A Good Photograph Says…
“A good photograph says more about the photographer than it does the subject.”
Last month I was listening to a podcast where the host discussed the topic of finding your true artistic voice. There was a quote (or common phrase?) a few minutes into the podcast which jumped out to me and made me pause to think. I’ve had some time to reflect on this quote and wanted to share my thoughts here because I believe this to NOT be true. I believe a good photograph says more about the subject and the photographer is irrelevant. There’s a lot to unpack here, read on as I break this down. I’m also well aware all images are subjective and have a note at the end of this to further clarify.
The topic of discussion in the podcast was referring to finding your artistic voice as a photographer. In some sense, this quote is true if we say our photographic choices created the image. Choices such as wide angle or telephoto, longer exposure vs shorter time, etc. These photographic choices are used to create the image and can help photographers express their intention with the image. This is true yet doesn’t define a good photograph. Conversely, a good photograph isn’t good because a photographer used a wide angle vs a telephoto, it’s good because of the image instead of technique or skill.
Before I dive into my take on this, let me share a few examples of widely accepted images as “good photographs” and see if the quote holds up:
A widely known image and undoubtedly a “good photograph” so I ask the question: Does this say more about the photographer than the subject? This image is all about the celebration and joy of Japan’s surrender in WWII and not at all about the photographer. Do you even know who took this without Googling it? Probably not, but the subject and photographer’s intention requires no further investigation. So this one goes to the subject being more important than Alfred Eisenstaedt. Many Pulitzer Prize winning images and other well known documentary work fall in this same category of the images saying more about the subject than the photographer. That’s the point of documentary and editorial photography, the subject and story.
A landscape image this time of the Grand Teton and Snake River in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. This graphically bold composition brings immediate attention to the grandeur of the Tetons. Through his artistic control of light and compositional mastery, the image becomes all about the subject, the wild landscape itself. Many photographers know of Ansel Adams but perhaps not as many as you think. Show this image to someone who doesn’t already know of his work and they’ll comment on the landscape (subject) and not the artist. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself and report back to me.
Many landscape photographs also fit this category of being about the landscape and almost removing the photographer all together. This is a powerful thing in photography, to be able to transport the viewer to the landscape through a still image.
Fashion photographer Richard Avedon has an influential and unmistakeable style. Strong compositional elements and bold, graphical design force engagement from the viewer to the…wait for it…subject. Look at any of his images, or consider his impact on the fashion world for a moment, and it’s clear his work is all about the subject. He accomplishes this with visual interesting ways each and every time.
An excerpt from Vogue’s article The Essence of the Subject: 11 Highlights From ‘Avedon 100’:
“Avedon’s unflinchingly frank aesthetic has become so much a part of the conventions of photographic portraiture it is easy to forget that he invented it,” Larry Gagosian
It really doesn’t make sense to even think about portraits or fashion photographs to be about the photographer. It’s all about the subject in the image, or it’s NOT a good photograph.
The Invisible Photographer
For my work and for much of my audience, the landscape and nature in general is the subject, we are the photographers. A good photograph in my opinion is one which nearly removes the photographer from the image and allows a direct conversation between subject and viewer. A great photograph makes the photographer invisible and the image is like a window of sorts.
A good photographer can do this with ease and can apply this over and over throughout their “career”, or journey as I say. Through a collection of work, images made over time, a style may become visible and recognizable to the viewer. This is rare and becoming more rare today. I can’t really think of a photographer who has such a distinct style but I know of many who are distinct because of their style applied to, here it is again, subject.
It’s About the Viewer
To be fair to the quote I began with, it is certainly true when we are talking about developing our own artistic voice and serves as a blueprint of sorts on how to make a good photograph. Make it about you, be yourself, express yourself, be emotionally honest, be bold when necessary, be soft spoken when needed. It’s a recipe for creating a “good photograph” or a photograph where you/I as the photographer become invisible. We put so much of ourselves into the image of Nature/Landscape so the viewer has an interesting way to see something, to feel something which we saw.
So in this sense, yes, a good photograph is all about us as photographers but it’s not that simple or to be taken at face value. A good photograph is highly subjective and the only reason the 3 above were selected is because MANY viewers have shared this viewpoint. Viewers, not the photographers, have determined this.
It’s Up To Us
To conclude, each of the images above were made possible by the photographer knowing their craft, connecting with their subject and environment, expressing through their eyes and understanding the bigger picture or audience. We know of their names because they’ve consistently created engaging work. For us, we must do this too in order to create a “good photograph” so the viewer, or our own conscious, can say the photo says more about the photographer than the subject. This is up to us.