PHO705 Week 11: Back to Basics

I am attending some workshops from a series online curated by the Royal Photographic Society. They are called Creativity Live and are hosted by Jon Cunningham, a professional photographer and teacher (Cunningham 2021).

I thought it would be useful to get back to the basics of photography skills. Looking generally at the leading photography websites such as BJP online, LensCulture, Aperture and so forth has begun to make me uneasy. The reason is that it is too easy to ‘go conceptual’ and talk about the meaning of a photograph without considering whether, as a photograph, it is actually any good. So the temptation here – and I am certainly as prone to this as anyone – is to think that mediocre work can be magically raised a notch by intellectual discourse. It is important for me to get back to the basics: what makes a good photograph and how do I take one?

The first workshop was on ‘What Makes a Good Photograph’. It was pointed out that in 2019 1.4 trillion images were taken, 75 per cent more than a decade ago.  However, the average ‘dwell time’ online for an image – the time a viewer spends looking at it – is now only 1.7 seconds, down from twice that five years ago. This means that it is more important than ever to take care that one’s work stands out from the crowd, and that one is informed enough to be able to sift through the images of others and feel confident that one has identified the images that matter.

Jon pointed to three main things here. First, I need to check that my attention is fully engaged when looking at an image. Second, I need to assess its competence against standard technical criteria such as exposure, framing, colour, focus and so on. Third, and very importantly, I need to look for an X factor by asking myself whether the image educates me or shows me a new perspective on something, whether it creates an arresting atmosphere that draws me in, and whether it stirs an emotion, a connection. This ‘Creative Review’ is the essence of what makes a good photograph,

An image can be technically excellent – most digital images these days are – but if it fails a Creative Review then it is a snap, not a photograph.

The second workshop was on ‘How to Spot a Signature Style’. It sounds easy. Cartier-Bresson had a distinctive style, as did Avedon or Penn. Contemporary photographers with well-known styles include Martin Parr and Steve McCurry. To them I would add Nadav Kander for his landscapes (see Figs 1 and 2). Jon suggested that one needs to assess a photographer’s work in terms of whether 1) it is visually distinctive, 2) whether it is unusual or distinctive in content, 3) whether it combines both of these elements, or 4) whether it has neither of them. Most images have either the first or the second. A few have both. Images that have neither have no style.

Fig. 1: Nadav Kander 2014.
Fig. 1: Nadav Kander 2014. Untitled. Kander’s images of ruined Soviet nuclear sites are distinctive for their bleakness, their consistent tonality and colour palette, and their careful treatment of human scale in the landscape.
Fig. 2: Nadav Kander 2006
Fig. 2: Nadav Kander 2006. ‘Chongqing VII (washing bike), Chongqing Municipality, 2006’. As in his other landscape works. Kander’s images of China retain a distinct personality in their mood, tonality and colour palette, and in their careful treatment of human scale in the landscape.

But for a photographer, acquiring a style is very hard and usually requires years of work until the photographer is experienced enough to be making the images that only he or she could make. And, in any case, how useful is a style? It tends to be important only in certain genres and a fixed style can be counter-productive if it blocks personal change. Many of the photographers interviewed in Photowork (Wolf 2019) repudiated having a fixed style at all, for example.

There are other issues here, too. The financial impact of the internet has sometimes made it more difficult for photographers to evolve a style because cut-backs mean that agencies and publications are keener than they were to stick to in-house styles and rules, and they are far less prepared to take risks and license experiments. So having a distinctive style is likely to mean breaking the rules, but the paradox is that unless you are prepared to break the rules you have little chance of being noticed anyway.

Jon cited the brilliant young photographer Jack Davison as an example of how to get this right. Davison’s style is one of constant energy and experimentation (see Fig. 1) that emerged from a long American road-trip in which he was able to work without boundaries. In other words, the key ingredients here are play, experimentation and a willingness to make mistakes. In Davison’s case this has taken him to  Vogue and the New York Times.

Fig. 3: Jack Davison 2021
Fig. 3: Jack Davison 2021. ‘Work: 6/34’. Davison’s work is notable for its boldness, energy and experimentation. There are no rules here.

I enjoyed this workshop. It was all about encouraging one to produce work that stands out and suggesting ways to start on that journey. In a world that produces 1.4 trillion images annually, there is no hope of getting on and getting noticed unless one is doing one’s best to produce work that really does stand out.

References

CUNNINGHAM, Jon. 2021. ‘Creativity Live Series’. Royal Photographic Society [online]. Available at: https://rps.org/news/bristol/2021/february/creativity-live-series-jon-cunningham/ [accessed 27 March 2021].

DAVISON, Jack. 2021. ‘Jack Davison: Photographer’. Jack Davison [online]. Available at: https://www.jackdavison.co.uk/ [accessed 10 Apr 2021].

WOLF, Sasha (ed.). 2019. Photowork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice. First edit. New York, NY: Aperture.

Figures

Figure 1. KANDER, Nadav. 2014. Untitled. From: Nadav Kander and Will Self. 2014. Nadav Kander: Dust. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.

Figure 2. KANDER, Nadav. 2010. ‘Chongqing VII (washing bike), Chongqing Municipality, 2006’. From: Nadav Kander. 2010. Yangtze, The Long River. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.

Figure 3. DAVISON, Jack. 2021. ‘Work: 6/34’. From: Jack Davison. 2021. ‘Jack Davison: Photographer’. Jack Davison [online]. Available at: https://www.jackdavison.co.uk/ [accessed 10 Apr 2021].