What Makes A Great Photograph

Sorry for all the photo-philosophy lately but indulge me again for a moment. I promise as the mood suits I will get back to some rants about stupid shit that's everywhere – fact is I just flagged yet another nonsensical Fuji review as fodder for a rant, hopefully with some purpose. Today I do want to discuss a bit more of a philosophical topic. What makes for a good photograph? A great photograph possibly? Maybe one you just like a lot? What does it take?

The top photo came up in a twitter conversation that prompted me to buy a new book I've had on my list for years. This time I just bought the damn thing instead of making a note to self. I really can't wait until it gets here. I'll get far more enjoyment out of it than any hunk-o-gadget I could possibly buy. I may even learn something important. We'll see. It's certainly better on my wallet than another redundant picture taking device or lens I don't need or just about anything photography related. It's probably a far more productive way to spend an hour or five than surfing gear reviews that tell me how much something will improve my photography. Yeah, right.

I'll tell you right now, I love that image. Love it, love it, love it. The question is why? It's technically botched… or is it? I'm positive that the effect wasn't intentional. The describable technical characteristics would tend to make it sound botched and it was but sometimes that serendipity can be transcendent. Let's walk through a few questions about this particular image.

  • Is the only reason I like it because of the person that is the subject?
  • Would I like it even better if somehow it was technically perfect?
  • Would it be better without the grain?
  • Are there sharper, different, versions of this right next to this one in the shot sequence? Maybe with more of that particular recognizable face showing? More importantly would those be somehow a better edit?

Maybe I should re-do some of these photo-philosophy posts and re-brand them as secrets to photography with a slightly different slant. I'll give you the answer to all of the above, the simple answer is that those are impossible questions. they cannot be answered - there is no answer to any of them. No recipe. If you could go out tomorrow and grab a celebrity of one sort of the other and make this same exact frame down to the pixel would it be as good? That's impossible of course but it's just as impossible to say. There is no god damned recipe. Sorry for raining on the parade. On the other hand that's what makes photography interesting, challenging, impossible, frustrating, worthwhile, satisfying, and above all so very magic.

I will tell you a few things that are absolutely factual though. Almost inarguable. Is Bert Stern the most fantastic photographer of that moment by any measurable way? Probably not. There could be a guy right next door that is far far far better than Mr. Stern in every single objectively or measurable way. Devise some sort of photographic olympics with very diverse and controlled photo related things, knowledge, skill, eye, compositional sense, reaction time, you name it – everything. Mr. Next-door may win it all, every single event. Who cares he wasn't there, didn't shoot this subject and nobody will ever know he made a better picture that same day at the very same moment of some subject that is ravishingly beautiful but is also completely unknown and will continue to be. There are so many things wrapped up in any photograph including the who as the subject it's impossible to divide them up and quantify them. They are absolutely not objective.

So where's the factual part in the above paragraph? It's there but let me be more blunt. You want people to see your work – and desire to see your work. Do you want it to live forever? Make damn sure you take pictures of celebrities that will live forever, the subjects nobody will ever get enough of. Now or later. What's so special about Bert Stern, or Annie Leibovitz or any of um? Is it photographic skill and knowledge - certainly not. I assure you there are "better" photographers in whatever way you would quantify that. Too bad they don't have access to the subjects the entire planet just cannot get enough of.

I've talked about access before and if that's what you need to any subject there is no short-cut. So what does celebrity and fame have to do with anything practical to us regular old photographers? More than you think. First off - edit, selection, serendipity, etc. Let's pretend there are other versions of this image on the roll some before, some after. Let's pretend they are technically better too. This just might be the one that has some je ne sais quoi that the other sharper, better, whatever images don't have. Is this true? Possibly - possibly not – this maybe the only one and probably is given anything with M.M. is publishable. Does this situation arise? Absolutely – pick the one with the "something about it" rather than the one that will paint you as a "better photographer" loose the bullshit fear that somebody somewhere will think you have no idea how to do it "right". It doesn't matter, that something special is far far far more important. I picked M.M. to illustrate a point actually a few.

What else? Well, I wanted to bring up the access thing again. This is absolutely transformational – pointing your camera at the right thing. No matter how good you are, if you are playing games practicing for someday when you might accidentally get access to subjects ,famous or not, you really want to take pictures of just stop – do the real work. Get the access.


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