Or....Merit, and Why it is so Rare.....chapter 3 from On Looking at Photographs *, David Hurn and Bill Jay also cover this topic which is of paramount importance to anyone who picks up a camera with a view to capturing something.
Taking photographs and looking at images is always subjective. I so often hear people say "I wouldn't hang that on my wall!" Well to be honest there are an awful lot of photographs that I wouldn't hang on my wall either but that doesn't stop me liking the image. Conversely there are images that I wouldn't hang on my wall, I don't like the photograph but it doesn't stop me appreciating the art and craft that produced them. Having said all of that there are also pictures that are raved over that I can't apply any of the former to at all!
Off topic but strangely relevant, last night I watched Educating Rita for the first time in ages, she wanted to be able to write educational essays, to be like the other students, comment on plays and books with the correct vocabulary. Her professor was reluctant to teach her because he liked her refreshing outlook on life, her honest approach to books and the fact if she thought a book crap she said so! I often wonder if in learning to "read" a photograph, to analyse it, apply a certain level of critique, appreciate the lines or composition we become too engrossed in the technical aspect and either lose sight of the image itself, either not seeing the beauty or the horror it is trying to portray, or even shock horror feel obliged to find something "good" about it while our inner self is screaming "actually I think it's crap!"
Some will argue that an image, which on its own is irrelevant, will take on a different meaning when part of a body of work. I guess this can be true, but I still have this little devil sitting on my shoulder whispering, "but why is that iconic? It's naff....say so...."
The meaning of images are malleable and can be manipulated in order to provoke the correct response, be that by titles or composition, but when contemplating the merit of a photograph, and why is it that one is seen to be better than another, it helps to be clear about the purpose behind its capture. As Hurn and Jay point out "a successful picture is not dependent on the size of the appreciative audience." (p43)
To help make this point they give certain examples IE. an x-ray finding an illness will be appreciated by a doctor and patient alike. It may then come to nothing or possibly could be part of some ground breaking medical advancement, revered by practitioners for years. Or they discuss a recent astronomical photograph which just looked like a "fuzzy white splotch in a black background" (p44) but transpired to be the first alien solar system ever photographed. As an image it was exceedingly poor, but the significance and interest generated by it was immense.
Their final example is that iconic shot of a young girl in Vietnam running away from her napalmed village. Not one of these examples had been dependent on the "aesthetic rightness of the image " (p45) and in fact "photographs are unique in that this lack of perfection may actually contribute to the power of the images by implying their closer relationship to real life, shorn of artistic pretensions." (p45)
Paradoxically the opposite can also be true, and this time they give an example of a family snap shot with a general appeal due to its interlocking forms and shapes; The Beach at Villerville 1904 Jacques Henri-Lartigue
The ideal to producing a photograph of merit is the combination of a subject with wide appeal but containing a high degree of craftsmanship and visual design.
Going back to a point I made in my third paragraph with regards to the audience no longer actually seeing the image itself it Hurn and Jay also broach this topic and give the example of Don McCullin who returning from war-torn Biafra was frustrated when colleagues complimented his beautiful pictures and did not see what he had intended "That's not a great picture, that's an actual young mother who is starving to death in Biafra right now!" (p46)
Another lesson to learn; the best photographs can function in different contexts. Take for example a photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, 1873 , originally taken to prove that the canyon was created by glacial scouring it now seems to symbolize the smallness of man against the towering power of nature and many trip out to this iconic site for that reason alone.
Thinking back to my original ponderings and the title of this chapter, it seems many things make a photograph of merit or a photograph "good", though no-one can absolutely put their finger on what elements they are as they can vary.
As Hurn and Jay point out ' "Good" is not the same as "Important" "Good" is not the same as "Useful" "Good is not the same as "Interesting" and "Good" is not the same as "Liking"' (p49) A good place to start is to ask yourself the following three questions 1) What was the intent of the photographer? 2) How well has the intent been realized? 3) Was the intent worth the effort in the first place? (p51) Whilst not necessarily providing the definitive answer asking these questions and getting the answer is the first step in understanding how merit "is rooted in a specific purpose....the picture can blossom, into something that transcends the original intent to become a more universal symbolic image." (p51)
Ultimately there is no rule book but the more you photograph something the more it feels right, you learn to recognise, before you even press the shutter that what is in front of you will not translate into a flat image.
I found this link which shows some of the iconic photographs that changed the world....judge for yourself if they are technically brilliant or just marvels.....we all aspire to maybe one day produce just that one shot......
*On Looking at Photographs. Text by Bill Jay and David Hurn. LensWork Publishing, Portland, 1999