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?
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.
… 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 😉
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.
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.
Because you’re too kind, you’re not asking. But I will 😉
So, how do you create an attention-grabbing photograph, right ? 😉 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.
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.
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 😉
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.
None this has made the issue any easier, so much for selling transformation 😀
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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