Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Figuring Out Why Some Photographs Work

My last post was a review of George Barr's worthwhile book Why Photographs Work.  But the review never really tackled the question.

This followup post moves the subject along.

I've written in previous aticles that how we experience a photograph as a viewer, and how we make successful photographic images, are different enterprises.  Anyone can be moved by a masterful photograph, though coherently articulating why the photograph moves the viewer might be difficult.  Anyone can memorize the checklist for taking a "successful" photograph (composition, color, tonality, sharpness, depth of field, exposure, etc., etc.) but it is rare for any of us to make one that works so well that people want to keep going back to it.

I've reviewed books on both of these subjects.  And I continue to seek more of them, to read them, and to write about them. The best I've recently read from each perspective are:  The Practice of Contemplative Photography, by Andy Karr and Michael Wood, and The Photographer's Eye, by Michael Freeman.

Karr and Wood penetrate the act of making an image experientially (may I say existentially), and do it in a most readable manner.  Their interest is in the photographer's soul (the feeling/reacting part), not necessarily the mind (the thinking/analytic part).  Freeman gives us a thorough and exhaustive analysis of the elements that make a strong photograph. His book is a treatise on photographic design. He covers the analytic parts in which Karr and Wood are lacking. Together they cover the thinking as well as the feeling, the mind as well as the soul of the photographer.  One book gives balance to the other.  Some day I'll teach a course on the experience of making a photographic image that uses both books in its curriculum.

So, why do some photographs work better than others?  My answer is this.  Photographs work best when the photographer has internalized the best practices of design and is completely present with what is being photographed.  No distraction, no agenda, no "program" or message.  Just being there, almost merging with the subject.

Look at the images that work for you, and test this out.  I bet it's the same for you as it is for me. The best images have the photographer's heart invested in them.  Forget about objectivity and distance.  This is about art, not journalism.  The photographer is in the picture, behind, on the other side of the lens. I don't have to look very hard to see Bresson, Adams, or Reichmann in their pictures.  Their souls are in the best images they chose to share with the world. 

Here's an exercise to illustrate my point. Look at the best portraits you can find.  Portraits make the exercise easier because they deal with  people.  The best ones capture a relationship with the photographer.  The photographer is putting something into the image that goes beyond mastery of light, shadow, exposure and composition. The moment the picture freezes for all time includes the connection, however brief, between the souls on both sides of the camera. 

The unseen presence of the photographer haunts the best pictures. This presence is there in all the pictures that work, not just in portraits.  It's in the best landscapes, the best still lifes, the best street photography, the best commercial shots.  Without the photographer's presence, the picture is dead no matter how technically perfect it might be.

Why do some photographs work?  Because they have an infused connection between the subject and the photographer.  It's not something technical.  It's something spiritual.

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