art

What Makes A Good Photograph?

What is it about some photos that makes us really make us stop and take a look? Those photos that make us think? The photos that make us feel?

Before I go on; I’m not even just talking about the “worthy” photos, the ones that end up in National Geographic lists about photographs that changed the world. I mean even a photo that your grandmother took of you at your fifth birthday; you can look at that twenty years later and you can hear everyone’s voices singing happy birthday, you can feel the weak heat coming from the candles, and smell the cake. Photographs are powerful no matter who took them and how.

Bath time, phone photograph 2014

If you think about how many different images our brains take in and filter through in any given day, it’s a wonder that we are actually able to fully process and engage with any singular image. But some images really do have a unique power. It’s arresting, that sudden stop that you make when you see one. All it takes is that small seed, that tiny tug on the rope that pulls us in. But what is that? And is it the same for all of us?

The truth is I’m not really sure; I’m just as in the dark as you and as a photographer these are questions I ask myself all the time. When I’m shooting, when I’m culling through whatever I’ve shot, when I’m editing, when I’m deciding what to post; what’s foremost in my mind is what is going to be the one thing about each photo that is going to give that tiny pull. You know when you have a magnet, and you hover it over a fridge or something metal? And there’s that point, right on the edge of where the pull only just starts. That’s the feeling I’m looking for.

Kim Rhodes, Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Phoenix 2016

Kim Rhodes, Jared Padalecki, Misha Collins, Phoenix 2016

 

Parade, 2014

Parade, 2014

 

Angie and Brooke

Angie and Brooke

But I could shoot a hundred images and never feel that personally about any of them. Or I could shoot one image and feel it so strongly and someone else doesn’t feel anything at all. It’s the thing that makes photography so amazing and confusing and frustrating at the same time. We all come to look at different images bringing a lifetime of other images with us. Not only that, we’re bringing every thread from our own individual lives – who we’ve loved, who we’ve lost, what we think, what we know, what we think we know, what we’ve learned, what we’ve forgotten. No two people will look at an image and have that same background framing the meaning of a photograph for them.

Rob Benedict, Seattle 2016

Rob Benedict, Seattle 2016

 

Briana, Seattle 2016

Briana, Seattle 2016

As an example, if I take a photo of a person and another person looks at that photo, how they see the subject in that photograph can be dependent on so many different, very personal things. Do they know the person? How does this person make them feel? Have they interacted with them? Have they heard of the person? Does the person remind them of someone else? Someone they loved? Someone who hurt them? Is whatever the subject is doing something universal that we can all relate to? Does the person’s facial expression make us feel joy or discomfort? Is there more than one person in the photo? What does their dynamic suggest about their relationship?

VanCon14-7388

Misha Collins, Vancouver 2014

 

Makayla and Dani

 

Richard Speight Jr and Rob Benedict, AHBL 4

Richard Speight Jr and Rob Benedict, AHBL 4

Not only that, but there is a third person in the equation – the photographer. Are they trying to make you see the subject in a certain way? Or is the photo candid, and so it reflects something the photographer doesn’t even really know they themselves feel? This tension is a theme in all art forms; once it is out there, your work never really belongs to you anymore. It is a part of you, in some aspects a deep part of you that you don’t really know, and now suddenly it’s up for interpretation by anyone else.

As scary as that is, that’s actually why you do it though. At least that’s how I see it. I want people to feel something looking at my photography, because I feel so much when I do it. It’s another form of communication, it’s a narrative, it’s an expression, it’s a question, it’s an answer.

MattCohen-6991wm

Matt, 2016

Osric, 2016

Osric, 2016

And yes, there are some photos that just simply exist. They just are. They don’t offer deeper meaning, they don’t need to be read. They just exist. That photo from your birthday may never make a list in National Geographic but for that time you look at it years down the track it won’t matter, because it means something for you. We need those too. The more we look the better we get at seeing.

 

Million Dollar Potato

Two interesting things happened in the photography world today.

Firstly, a simple photo of a humble potato sold for over $1 million dollars.  Then, David and Victoria Beckham’s sixteen year old son Brooklyn was chosen to photograph fashion label Burberry’s latest fragrance campaign.

It would appear that the two, while reflective of two very different parts of art and photography, were about comparable in controversy.

“Potato #345 (2010)” (why didn’t he call it Potato In Space?) is by Silicon Valley portrait photographer Kevin Abosch. A visit to his website shows … not very much. It’s extremely sparse and very uncomplicated, like the examples of his portraits. He apparently makes really good money taking photos of professional type people, but nothing in the range of Potato #345 (2010).

 

potatophoto

 

My initial reaction was much the same as everyone elses. I’ve been doing this all wrong, I thought, I just have to take some random photo of some random thing and apparently someone will buy it. Truth be told, despite how much I love photography I actually can’t imagine anyone paying a million dollars for a photograph, let alone a photograph of a potato. But it raises a question about what art is, and is art actually a universal concept? What constitutes art for each of us personally, does that necessarily make it art to everyone else? Who gets the ultimate say in what art actually is?

According to his studio, this isn’t his first potato subject either:

“Kevin likes potatoes because they, like people are all different yet immediately identifiable as being essentially of the same species,” his studio tells PetaPixel. “He has photographed many potatoes. This one is one of his favorites.” (Peta Pixel)

So obviously, Abosch sees something in them that we might not necessarily see. And maybe we would be more inclined to understand that if someone hadn’t paid such an exorbitant amount to own it. If Abosch had just come out with a coffee table book of different photos of different potatoes, maybe we’d just laugh it off as one of those “contemporary art high concept” things. But because someone out there felt that this particular photo – subject matter, how it’s photographed, the whole thing – was worth over $1 million dollars, that’s what’s left everyone scratching their heads and looking through their kitchens for stuff to photograph.

The other event moves away from what is art and more towards who makes art, and breaking into the photography world.

According to diyphotography.net David and Victoria Beckham’s sixteen year old son Brooklyn announced on his Instagram account to his 5.9 million followers that he was going to be photographing the new Burberry fragrance campaign ads. Professional photographers – and those who want to be professional photographers – soon started to flood the comments section of the post to decry the decision as a blatant act of “nepotism” used as a tool for publicity. This insecurity is not borne out of nowhere; it is now easier than ever for someone to walk into a store and walk out with a mid-level or even higher range camera, start a Facebook page and start charging people to take their photographs. There are thousands and thousands of photography start-ups like this every year. Newborns, family portraits, senior pictures, weddings. Any search for any permutation on the words “photo” or “photography” will bring them up. People going wide-eyed and optimistic into a cut throat, expensive business that is unrelenting and unforgiving. They severely under charge and try to undercut others in their area. Many fold within a year, if not much less than that.

Because of this surge of competition (you notice it most after Christmas, when everyone gets a new camera) suddenly the market is flooded with photographers and people, naturally wanting to save money, will go for a cheaper photographer rather than someone who has been working and specializing for fifteen years and charges proportionately to that knowledge and experience. The candle is snuffed out through lack of oxygen and the industry can’t handle the pressure.

This isn’t even taking into account the fact that some newspapers are firing specialized photojournalists in favour of simply handing their reporters iPhones.

This tension in the photography industry is building up slowly in the background, and so to hear of someone who is being propelled into an extremely high end, lucrative job at the age of sixteen when for all intents and purposes it is most likely because of his name cuts a little deep. One look at his Instagram though shows that he does have an eye. An eye doesn’t come with a surname, no matter what it is. And an eye doesn’t even always come with years of experience. It’s one of those unquantifiable things that people either have or they don’t. Brooklyn Beckham definitely has it. His photos are moody and raw, and the subjects are about what you’d expect from a teenage boy (no potatoes, sadly. Sorry Kevin Abosch). But how much of this sudden break comes from that eye, and how much came from his name?

 

Via Brooklyn Beckham's Instagram account

Via Brooklyn Beckham’s Instagram account

With his famous parents come stepping-stones that other people have to gather, beg, borrow or steal on their own. Things like connections, networks and opportunity. He didn’t have to go very far to look for those; he was born with them around him. Other people, possibly the ones so angry and responding on his Instagram post, are the ones who have to rely on a lot of grit and a lot of luck just to get those connections and opportunity. They could be more talented than Brooklyn Beckham and have been taking photos since before he was born, but because they don’t have easy access to the sorts of industry people the Beckham’s would, it would be meaningless until they could find their way out of limbo. People don’t just stumble across a job working for Burberry shooting a costly fragrance ad. That just doesn’t happen.

As someone who is struggling to find my way (and incidentally, someone who put up a Facebook page really early and thought of herself as a business probably before she should have) it is hard not to be resentful. I’m a no-name woman in Melbourne, Australia far away from Tinseltown who is losing money on her small – I wouldn’t even call it a business, but business – rather than making it, so sure I am kind of pissed that someone a lot younger than me is afforded an opportunity that not only would I love, I wouldn’t even think I was good enough for. Maybe that’s the secret? That at sixteen, he still has that bluff and swagger that he can do it and even more than that, he’s entitled to do it.

But who’s to say that he won’t rise to the challenge? And who’s to say a photo of a potato isn’t worth $1 million dollars to someone out there? In the end they both speak to fundamental questions about photography and art in general: who makes it, and what is it?