For me, perhaps the most perplexing question in photography is how to separate the wheat from the chaff – how to tell whether a particular photograph has merit, or not – or more precisely, how to feel confident that my own opinion about a photograph that I like or dislike, whether it is a photograph taken by another photographer or one of my own, is an informed and reasoned one based on an accurate understanding of the aesthetic content and technical quality of the image.
What distinguishes an outstanding photographic image from the ranks of mediocrity? How does one judge the merits of a photograph with absolute certainty and without prejudice? Time and again I walk into a gallery, or open a photo book, or a photography magazine and find images that are clearly being displayed as fine examples of the art of photography and yet I look at them and wonder what the gallery owner, curator, critic, publisher or magazine editor saw in them; and why the photographer even bothered to take the picture in the first place. This is because I see nothing in the image that would justify its display or publication. I don’t always find myself in disagreement with the experts. But when I do, I generally don’t know why – and that’s what bothers me.
It is a question I’ve wrestled with a great deal over the last few years; and in an effort to discover why I find myself at odds, on occasion, with the photography establishment, I began to analyse the process by which I arrive at my own conclusion to discover if the fault lies there.
In sport, there are two types of method used to determine the outcome of a contest: by measurement; or by opinion. In the former, the result is generally clear and incontestable: for example, whoever finishes first, runs fastest, vaults highest, jumps longest, lifts the heaviest or throws the farthest wins. And even in those sports where opinion determines the outcome (like diving, figure skating and boxing, for example), the sport’s governing body generally takes measures to minimise the risk of bias on the part of individual judges influencing the outcome unfairly. But with art, even where contests are organised, the question of how to rank the entries remains problematic; for me, at least.
When I look at a photograph, I seem to apply two separate sets of criteria to form my opinion of it. For the purposes of the discussion, I will call these: subjective and objective.
Subjective criteria: are those that enable me to decide how I will respond emotionally to the photograph.
At some point, the photographer decided to take this photograph; and whether that decision was made reactively (to something that caught his eye in passing), or proactively (to an idea that formed in his head that he ultimately expressed in a photograph), I believe that an emotional connection took place between the photographer and the subject he photographed. Of all the potential subjects he saw that day, he chose to photograph that one; or of all the ideas that flitted in and out of his head that day, he chose to express that one in a photograph. It is my contention, therefore, that the photographer, whether realising it or not at the time, connected with the subject he then photographed; and I believe that this is true of every photograph that was taken deliberately. This is what I will call the primary connection.
The subject, therefore, meant something to the photographer who used his knowledge, experience and skill to depict that meaning in the medium of photography. It is only later that we, the viewers, come along, looking at photographs online, or in a book, or in a gallery, and some of them we gloss over while others grab our attention and we stop and look at them. What we are experiencing then is a connection to the photograph; and through it, to the original subject. I call this the secondary connection.
The connection a viewer of the photograph experiences might be similar to the connection the photographer had to the subject he was photographing. Or maybe the viewer’s connection is totally different. Either way, a connection occurs. Seeing the photograph triggers in our mind a process of retrieving (a) all the information we are holding about that subject and (b) our emotional relationship with it; and comparing them with the image in order to evaluate its significance to us. If you like kittens, a photograph of kittens will remind you of that. If you abhor violence, an image of violence will remind you of that. And even if you hate violence, you will most probably react positively to an image portraying the hatefulness of violence because it is consistent with your own view.
So, when it comes to the use of subjective criteria in evaluating photographs, each one of us is equally entitled to our opinion because each one of us is an expert in measuring the strength of the connection between the image and our knowledge, experiences and evaluative position vis-à-vis the subject matter portrayed in the image. As I see it, there is no right or wrong opinion. Each individual forms their own, personal connection with the image…or not.
On the purely subjective level, one connects with a photograph to some degree; or not at all. Consequently, these subjective criteria are not all that helpful when judging photography contests. They spark lots of discussion and sometimes passionate debate but since they are unique to each individual, they provide no definitive basis for comparison, much less, agreement. Whether or not you like cheese is not an evaluation of the quality of a particular cheese; it is simply a personal prejudice based on your subjective opinion of the product class.
Objective criteria: are those that enable me to decide how I respond intellectually to the photograph. Although they equate with the reliable methods used to determine the outcome of sports based on measurement, they are still problematic in the arts; the problem being that there is no single empirical standard against which to measure all photographs.
Having decided to photograph a particular subject, the photographer then summons all his skill, experience, knowledge and creative ability to portray the nature of his connection to that subject – what it means to him. For some, the subject is just there; and recording its existence is sufficient. For other photographers, the process is a journey to discover the true essence of the subject as they see it. The tourist who photographs the Eiffel Tower from the window of a passing coach may only aim to capture an image that will serve to trigger, in the future, his own recollection of the moment as it affected him personally and uniquely; but a different photographer might aim to convey to others the emotion he felt when the tower first came into view. Both are using photography to communicate; but the former photographer is, perhaps, only seeking to communicate with himself at a later point in time; whereas the latter seeks to communicate to others something that is, perhaps, timeless and elemental. And it is this ability to communicate that seems to form the basis for judgement of a photograph’s merit; and yet also proves problematic.
Is it important that the viewer understands what the photographer is saying? In conventional writing and speech, the communication paradigms with which we are all most familiar, the most important function of language is, for the most part, to communicate precisely and accurately between sender and receiver. A sign on a park bench warning of “Wet Paint” must signify that the paint is wet to all who read it; otherwise it fails in its primary purpose. But a person who neither speaks nor reads English will register only that the sign exists and presumably says something, without understanding what that message is. Does that mean that the sign is at fault? Does that mean that the non-English speaker is at fault? Or is it simply a case that the author of the sign and the reader of the sign have failed to connect (through the sign)? A cautious non-English speaker might avoid the bench in question, assuming that the sign imparted some significant information that might be a warning of some sort; and therefore the fact that the sign existed at all was sufficient to convey the intended warning (if not the specific message). Interestingly, with the increase in mobility of the world’s population, there is a growing tendency to construct signs using images to convey their meaning. A symbol of a man digging and a mound of (presumably) earth is the commonly understood sign for roadwork ahead; although it could be interpreted as a warning that a large, incontinent animal is on the loose. Either way, the motorist seeing the sign will (hopefully) proceed with caution.
Classifying people according to the languages they understand is relatively simple; but classifying people according to their ability to understand photographs is infinitely more complicated. Just as conventional language has the basic material of words at its disposal, and these words can be fashioned into constructs such as phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and chapters; photography has its own set of “building blocks” that fall into two classes (a) visual elements; and (b) visual effects.
Visual elements: are the things we see within the frame of a photograph – the subject, the background, the light and the shadows, the colours and the tones – and these elements are arranged in what we call a composition.
What we choose to leave out of the frame can sometimes be as important as what we choose to include. For example, a photograph of a person whose attention is focused on something outside the frame of the photograph can draw the viewer’s attention to that thing, even though the thing itself is not visible and therefore we don’t know what it is. Similarly, a visual element which is only partly within the frame of the photograph can sometimes exert more power than those elements that appear in their entirety.
Just as the basic building blocks of language are combined to tell a story, the visual elements of a photograph are composed and juxtaposed to tell a story – although sometimes that story is a mood or an atmosphere rather than a ‘tale’. And as with conventional language, the photographer takes pains to ensure that the visual elements used are those which best tell the story he is trying to tell; that none are omitted that are essential to the meaning and none included that are not germane.
When evaluating a photograph from the point of view of its visual elements, then, a possible starting point is to assume that every element present is necessary and contributes to the overall meaning of the image. Unless, that is, we happen to know beforehand what the intended story is; but that is rarely the case.
In reactive photography (eg street photography), the photographer often has little or no control over the selection and placement of visual elements besides that which can be achieved by altering his point of view: moving closer or further away, moving to the side, moving up or down, changing lens. The world is what it is and the photographer has to make do with that. In a way, therefore, the first creative decision a reactive photographer makes is where to shoot from.
Once the content of the shot has been decided, the photographer moves on to making creative decisions using the available arsenal of visual effects at his disposal.
Visual effects: are the tools the photographer uses to interpret the subject.
I know that the term visual effects may mean different things to different people so I’ll take a moment to define what I mean by the term. Visual effects are those techniques, either in camera or in post-production, than can be employed, at the discretion of the photographer, to determine the appearance of the photograph. These effects include basic controls such as camera angle (point of view), focus, depth of field, ISO, shutter speed, aperture, lighting and colour balance. They also include shooting techniques such as motion blur, panning, the use of filters and/or screens. And finally, there are a growing number of post-production tools that began by emulating the manipulation that once occurred in the darkroom and now extend that range of possibilities much broader.
Visual effects are used to some extent in every photograph, despite what the purists may think. They are what distinguishes the photographer from the person who takes snaps at his kid’s birthday party. Just as an artist uses palette knives and rags and a myriad of brushes to create his painting, the photographer uses whatever tools are at his disposal to realise his photographic objective. What is important, however, is how they are used.
Just as the composition should only contain those visual elements that contribute to the story, the visual effects used should be selected specifically to complement the story. If the visual elements are comparable to the nouns and verbs in a conventional story, the visual effects are the adjectives and adverbs, enhancing the story, bringing it to life. The story is not about them; and they should never be allowed to dominate the story; but without them the story might seem bland; and unless blandness is the subject of the story, the judicious use of visual effects is, in my opinion, completely appropriate.
How to read a photograph
So, now that we’ve established how a photograph is created, how do we tell if it is a good photograph or not?
The first thing is the connection; and this is quite arbitrary. If you are unable to connect with the photograph you can still judge it objectively from the point of view of its visual elements and effects and how well they have been used to tell the story of the image. But this is likely to be a cold, academic appraisal rather than an emotional one. Does that matter? I think it does.
The problem lies in the fact that if you don’t know what the photograph is supposed to be about, how can you tell if it has achieved its aims? To say that a photograph fails because the viewer does not understand it is like saying the “Wet Paint” sign on the park bench fails because the non-English speaker in the suit with horizontal green stripes didn’t understand it. The connection is fundamental to the understanding, in my opinion. The ultimate question is whether the photographer was able, through his selection and composition of the visual elements and his choice of visual effects, to transmit his connection with the subject to the viewer. And if the viewer connects with the photograph in a different way, does that matter? In my opinion, no; unless we are talking about photo-reportage where the key aim is to report the story accurately and clearly. Two photographers happening on the same scene will almost certainly connect with it differently because the nature of the connection depends not only on the scene itself but on how it relates to the knowledge and experience and world-view of the individual photographer. Unless the two photographers have exactly the same knowledge and experience and world view, the connection inevitably will be different to some degree. Similarly, two people seeing the same photograph will connect with it differently. So, for me, the question is not did you understand the photograph? It should be: did the photograph succeed in moving you; and if so, in what way and to what extent?
Looking at objective criteria in isolation
One could be forgiven for assuming that applying objective criteria to the technical aspects of photo production would be a reasonable measure of its quality. Is the focus sharp? Is the composition balanced? Is detail maintained at both ends of the chromatic range? These would be perfectly good measures for judging portraits taken in a studio by Cecil Beaton. But what if the photographer who took the image we’re looking at now didn’t want the subject to be sharp; or the composition to be balanced? This is the nub of the problem in my opinion; because the only person who could possibly know what the photographer wanted the finished image to look like is the photographer himself. So, ironically, if the photographer intended the subject of the photograph to be out of focus and it turned out to be pin-sharp, one would have to say that the photograph failed to achieve this particular objective, despite the fact that the standard test rates it successful. These objective criteria, therefore, should not be applied automatically across all photographs because that would be applying a subjective set of criteria as a test that purports to be objective..
Recently, a former colleague of mine asked me how I was spending my time since I had retired from work. When I told him that I was doing a bit of photography he replied, quite innocently: “With modern cameras, don’t they almost take the photograph for you?” I knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t being facetious; but without realising it, he had hit upon a very important point. Cameras have become much more sophisticated than they were when I first took an interest in photography, over 40 years ago. But what some of them are now doing is applying certain criteria on your behalf in a way that they regard as optimal. They decide what should be in focus. They select a shutter speed that will stop the subject dead in its tracks. They take control of aperture and colour balance. And will even compensate for your shaking hands. And they do all this in their quest to deliver the “perfect” photograph. But this is not what creative photography is about; and creative photographers, if they use these kinds of cameras at all, may find themselves fighting against the constraints. My colleague was wrong, because the camera does not tell you what to photograph, or where to photograph from; and it should not tell you how to photograph unless you specifically want it to; unless you want to hand over creative control to a machine.
So let’s give the photographer the benefit of the doubt and assume that the creative decisions made in taking the photograph were his own; that they were made deliberately; and they were executed successfully (to the best of the photographer’s ability).
Often, however, when we look at photographs, we have no reliable insight into what the photographer was aiming for. In fact, there are those who condemn photographers who resort to ‘explaining’ their photographs, claiming that the image should speak for itself. And without that information we have two choices: (a) apply the objective criteria we have learned regardless of what the photographer was aiming to achieve, since we don’t know what that was anyway; or (b) decide how we, ourselves, would have portrayed this particular subject or how we think it should have been portrayed and apply the objective criteria on that basis. Yet it seems to me that neither of these options provides a sound basis for judging a photograph objectively.
There is, however, a third option that we might consider: that is, judging whether the visual elements and visual effects fuse together to form a clear and consistent message. And if this all sounds suspiciously subjective well, it is; and it is blatantly based on a guess at the nature of the connection the photographer experienced.
Expert opinions. If we return to the sport analogy, we can see that the governing bodies of those sports whose outcome is determined by opinion, at least base their decisions on the opinions of experts; usually more than one; and sometimes even discarding extreme opinions to eliminate bias.
I assume that photography contests too are judged by individuals who have recognised expertise in the task they have been given. But what is an expert? How do they differ from everyone else? What do they know that the rest of us don’t know? Having listened to quite a few of them and having read what many more have written, the one distinguishing feature that I’ve noted is that they can see connections where I haven’t. And it is quite evident that the more photographs you look at and the more experts you talk to and the more you have read about photography and the more experiences you’ve had in your own life, the more connections you will recognise…probably.
On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time looking at photographs and reading about photographs and talking to experts about photographs in order to become something of an expert yourself, you will doubtless be driven to distraction by having to plow through endless iterations of the same old subjects and themes day after day. So, understandably, one thing that impresses experts is innovation. Photographers who find new things to photograph or at least find new ways of portraying familiar subjects and themes tend to arouse interest in their work more often than those who follow a more conservative path, regardless of the quality of their work…in both cases. And some photographers themselves seem to be driven by a need to establish their aesthetic identity by producing work that is unique. The advantage of creating something new is that the rules defining excellence in that genre have often not yet been established, or not clearly defined. And this creates opportunities for not only the avant garde of photography but also for the Charlatans who find in this new frontier an opportunity hide their lack of skill and aesthetic vision behind the mask of innovation.
Something new is not necessarily something good (or bad), but if a photograph does not capture something new, or capture something in a way that has never been seen in a photograph before, one might be tempted to ask: what purpose does it serve?
The simple answer to that question is that all photographs do not serve the same purpose; and therein lies another obstacle in the quest for a standard by which to measure the quality of a photograph. Some photographs seek to document; some seek to inform; some seek to entertain; others aim to make us think and many are simply intended to record. There are many reasons for making a photograph. So in the search for a common denominator I find it increasingly difficult to dismiss the idea that an understanding of the photographer’s intent is essential to judging the success of what he has created.
Coming back to the comparison with the sporting judges, it is worth taking a look at how they work. In figure-skating, for example, there is a limited number of moves (spins, turns, jumps, etc) and each move is clearly defined. Every judge will know what a triple toe loop should look like and each performance of that move is judged against the same standard. At another level, each competitor’s program in competition is known beforehand, comprising mandatory and optional elements, and any deviation from that program will be noted and taken into consideration when awarding scores. In a photography competition, however, prescription is generally confined to a theme and some technical specifications governing the print or image file submission. Within those broad parameters, the photographer is free to exercise his creativity. And while a figure-skater will occasionally introduce a new move into his routine, this is relatively rare and usually well heralded. So whilst there are basic similarities between the work of a figure-skating judge and that of a photography judge, the major difference between them seems to be that a figure-skating judge knows what to expect in a particular performance whereas a photography judge does not. It seems, therefore, that the key to solving the riddle of how to recognise a good photograph lies in understanding how the experts differ from the rest of us.
There is a school of thought that asserts: a photographer who is incapable of taking a good photograph is also incapable, and for all the same reasons, of distinguishing between a good photograph and an inferior one. In other words, the same lack of vision that prevents him from creating a good photograph himself, also prevents him from recognising the relative merit of one taken by himself or by another; or conversely, from recognising mediocrity when confronted by it. Another way of putting it is that: only a talented photographer can tell when he has taken a bad photograph.
I can see a compelling logic in this assertion; but is this a talent that is handed to the photographer at the moment of his birth and cannot be acquired or improved – a fairly soul-destroying prospect for those who have not been so endowed; or is it something we can all learn and develop throughout our lives? And if the latter is true, how does one become an expert?
Judging one’s own work
Have you ever been perplexed when a photograph with which you’ve had a strong connection does not find favour with your peers; or conversely, have you ever been surprised when the response to one of your images greatly exceeds your expectations? This brings us to the third dimension in judging photographs, particularly our own: distinguishing the image from the experience of creating it.
If the photographer’s connection with the scene he has photographed is strong, his connection with the resulting image, especially if he feels that it has achieved all he had hoped it would achieve, will almost certainly be even stronger. I’m sure most of us have photographs that evoke strong feelings, quite apart from the question of whether they are good photographs, simply because they remind us of a moment in our lives that was filled with emotion. But that connection will almost certainly not be made by others who were not present in that moment or had not engaged with it in the same way. And if we do not recognise that our judgement of the photograph is clouded by these personal associations, the response from others often surprises and sometimes disappoints us.
How, then, does one separate the image from the context in which it was created in order to judge it as everyone else might judge it? I don’t know the answer to that; and in a sense, the proposition is redundant since everyone who looks at the photograph, whether they realise it or not, is looking at it in a context, and the probability of that context being similar to the one the photographer experienced when taking the photograph is small. In fact, the viewer looks at the photograph simultaneously in two different contexts: (a) the experiential one in which the viewing takes place; and (b) the spontaneously constructed subliminal context that comprises all the information that the photograph has caused to be retrieved from the viewer’s subconscious memory.
If this is true, it is difficult for the photographer to predict how anyone will react to a photograph he has taken; nor is it reasonable to expect that there will be absolute consistency in viewer reactions to it.
The problem of objectivity becomes even more complex when you start to look at the creative decisions the photographer made when constructing the image. If he believes that they are valid, that they worked, and they were made with specific intent, then he is understandably frustrated when others fail to recognise their effect on the whole; or worse still, criticise them and offer suggestions on what the photographer should have done (differently). I see this often in response to the way a photographer has framed (or cropped) an image; when viewers offer suggestions on how the framing might be improved. Maybe their suggestions are valid, but my question is: how do they know what the photographer’s intent was; and how do they know that their suggested change is not creating, therefore, a different message altogether?
Once again, it all boils down to a question of what the viewer sees, and how he interprets what he sees, in the photograph.
So does any of this bring us closer to defining what makes a good photograph? I’m afraid that the answer is “no” unless we know definitively what the photographer was trying to achieve in a particular image. Anything else is guesswork, although some guesses may be more educated than others. Individuals who attain the rank of “expert” are perhaps more knowledgeable and more sensitive to the components of a photograph than the rest of us; and that might heighten their ability to perceive or deduce the underlying intent of the photographer; but I am no more sure of how to attain that level of expertise now than I was when I started this investigation.
And as for the photographer trying to assess the quality of his own work? It is arguable that the image the photographer sees is not the same as that seen by others because it is embedded in a context which clouds the photographer’s judgement; whereas any hope of developing a set of universal objective criteria by which to judge all photographs founders on the inseparability of intent from execution when intent is unknown or cannot be reliably inferred. Imagine someone talking in a language that you don’t understand. How can you tell if they are making sense or really talking gibberish? By the same token, how does one know if a photograph in a gallery is talking gibberish; or even if it is saying anything at all?
In the end, rules are defined in dos and don’ts and I feel that the only rule in art should be this: do whatever you want, provided that it is legal, hurts no one, and is consistent with your artistic objective. I feel that there is no shame in being subjective; it’s how you feel a photograph. But if you don’t feel a particular photograph it’s not your fault, or the photograph’s fault; it simply means that you and the photograph do not connect. Experts use the same process in judging photographs as everyone else, it’s just that they have more knowledge, more experience (of photography) and perhaps more highly developed sensibilities to call upon than the rest of us. And when all is said and done I question the whole notion of comparing and ranking photographs as anti-aesthetic. Each photograph is what it is. Each photograph stands, or falls, on its own merit. If knowledge of the context in which the photograph is taken will enhance our understanding and appreciation of it then what is wrong with being so informed? And yes, there are those among us who trumpet their status as art aficionados by claiming to appreciate images that the majority of us find incomprehensible. Do they really have special insights into the mind of the photographer? I don’t know. But learning to appreciate the hitherto unfathomable is almost as enjoyable as expressing oneself in an image and having others share the feeling that one has attempted to communicate.
 I make this distinction to exclude from the discussion any photographs that were taken accidentally; even when the decision to introduce accident into the photo-making process was deliberate (e.g. when photographers put their camera on motor-drive or timer and throw them in the air or swing them at the end of a strap to see what they will capture).