What is a “good photograph”? Some pictures work because they clearly reference the terms by which they ask us to evaluate them, like a news picture that is so urgent that it’s newsworthiness will always be part of how we read it. Others work precisely because they don’t, because they are ambiguous about how they want to be read; Paolo Pelligrin’s work comes to mind. Still others look like great pictures we have known yet despite their technical faith these cliches fail to move, to speak, to incite or excite.
As a way of making sense of the world, consumer photography is surely a modern wonder. An industry of equipment manufacturers and publications keeps a flame burning over retold histories and aesthetic discriminations. Little wonder: making pictures is a powerful, rewarding act and for those millions of us who believe that making a better picture will bring us satisfaction, more or again, that the pictures make sense of our live, it’s helpful to know that others are thinking about and sharing the questions that you encounter. But why, then, do so many pictures look the same? Sunsets, boats, still lives of living and non-living things: If these pictures are the answers, what are the questions?
I don’t mean to disparage these genres as they clearly hold an important and useful place in social life but these genres do shape widely shared judgments about what makes a good picture, and more importantly, what a good picture is for. Pictures can do more than illustrate motivational posters.
Last Saturday’s Guardian came with a Photography Supplement, a little booklet that takes on the subject from many angles.
There’s plenty of good reading. The core of the supplement, though, the bit that ties the technical device with the look inside the heads of the great and the good, is a section of workshops. These workshops are meant to help the reader make better, more satisfying pictures. Experts respond to questions: “How do I capture the essence of a party, a wedding, a festival?”; “Do images of living things count as still life? And if so, what’s the best way to approach shooting them?”; “I don’t want to take the same photos as every other tourist. How do I capture local flavour?” I like to imagine all of the questions coming from one very desperate person who really just wants to make it all work.
Martine Franck’s responses to questions about black and white are elegant. “Are there any colour combinations that are difficult to capture in monochrome?”: “I believe that black and white photography should be perceived as a release from the distraction of colour, not as a practical difficulty to master.”)
The questions, as a whole, I find interesting as they describe, generically, the parameters of “consumer” photography. Photography is a way for people to individually apprehend and make sense of the world. Genres like travel, landscapes, and still life… and “documentary photography”… create the meaningful categories in which that apprehension takes place. These categories all carry assumptions though those assumptions may not be the same from person to person. In his essay, Martin Parr discusses how his work explores the “ambiguity between mythology and reality through photography. We are sold a very romantic vision of tourist destinations, but most of the images you see are propaganda. You are being sold a cliché that you are conditioned to accept as reality.” Parr suggests going to the backstreets to find real individuals (“I often take photos in barber shops“). His classic book Small World is pointed in that it describes the “authentic” character of very circumscribed and managed tourist experiences; Parr’s genius is being able to take the naturalistic gloss off of culturally informed experiences by drawing attention to how the gloss is applied while at the same time locating an authentic experience of the necessarily inauthentic.
How are the ways by which we judge our private, personal photography shaped by the (always changing)guidelines and definitions of popular genres- and how much or our satisfaction from the pictures we make for ourselves have to do with the gravity of genres that we have to pull away from? Not too much, I hope, but really these are very powerful categories, defined and refined by the industry. Equipment always comes into it and while workshops like the ones in the Guardian supplement encourage exploration, the genres are never far away.
Consumer photography sounds like a bad word but really I just want to draw attention to the way in which our aesthetics and standards come to be in recreational (and other forms of) photography: everything from the properties of the equipment and the way we are told to think about what makes a good camera to how we want to make a picture that is not a cliché while allowing those clichés to define what it is that we must not do. In the travel workshop, Jill Mead writes that in order to avoid taking the same photos as every other tourist, “originality of the idea is key, so avoid cliches and ‘postcard shots’ (although they can sometimes offer inspirations)”. How do you take a picture that is “good” – recognizably successful as a travel picture- but not a cliché? Not everyone can come at it as Martin Parr does, and not everyone wants to; photography’s consistent appeal as a consumer medium certainly has something to do with the impulse to romanticise, to mythologise. Mead has several practical and technical suggestions; she also has spent time in barber shops.
<> There are a lot of photography how-to books out there. I found browsing Roswell Angier’s Train Your Gaze a delight; this book is more of a course book than a consumer how-to guide, but it has good insights on several strands in the history of portrait photography as well as exercises that demand a degree of commitment and effort. As a course book it is meant to show you what is possible, and these exercises all sit in relation to historical anecdotes.