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Foundations of Photographic Excellence

February 19, 2012

NASA Photo of South and North America

What makes a good photograph? The above NASA photo could qualify as a great photograph, but I’m thinking of a good picture made by a human being with photographically based tools, but not necessarily a satellite or a space shuttle. Megan Junell Riepenhoff comes to mind. She photographs the cosmos with barely a camera. In fact, her pictures are photograms created with the help of light sensitive materials, commonly found objects, a light source and only an occasional negative. For the picture below she used hair gel, sand, a balloon and a flashlight.

From the series Instar by Meghann Junell Riepenhoff

My first point is that a great picture should at least be as good as what is photographed. It could be better than being there. And it would most likely be a perspective that the viewer would not have conceived. In the case of Ms. Riepenhoff, being there may have inspired only questions from a casual observer.

See Meghann’s studio and read what she has to say here. Checkout her website here.

World Press Photo of the Year, 2011.

Samuel Aranda’s World Press Photo of the Year, 2011, does not need a caption to portray its power. That is because this image from Yemen relies on two millenia of Christian iconography to set the stage for interpretation. Joerg Colberg, over at Conscientious, has eloquently detailed his response to using a Christian symbol to illustrate Muslim suffering. That said, it is still a good picture and will most likely join the pantheon of historic depictions of “the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus”. I just Googled “The Pieta” and Aranda’s photograph came up after the first page of paintings and sculpture.

The Sodoma Pieta, 1533

Back to my second point. A great picture will hold up without a caption or label. Without words, pictures become adventures in form and space. They are viewed purely on visual terms, even if those terms refer to 2000 years of art history.

Photojournalism and Conceptual Art may take exception to my no caption theory and I agree.

Untitled by Cindy Sherman, 2011

Next on my list for photographic excellence is to avoid gimmicky tools — make that “extremely” gimmicky tools.

Photoshop manipulation is getting more common in the art world. In Cindy Sherman’s newest work, at the Museum of Modern Art, she has digitally altered her face and placed her body in an Icelandic landscape. I’m not complaining. I like the picture.

Let us, at least, consider avoiding  gimmicky “no-nos” as in fisheye lenses and starburst filters. There are so many tools available to photographers, use what works to fulfill your personal vision.

From Photographs of America by James Fee

Technical skills can be an indicator of excellence, but it is only one ingredient. James Fee had technical chops and he knew what to do with them. He would use vintage cameras and lenses and he did not hesitate to mutilate his film or stain his prints. He would work his images until his technical knowledge meshed with his creative intentions.

Mitch Dobrowner is more traditionally technical in his expression of  excellence.

Rope Out: Regan, North Dakota by Mitch Dobrowner, 2011

Finally, I want to discuss the lottery factor. In the digital age, quality is, at times, thwarted by quantity. It is OK to shoot thousands of pictures, but make those attempts with vision in mind.

Contact Sheet from The Americans by Robert Frank

Robert Frank created one of the most influential photography books of the 20th century. The Americans, published in America in 1959, included 83 pictures edited from 27,000 negatives.

Below is the chosen picture from the above contact. See the recently published book of his contacts here.

From The Americans by Robert Frank

When Garry Winogrand died in 1984 he left behind almost 300,000 unedited images, including 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6500 rolls of developed but not proofed film, plus about 3,000 additional contact sheets of unedited rolls of negatives. Winogrand did not like to edit his pictures while he could still remember taking them. He felt his personal memory of the experience could bias his choices.

Untitled (Fish), by Garry Winogrand, 1967

Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand were great practitioners of the 35mm camera. Winogrand would certainly be shooting digital if he was still around today. I’ll leave you with a Winogrand quote that wonderfully contradicts this post’s intention to outline some of the indicators for photographic excellence.

“I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.”

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