stuff. But he was greater than that. I’ve seen him (live on film, anyway) challenged about his painting, and he erupted like Krakatoa blowing its top off – screamed at the interviewer something like “you want I paint some conventional painting? – impressionist perhaps? – I give you painting!” And then with brush in one hand, flailing like you couldn’t believe, palette in the other, smothered a canvas about 0.8M-1.0M by about 2M with paint – painting non-stop, wet on wet – and within 10 minutes he had created an “Impressionist masterpiece”. But you see that’s not the point. That merely showed he knew HOW to paint. Not “what” to paint, or what approach to take, or what style.
    It’s the aesthetic that drops through the cracks in the floor, unless you do the hard yards and go the extra miles, as all these truly great artists have.
    And THAT’s why their stuff is in the galleries (and mine’s not! – LOL)
    THAT’s what answers your questions, Pascal – at least, for me.
    And why the analogy with my music is a valid one. Example – I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve listened to Betthoven’s violin sonata – but on one glorious occasion, in the Town Hall in the city where I grew up, we had visiting violinist – one of the Oistrakhs, but I’ve long since forgotten which one – and at the end of the first movement where (so I’m told) the original score describes a theme, and then follows an instruction to “improvise”. Whether that’s true or this one – that various sets of standard variations at that point have developed over the years – I know not; my instrument was the piano. Whatever – this guy play that section of the first movement with such enthusiasm, with such genius, that his Strad seemed to be defying the laws of physics and playing chords, as he raced along – two of the strings broke, and still he kept going, even though that MUST have thrown the bridge of his instrument out, and with it, the tuning of the violin. As the final chords of the orchestra took over from this incredible performance he bowed politely, twice, and beat a hasty retreat, off stage, to restring his instrument – not returning for 10 or 15 minutes. And THOUGHOUT that absence, I was stunned – I was in my late teens at the time, and what I’d always regarded as “the blue rinse” set – elderly ladies who tinted their grey hair blue to rid themselves of any yellowing – too “prim” and “restrained” and imitating their perception of the british upper classes – spent the entire time not just clapping – but actually stamping their feet on the floor, till our hero returned, to resume the rest of the concerto. Unheard of behaviour!
    And THAT was inspired by true genius – not just by doing his lessons at the conservatorium!

    • pascaljappy says:

      I actually think all those tips are complete garbage and hinder your photography, by hiding the deep psychological roots for our appreciation of visual arts behind a veil of context-free rules. Not only hindering garbage but garbage actually design to hinder. Because when people don’t make progress, you can sell more garbage to them for their whole life.

      What you describe – ‘being completely blown away by a piece’ – is what art means. Not blown away? It ain’t art. If can put it down after a few seconds, it’s just weak. If you can stop looking at it, thinking about it, then it’s great art.

      The Oistrakhs rule. That must have been quite a performance. True artists have something visceral inside of them that drives them. Plus tremendous work ethics and desire to do better every time.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    And here, to round out all my comments on this topic, is the ultimate path to the creation of a “great” photograph. Follow the path of the idiots who claim music is just a mathematical construct, and apply to the same kind of mathematical construct to the creation of a visual art form in the shape of a photograph. Here’s the recipe book! (PS – it goes way past the “golden ratio”!)
    https://medium.com/hd-pro/the-mathematics-of-beauty-and-the-golden-ratio-156b948c3d1a

    • pascaljappy says:

      Interesting. Maybe we should start writing posts with a number of paragraphs, a number of words per paragraph and a number of letters per word that are all fibonacci numbers πŸ˜‰

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