The Thinking Photographer

What is a Good Photograph?

Backlighted Great Blue Heron

To be interesting, a photograph must tame the eye and fascinate the mind. The eye is constantly wandering. If it finds something interesting, it pauses. Otherwise, it will gravitate toward the most interesting object. For me, this is similar to listening to a weather report on the radio: I want to hear the report. I hear the catchy jingle leading into the report, but when the announcer drones out the actual words, my mind skips off into neverland. At the end, I realize that I had not heard a single word.

Once a photograph has captured the eye, it must feed the mind. There must be something interesting or intriguing about the image. Ideally, you want the mind to start generating questions and issuing commands to the eye. This quality of being intellectually stimulating is the greatest challenge in abstract work. An abstraction can be visually exciting, but unless it reaches the mind, the viewer's attention will wander.

This situation explains why appreciation of abstract art is often a developed taste. The mind must be disciplined to consciously focus on the enjoyment of the eye.

Bring in an abstract color painting of two florescent clashing colors. This will certaining grab a wandering eye. It is a pure example of compositional tension.

If you tend toward abstract photography you will no doubt begin to be irritated by viewers asking, "But what is it, really?" This is a case where the mind is engaged, but is asking the wrong question. The abstract artist does not have this problem. When you sling some paint on a canvas it is "nothing" really. Since a photograph, however, is an image of something which exists, then viewers often neglect the simple visual entertainment and dwell too heavily on discovering the identity of the original object.

My recommendation is to tread the line between abstraction and pictorialism. Allow the identity of the subject to be discernible upon careful examination. Then the viewer is educated into a different way of seeing. With the "What is it?" question removed, the elements of design and composition have an opportunity to impress the viewer.

© Copyright 1999 Brian R. Page

  • Colloquia Photography Class Main Page
  • The Thinking Photographer: Introduction
  • What is a Good Photograph?
  • The Role of Black & White
  • Subject/Object
  • Style
  • Who's Who and What's What
  • Audience: For Whom the Silver Tones
  • Guts
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