It’s supposed to move you; to generate an emotional response. It’s about how it makes you feel, not just about how it looks. Anything from a single plain colour to highly complex dendritic patterns will have an effect of some kind. As photographers our judgement is sometimes so clouded by adherence to the strict parameters of good composition that we forget to see the subject and think about why we shot it. Was it really just about neatly filling a frame and fitting golden proportions? Or maybe something or someone intrigued us in that moment?
I often make prints and photobooks as gifts for friends and family, and occasionally someone’s choice of image to print will surprise me. The details would be out of perfect focus at 100% and there’d be blown highlights and a horrible background. Are you sure you want this one? I’d ask. It’s not perfectly sharp and the background is a bit of a mess. It may not print that well. Yes, they’d say. They don’t care about those details. They see the image as a whole and they like it. For them it’s a piece of art, not a piece of furniture.
The image as a whole. Sometimes we look so hard that we forget to actually see.
Much of my photography has been shot or edited to fit a pleasing composition. Even if the shot is opportunistic or impulsive, I try to get myself into a favourable position to take it so that at least the framing is half decent. I might think they look nice, but after a while the orderliness of them becomes uninteresting, and I’ll need a something new to look at, perhaps something imperfect.
I realised that many of the photographs I’d seen in exhibitions and galleries, by photographers old and new, were out of perfect focus with wonky horizons, poor lighting and cropped off details. But they were on those walls because they made someone feel something. Today people are selling their instagram selfies and grab shots to advertising companies because they convey a sentiment rather than a science of imagery. No one is analysing the exposure, noise content or focus accuracy.
The images in this article could easily be rejected on technical grounds; soft focus, poor exposure, lots of noise, cluttered backgrounds, poor framing; the list goes on. But while nailing perfect focus, framing and composition may be the ideal, failure to achieve it shouldn’t dissuade us from considering the merits of an image.
It’s always worth learning what makes a good image in the academic sense. If not from copious practice then from a book or online resource, or even paintings in art galleries. It’s better to have knowledge that you can let go of rather than not have it at all. You don’t have to be an art critic and explain the brush strokes or choice of oils. Just look at how light was observed and rendered on the canvas, notice where the elements are on the picture and how they guide your eye around it; the relationship between the light and shadow areas; the proportions of the image given to various elements; whether the spaces are purposefully spared or cluttered.
But we do not have to be a slave to these compositional ideas. As much as our brains enjoy regularity and compartmentalisation, our hearts often find great beauty and freedom in the imperfection of a photographic image. As soon as you visit an exhibition of photographs you’ll see that there is beauty in the randomness and imperfection captured in many of them. Of course, what resonates with me may completely differ with what affects someone else.
Like many photographers I do tend to walk around seeing things in shapes, deconstructing the picture into simple forms and elements to help me decide if I should take the shot. I’ll imagine edges of a frame around the scene and think about what to leave in and out. But then am I taking the shot simply for the sake of good composition or does it actually move me? Once I’m over the technical merits will it still be interesting to me tomorrow?
Even when taking an analytical approach to my shot, checking proportions, and backgrounds, my choices are often emotional, regardless of how good the composition may be. I’m always uttering the phrase ‘it doesn’t feel right’ or ‘it doesn’t move me‘ before rejecting the potential shot.
All subjects, from street photography to architecture can provoke an emotional response. Oftentimes it’s simply the result of opportunity, for instance, when shooting wildlife or sports or something in motion. There is no subject more or less worthy than another. I may see a great juxtaposition of architecture with leading lines and favourable negative space. But so what? If it leaves me cold then why bother?
I’d rather shoot and print a mug of steaming coffee to put on someone’s kitchen wall than a postcard scene of London at night. While the latter may impress me, the former will have a sentiment that affects someone’s mood and behaviour.
In previous articles I’ve stressed the importance of good compositional vision over the sophistication of our gear. With practice the eye for composition becomes instinctive. You just learn to see things as a picture, and often involuntarily! But one might also be willing to become untethered to strict rules and capture something for simply for the sake of impulse or memento.
I apologise that this essay is more philosophical than technical. Its premise is not to debate what is art and what isn’t. That is entirely subjective. I’m certainly not claiming my work is art nor that it should provoke an emotional response. And I’m definitely not trying to excuse my poor photography (although you may easily argue to the contrary with these examples!). It’s to remind us that not everything we capture has to fit neatly into a predetermined boundary with technical precision and nor should it. While there is value in learning what makes a good image, sometimes you just have to let go of the science and shoot from the heart.
Hello, I stumbled across your website by accident while googling a subject on photography and I’m glad I did. Very interesting article, it gives me some food for thought. Thank you!
Glad you liked the article, Donna, thank you :)
Sharif, it is easy for some who would misunderstand the point of the article and the photographs displayed, when one only strives for perfection of an image. That perfection, in many cases, loses the emotion of the moment as the photographer tries to capture what is there. Sometimes, we, as documenters of life, are just unable to make the scene stand still long enough to adjust and make the decision to record what we can. As a journalist, I often have to hand in to my editor or client, photographs I’m not particularly proud of. When they smile, I cringe, but that’s the business. Appreciate the thoughtfulness of this article and the images you chose to represent the sentiment.
Thank you Mike! Appreciate your comments :)
How boring would photography be if the only “right” / “artistic” shots were only the ones that meet precise text book definition of “good” photographs….. Love this article and your shots too – they are artistics. Thank you for writing this. A.Monoang
Many thanks! :)
Great article. Another reason to go out and shoot rather than suffer from gear envy.
Picasso was a great artist who chose to paint the way he did, not for lack of ability. He was also extremely skilled at careful accurate drawing even at a very young age. He simply chose to take his art in another direction.
We should do the same. We learn about the technical aspects of photography so that we can make deliberate choices about when to apply our knowledge and when to ignore it.
It is the whole of the end product that matters.
Thank you, and I completely agree with you :)
Excellent as always, Sherif! I’m really looking forward to meeting up soon and shooting some photos together.
Ditto Brian. Thanks! :)
You wrote this: I realised that many of the photographs I’d seen in exhibitions and galleries, by photographers old and new, were out of perfect focus with wonky horizons, poor lighting and cropped off details. But they were on those walls because they made someone feel something.
And the best example of above description are photos by Daido Moriyama, whose photographs are highly regarded and himself acknowledged as an great …..ARTIST!
To me, both contents and skilful execution matter. If one is lacking, the image is imperfect in the artistic sense. By “skilful execution” I mean we should at least strive to make good use of light (after all, photography = drawing with light). Looking at the above images, only the turtle photo does that. As to the others, I can understand they have sentimental value for the photographer and can evoke emotions in other viewers, too. I also take thousands of such snaps and they are all to some degree flawed, I am only truly happy it everything “falls into place”.
Sorry I’m not skilful enough for you and as stated in the article I wasn’t trying to excuse my poor photography. I try not to take thousands of ‘snaps’ but genuine photos. Teeming photography galleries from past and present masters will attest that it’s not always possible to convey the spirit of the subject with technical precision every single time. Perhaps you’ve missed the overall point of the article? :)
I’m sorry you’ve taken it so personally, my comments are not about you or your overall competence as a photographer. I rather like the article but I’m not convinced by the majority of photos that illustrate your point. They may be “genuine photos” but I can’t imagine them hanging on gallery walls ;-)
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that photos with “problems” cannot be works of art! Some of them certainly can, and sometimes “problems” (whether deliberate, imposed by the medium or serendipitous) can be the language of an artist.
Just to be clear, I never take anything personally, especially from complete strangers! :)
You’re entitled to your view, of course, and I appreciate the comments and feedback. Thank you. :)
Marcin, I appreciate your comment, however should a photograph be just skillfully executed, but have no emotional content, does it really have value for the viewer? On the other hand, will an imperfect photograph with great emotional content be of less value?
Mike, obviously images can have great emotional impact and be “valuable” even if they are “imperfect”, as is the case with the “Napalm Girl” image, the often imperfect pix from our childhood, random photos of our past friends and pets etc.
However, my comments are about photographs taken with an artistic intention and not just as historical, social, or family documents. Here, both the subject and the aesthetics matter and often it is difficult to tell one from the other. To illustrate my point, think of “The Old Man and The Sea”. If you gave a summary of its plot to a random schoolboy and asked him to develop it into a short story, he could do that but would the result be as pleasing? His version could still move some readers but his unskillful use of language would greatly diminish the end result.
Marcin, your comment here is as salient as the article itself. Your points are well taken but do not accurately address the article. From my perspective, and I believe from Val’s comment below, there are times when a photograph simply makes a statement, indeed, not being worthy of some fine art gallery. Alpha Whiskey’s article was not about “art”. It was about catching the moment. I don’t think anyone on PL would not believe that Sharif is capable of making very fine art photographs; as we have seen from him time and time again. As a journalist, there are many times when working an event that I just “snap” a photo because it happens in front of me when I’m not completely prepared to make adjustments to my camera. Poor exposure, lacking composition, all the trappings of some point and shoot photographer making “snaps” of the family, etc. My editors know that every picture I turn in is not going to be fine art because most of them have been on the front lines before becoming editors. These effects DO NOT diminish the end result if the photograph tells part of the story. Fine art, not always but it doesn’t matter if the viewer understands what the photographer is representing. Marcin, I would love for you to work with me one day in a crowed field of twenty pool photographers at a bicycle race when the photographer purposely bumps your elbow just at the moment you release your shutter; or a press conference where the same twenty photographers are herded into a space less then 5ft square.
Marcin, I have followed many of your comments on different threads and have always appreciated them. However, this time, I think you are trying to elevate Alpha Whiskey’s article to a different level which was not the his intent.
Mike, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. We both agree that photography is not just about fine art. I also understand the constraints of photojournalistic photography. Still, the article refers to “art” a number of times (not least in the title). I guess I was inspired to join the debate after reading this: “They don’t care about those details. They see the image as a whole and they like it. For them it’s a piece of art, not a piece of furniture”. To me, this is a false dichotomy. Granted, many (most?) people couldn’t care less if a photo is visually powerful. They only see their family event, their grandson, a celebrity, an accident, a demonstration or a product but not (at least consciously) the light, gesture, composition, colours or shapes of the photo. It’s only natural and, yes, the human emotion, the fleeting moment comes first. Still, I believe a proficient storyteller should aspire to be a master of their chosen medium. That’s my old-school view of “art”.
Marcin, I do understand your position and from where it evolves. One of my side businesses is making photographs of flowers for interior designers and decorators. This has been a very lucrative part of my income for the past 25 years. These photographs, and the still life work I do for myself, I consider my art. I’m good at this. In my main photography business as a forensic medical and criminalist photographer, the art, is knowing how to identify disease, or grid out a crime scene. For the most part, anyone could make the picture in these two fields. However, knowing physiology in my medical work, and understanding how to link photographs together from a crime scene is the art; since no one but law enforcement would want to see my work. You know it is said over and over, that “art” is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly, there are parameters that gauge fine art from what someone “likes”. But as we read some of the comments here, a few are amazed at what friends or family like in a photograph as opposed to the photographer.
Yes, Sharif, put the word in the title and alludes to that meaning several times in his monograph but I didn’t think, and apparently neither did several others think he was talking about “fine art”. I thought he was referring to the emotional “art” one feels when looking at a photograph. What the photograph evokes from the viewer who sees that photograph. For me, it was the bubble man. It brought back a memory I had as a seven year old at a street festival my family attended. Sure, we all had the little bubble bottles with the little circular metal piece that we dipped and then blew through to make bubbles. But at that street fair there was a woman who was dancing to music and she had great giant bubble makers. I had never seen such a think and it fascinated me. Sharif’s photograph, something I have seen dozens of times and didn’t really pay attention to, brought back that memory. Not the greatest photograph Sharif has offered us here at PL but for me…nostalgia. That little boy, became me for a moment. In that moment, the photograph was “art”.
Mike, I know what you mean. You may enjoy this short scene from the film Ratatouille, where a food critic remembers his mother’s cooking after tasting a similar dish: youtu.be/uXPlzdTcA-I The following review was, of course, glowing :)
Marcin, I’m just seeing this as I’ve been in the morgue all day working. I never saw the movie but yes, you are spot on with this example.
Thank you, Sharif. A very good and welcome reminder. I enjoyed all of your photos above because of what is saw in them, which as you say is subjective. I particularly like “Bubbles” because of the smiling, reaching boy, and “Turtle, New York” because of the child looking at the turtle through the glass, and perhaps the turtle looking back. Great images.
Thank you Cindy. I’m glad you enjoyed the images :)
As I’ve posted before, it’s really time to make room for what I believe has become the “out of the box” approach to photography; looking to create images that may not be technically perfect, as we are too often seduced to believe is the goal of the shot, but are about life and death (yes, even death). When a photograph moves a viewer such that they don’t care, or can’t care, to concern themselves with the “flaws,” because the image does what the photographer wants it to do, what more can a photographers ask? What more is there to ask?
The technicals should serve, not be the master. A correctly composed image may elicit excitement, but the technical aspect bows the knee to the spirit of life. Those images transcend what is “correct,” the heart soaring and seeing only what it feels.
Critics are always suggesting this, that and the other in order to make an image stronger, more compelling, better composed, but rarely do critics suggest what could have been done better to capture the emotion of the moment. Photographers talk much about capturing the heart of a moment but talk little about how to do that. Granted, a lot of it is instinct and an art of its own, the eye becoming honed in preparation for harnessing the luster of life in camera. But I’m just afraid that with the emphasis today being so much on
producing a “better” image (what with the technology we have today
contributing to this ability) will we eventually have to relearn the skill of how to even see those
moments through the camera?
Everyone who enjoys shooting should at least know the importance and reward of seeing photography as an opportunity to find the camera a tool for preserving something of what is so fleeting, so quick in passing. If budding photographers must learn the importance of mastering the technicals, isn’t it equally important that they know the value of learning how to preserve for generations to come something of the sacred?
Photographers are not lacking in shooting for the heart, but they are lacking in teaching how learn this skill. This aspect is being kept subservient to the technology in hand instead of a tremendous tool for the opportunity at hand. I hope this trend changes sooner than later.
Thank you for the very well-made article. I especially love the images of the dog in Iceland and Alexanderplatz in Berlin — fascinating images, regardless of whether or not they are “traditional.”
Along the lines of what you describe in the article, one of my favorite images from a trip I took is a blurred image of a man climbing a ladder, even though it is horribly out of focus. But I have an emotional response to this image, so I like it : )
Thank you Spencer. And you’re spot on – your response to the image is what gives it its value :)