This week I am going to stick my neck out a long way. It is always interesting to see what other photographers have put their effort into if only to sort what you like and dislike. The trick is to sort out what exactly you see in the image that you like or dislike and then to decide how you would use it. This last bit is the most important for us as developing photographers. The WCPF Travelling Critique is an excellent resource and it was good to get fellow members views on some of those prints. These are the ones that were accepted but didn’t make it into the top 100, so why do you think? I am going to use the blog this week to try and build something you might want to consider when looking critically at a photograph (or a number of other things). There is more than one way, and this is not (emphasis on not) about how to become a judge, see the WCPF for those details. Feel free to disagree and use the discussion options on the blog to tell me how wrong I am and where and why.
Susan Sontag (1933-2004), critic and one of the foremost on photography wrote: “Mallarme said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph” and there were a wide variety of topics covered by the photographers who entered the WCPF Open, but to take the book metaphor a little further, not all of them told a story. Story is an important part of photography, it is rarely, if ever, just about the content of the photograph as you could write in a shopping list. It is the interconnectedness of the whole thing, its construction. So 100 photographs, 100 stories? Well I have already stated that to be not quite the effect, but there are two sides to each story/image, the teller and the viewer. “To photograph is to confer importance” – Sontag again, but that importance isn’t always shared by the viewer.
To illustrate from my own and some shared observations from other members as we went around. There was one print that I just failed to get the point of – as did several other members from the discussion around me. There were a couple of other prints that close up didn’t have the impact they promised at a distance. One I glanced at on a side table when the main lights were out and it was being lit from an acute angle by the light on the picture stand several feet away and it worked really well, as if there were multiple faces staring out. In an even light it was flat. One of a black and white subject would have been better (if a little ironically) rendered in colour because it’s focal point was an eye which would be big and brown and contrast to the monochrome represented in the rest of the frame. The blacks weren’t black enough and the whites a shade of grey to my eyes. The eye, the focal point from the title of the work, instead of being deep and vibrant, was soulless.
On the other hand: John Long ARPS DPAGB image “Dennis And His Bowl” had more depth to its tones the more you looked; Gill Cardy ARPS DPAGB AFIAP “Japanese Crane Dance” was the best of the wild life photography for me and Hanneke at least agreed with me on that one; Sheila Haycox ARPS DPAGB AFIAP ” Despair” I thought very atmospheric and I was struck by the shapes mirrored in window and figure; the composition, strong and simple and colour contrast shown by Martin Horton in “Passing The Pieta” I thought arresting and Mike Martin’s “Stair Light” I would happily hang on my wall. If you are now convinced that I shouldn’t be allowed near a keyboard unless heavily medicated, great! What is it about those images that makes you disagree?
I am not going to look at the technical aspects, that can be done better by others and is covered by the events we do over the year, thanks to the committee. The rules are not hard and fast but they should be mastered before we start to break them. So I am going to take for granted that the image: Is in focus and on the most appropriate part of the picture; that dust and marks have been cloned out (clean the lens and sensor regularly, even better!) and exposure is appropriate.
So, as someone who likes photography and who wants to understand more of it by making my own, it’s necessary that I don’t just suspend my judgement at the point of my initial reaction (though usually the strongest). The most powerful word in the whole of education is because (I don’t do humble opinions in case you hadn’t guessed). That is how we make the links between things, by applying our inner critic, by stating because …. There is a Japanese proverb that goes something along the lines of “If you want to know the answer ask, five times, why?” which is a very good place to start – five is an approximate number but in practise never less than three. That is the route to take after you have your initial reaction.
If you are in want of a metaphor for this whole process, think of a funnel. A funnel restricts the path of whatever passes through it to a defined point. Criticism of a piece of work should do the same. If it doesn’t it’s not the work but the criticism that is incomplete. Sort out what it is you like and what it is you dislike about the image. Make notes, mental or otherwise. These are great places to make the next steps on the journey and they can be used to improve your own images too. What we are sorting out is what we feel about an image and why. Yes it is subjective and certain (breakable) technical rules about framing, exposure and focussing aside, this is a subjective exercise. Very small things can take an OK photograph to a good one when executed well. This photograph makes me feel ….. because …..
Then is the time to look at how you react to those technical subjects, the ones I have listed above plus things like the use of colour (or not) and the thing that is so important to photography that it is named after it, the light (strength, direction, balance, colour). Ask yourself, “So what”?
There has been a lot of hot air generated over whether photography is an art or a craft, I would argue both. For me there is an art in all crafts and all art is manufactured. There is a connection between the nine linen panels of the Bayeux Tapestry (actually it’s an embroidery) and Robert Capa’s eleven surviving images from Omaha Beach (10 were published) but it isn’t in materials, scale, production time or production values and the big story, Norman Conquest, D-Day Landings respectively, wasn’t the artists to own but was there’s to tell. The way they tell it (please, no Frank Carson jokes at the back) is the art. Its balancing of the elements the craft. How does this photographer choose to represent this subject? Does it come across as a considered, thoughtful treatment or is it casually selected? That matters because …? It focuses the attention on ….? which is important because …? Would this image work better in black and white/colour? Why …? because …? Why do you think the photographer made the choice to use/not use colour/black and white? What do you feel about that? How is it cropped? Is the composition classical? Does it follow the rule of thirds? or the rule of fifths? (basically for landscapes, but works on the face too, I am told) or did they/you go to art school/ good at maths/have watched every episode of QI and cunningly employ the Golden Ratio? What effect does it have …? Because…? How does the arrangement of objects in the frame give energy to the story? Because…?
Now you have enough material to make your decision about the photograph and importantly, you can say with some confidence why it works or doesn’t work for you. This is important for us as developing photographers. Other people’s work is as important as our own at the very least (no, make that more important if we want to develop our own) if we want to get past the click-go-happy accident form of photography we probably joined a photographic club to get away from. The next step is to take all this and decide what you would do to improve it by way of everything else you have looked at. This would work because …?
Now in a more formal setting, one where you report back to an audience either directly or in writing (this goes for any topic, not just photography) you would need to feed all this information back. If you find yourself in this situation don’t just repeat what you have already said, summarise it and use the things you have discovered because you have asked yourself because (or so what) as the conclusive points. Take it from someone who has sat through thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of presentations, it makes a big difference.
A really big thanks to Julie and Ian for their efforts last night, much appreciated.
Here endeth the lesson. Over to you ….
Next week … Wedding photography … you only get one chance to get it right!
This Blog was written by Ian G.
We’ve just posted it a little differently due to some upcoming changes to our website (more details on that soon!)