The hallmark of a great photograph is its ability to maintain the viewer’s attention and interest long after the initial wow effect, even after multiple viewings. Does understanding the subject matter help create photographs that achieve this ?
Welcome to the first episode of Basics. As previously mentioned, the series is destined to create insights on what makes photographs good, by circling certain topics and questions that often get neglected in typical online photographic “education”.
And, as also previously mentioned, my expertise does not reach far enough into this field for me to provide definitive solutions. And I wouldn’t do so, even if I could. Instead, what seems more interesting is to highlight certain interesting ideas with photographs, hand out whatever knowledge I may have about them, and hope for contributions of the rest of the experts in this community via comments. Whatever coalesces into apparently firm ground will be saved into dedicated pages 🙂 So, if those topics interest you, get reading and provide your insights below 🙂
This first topic (having a deep understanding of your topic to make better photographs) seems obvious at first. It creates a sort of bridge between scientific and documentary photography, on one side, and artistic photography, on the other. To spoil the conclusion, I’ll just say that, to my eyes, the most fascinating photographs are very often those that do bridge that gap, showing evident knowledge and great personal creativity. Here are some examples from my recent shots, tell me what you think :
This, above, is a purely creative photograph of a tulip at a stage of life where it would usually be on a compost heap.
That, below, is a more documentary photograph of interesting looking bark in my garden.
Of course, the divide isn’t as clear as I make it to be in those sentences. There is some documentary information in the first and I did try to make the second pretty and interesting.
But, to my eyes, the very first image on this page (in b&w) is more interesting than either of the following two, just discussed (although the tulip does appeal to me a lot 😉 ) Of the first of these, it retains the artistic approach. Of the second, it keeps the focus on interesting details of the life of the tree. I mainly noticed the scene because of a lot of recent reading about trees and forestry. And I feel that focusing on the interesting botanical details while maintaining a personal approach (the depth of field, composition, face-like features, b&w processing) is what makes this work, for me. There was nothing in the photo above that I could latch onto intellectually, to make the image other than pictorial. Whereas in the first, I had just been reading about how chopped down stumps continue to live and evolve up to 20 years, so the cut line caught my eye.
What about you? Which of the 3 do you prefer and why? Please let me know, let’s get this topic covered :o)
Let’s examine a second example related to Christian religion.
Above is a documentary photograph of a religious artefact covering a baptismal font. I left the photograph in coulour to highlight the metal, and focused on the embossing rather than the cross as that felt more interesting. Still, it is a factual photograph.
Below is a slightly more traditional church “pretty picture”.
Both feel good enough to be presented to you. But the first will mainly be of interest to those with a pre-existing interest for religion or metal working. The second is well crafted and OK but will probably retain your attention for a few seconds only before you move on.
The following two photographs, however, feel better than either of the two above.
What links the two below are teachings of The Bible. A topic about which my education is sorely lacking but which discussions with friends have enlightened me about slightly.
As I understand it, if you were to resume The Bible’s teachings to one word, that word would be Christ. And yet, in Provence among other places, Mary has a very strong following. And, in Provence in particular, so does Mary Magdelene (both picture below). This is a source of theological ‘friction’ between currents of Christianism.
The second photograph takes the opposite approach to the first. But, by making the crucified figure small and at the convergent point of the building, highlights its fragility (and yet visual strength) compared to its surroundings.
My point here isn’t to take a religious stand, but merely to show that photographs that are based on a strong topic are more likely to interest viewers than those which are merely documentary or merely pretty.
But this flies in the face of the views of many experts.
For instance, some highly-regarded academic teachers of photography are lamenting the fact that most of the images produced by their students need pages of text to support them. They – the teachers – say that a good photograph should always be able to stand alone. And I agree entirely.
While text can help contextualise and explain, it should never be a cruch. And while series can help the photographer make their meaning more clear and tackle multiple facets of a topic of interest, each photograph in the series should be interesting in isolation.
So, how can a photograph based on deeper-than-average understanding of a topic be revelant and attractive to a large number of people, without requiring supporting text and series?
I can only venture two answers to this:
Firstly, the reason I feel this works is because the photographer chooses a broad topic (almost universal, in the case of nature or religion) and applies a personal treatment to it. The deeper-than-average knowledge you have of a topic is something you selected to learn about. There’s nothing absolute about it. It’s something that stuck with you. And your focus on it will attract like-minded people. So you carve out a section of that universal topic for yourself, through the deeper knowledge you acquire about it and the way it affects your work. The broad topic will attract the attention of many and the specific facet will keep it, for the few who are drawn to the same subjects.
Secondly, you shouldn’t try to appeal to a vast number of people but to be vastly interesting to a smaller number. This is what successful artists do, even though those that fetch 7 figure auctions do strive a global appeal. Good for them, I’d probably do the same in their position. But, in mine, I’m happy if a minority really enjoys what I photograph. It’s certainly far better than being dull to everyone, which often happens with generic work.
So there you have it. I feel a combination of personal treatment and obvious focus on a specific topic (above : cars in nature, the environment, exploring with motor vehicles, good or bad? …) makes for more powerful and lasting images. See how the presence of this white pickup adds a lot to the suggestion made by the photograph.
Now, what do you think of that idea? Do you have any supporting arguments or, on the contrary, counter examples? Let me know, it just takes a few seconds and gets the discussion going for the benefit of all 🙂
Again, a Happy New Year to all!
Never miss a post
Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.