What is good ?
Of course, when we talk about a “good” photo we should try to define what we consider to be “good”. There are many ways a photograph can be dimmed to be good and we all know that what is good for one person isn’t necessarily good for another. Can we agree for starters that a good photo would be the one that catches the interest of the viewer ? For some the interest may derive from the subject, others may consider the aesthetics, the pleasant colours or shapes, the beauty. In a word, it is what ever works for us.
That is not to say that there aren’t any rules. Before photography there was painting. The great masters, the Classics, studied and set the standards of composition and right proportions. They discovered that some rules are naturally pleasing to the human eye, some not so much.
Some classic artistic conventions are universally accepted. It is not my intention here to list them all. You can find many of them in countless articles. Just google “photography rules of composition” and you will get to hundreds of pages and videos alike. Some of them you have surely heard before like the sacrosanct and ever popular rule of thirds. Others you may have not heard of, but if you’ve ever been to a museum or art gallery you will have seen them already. Artistic conventions and rules are culturally centric, it means that they are tied to a certain culture, for that matter most of the time we are talking about the Western culture. On the contrary, what is pleasing to the eye, what is ”beautiful” may well be more universal, not so culturally dependent.
Observing the old (and not so old) famous photographers. The Masters.
One thing that can make you learn what makes for a good photograph is looking at was already been done. I talk about the masters, specially those of the 20th century. I have learned a great deal looking at their pictures. In an age when nothing was still set, when photographing was far less common than nowadays, and somehow technically more complex than today, these people opened the paths and created styles that many of us still follow and get inspired with. It will train your eye if you observe carefully and ask yourself questions about why things are staged or set the way they are and why you like it.
Famous photographers I like
- Henry Cartier Bresson. It would seem that there is not a list of famous photographers without Henry Cartier Bresson. His famous photographs are very well known to a broad public in general. I think his unique sense of timing and composition is what makes it so appealing to the eye of the observer. Seeing is work online his one thing, but seeing it live is in my opinion a totally different experience. I still remember how great an impact it had on me and how motivating it still is in my personal quest for getting better as a photographer. What I learned from Cartier Bresson is the art of the composition and the sense of right timing.
- Vivian Maier. If you don’t know the story around Vivian Maier’s photography, go first to the linked page and read it. It feels a bit strange to think that what we know about her work is not what she personally had chosen to show us. Actually, as far as we know, Vivian Maier never showed her work, she didn’t herself even see quite a substantial number of her own photographs, that she left undeveloped till she passed away. She was quite a compulsive shooter throughout her life, she amassed an enormous body of work. She mainly used a Rolleiflex camera which gives a very recognisable style to her photographs since they are shot mainly from waist level, catching the eyes of her subjects with her own eyes. What I really like of her is precisely the use of the angle and composition that characterises her style, the format of the film negative being square. I personally don’t find it easy to compose with a square format and I think she excels to it. With the Rolleiflex she used to shoot black and white Kodak Tri-X film which is absolutely beautiful with its very characteristic grain. What I learned from Vivian Maier’s photography is the passion for the act of photographing itself, going to the streets, observing and capturing all the life that blooms in it. The result of it is an astounding document of an era that is forever gone but has been preserved through her lens.
- Mary Ellen Mark. In the realm of street and documentary photography I found that Mary Ellen Mark is quite unique. I like how beautifully she portraits her subjects, how she seems to be able to reveal their soul, to make them totally human to our eyes. She believed that there’s no good photograph without emotional evolvement. Apparently she didn’t believe in cropping and made much effort in framing accurately in camera. What I learned from Mary Ellen Mark is the art of connecting with her subjects.
- Bruce Davidson. Another great documentary photographer: What I find remarkable with Bruce Davidson is how he was able to document many different aspects of the everyday life from the 50’s to the 80’s in the U.K and the U.S in very different places and circumstances, giving us a very lively picture of how was life back then. His black & white photography is really powerful, very expressive, even harsh at times in its earlier works but I very much enjoy it’s colour one too, specially the one in his famous Subway series which I find just extraordinary. What I learned from Davidson is how important is to be close to your subjects, to be in the action, although many times he seems to be completely invisible for his subjects. When he is not (invisible) I love how he engages in such a direct manner with their look and eyes. I really consider him to be one of the best street photographers of all times.
- Fan Ho. As a street photographer Fan Ho had a great eye to observe and capture the little life moments, but what I find that sets him apart from other photographers, is it’s incredible sense of artistic composition, how he was able to play and use lights, shadows and lines to compose beautiful images that sometimes look like delicate ink paintings. I think Fan Ho has influenced quite a huge amount of current instagram photographers that maybe without knowing it are inspired by his unique treatment of the light.
- Sebastião Salgado. Apart from being a great expressive photographer, to me, Salgado is a great example of very long term documentary and photography project. It our age of immediacy and increasing rapid pace stimulus, he is an example of the importance of setting our mind on a subject or project and sticking to it over time. As a side personal preference, I’m not always a huge fan of his editing style though, meaning I found it sometimes “over edited” or excessively contrasted.
- Peter Turnley. Is a photojournalist that has been documenting many important events and wars of the past 35 years. He has a special interest on the human condition as a photographic subject. He’s been living in Paris for many years, sharing it with NewYork also. l really dig is latest documenting series during the pandemic in Paris and NYC. He has a special way of portraying people in the streets, but what makes it special for me, is that he not only grabs their picture randomly but also seizes every opportunity to interact with his subjects and takes the time to speak with them whenever possible. He’s Leica b&w portraits are really gorgeous.
- W. Eugene Smith. Was a photojournalist, war correspondent and photo essayist that worked for LIFE magazine and later for Magnum. His body of work is absolutely huge. Eugene Smith was absolutely committed to portray what he had in mind and he is said to have worked sometimes in a quite obsessive manner to achieve the highest standards that he set on himself. I find his images to be outstandingly powerful, sometimes even brutal when you look at his work as a war photojournalist. I think that this corresponded to his desire to denounce or draw the public attention to human difficult situations like those of war, desease, poverty etc… But his perhaps most known work was the one he did in Minamata, Japan about the environmental poisoning that affected the people living there.
- William Eggleston. All the above photographers worked in b&w which use to be a kind of “classical” standard for documentary and street photography. B&w allowed the photographer to get a certain control over his/her work. But when colour photography became a lot more mainstream, encouraged by the big film brands and laboratories, many photographers embraced it and gave it a artistic status on a par with its b&w counterpart. Eggleston is possibly the most famous of them. I personally find his work that extends between the late sixties up till mid eighties very inspirational. His sense of colour and the use he makes of the film pellicule is very interesting. His work, at that time, was sometimes criticised as being a succession of “boring” meaningless subjects. Today we see his photographs with a quite bit of nostalgia of long gone age and they have inspired many photographers to go back the analog photography again or at least to try to emulate digitally those early and colourful days of the Pop era. What I learned from Eggleston is how colour can be used in such a powerful manner to create a style and a view of the world.
- Abbas. Was an Iranian photographer that was later based in Paris after his auto-exile from Iran. He worked for Magnum and covered many conflicts from his time as a photojournalist. Abbas also documented the Iranian society during the 70’s and the 80’s before, during and after the Iranian revolution. You can see this specific documenting work here with many short interviews of the artist and with a lot of contact sheets which are always awesome to look at to get a solid understanding of the photographic process of a photojournalist, in this case on the documentary side. What I learned from Abbas is his great eye for composition and timing, a style that in many ways that remind me of Cartier Bresson. Shooting mainly with his Leica, his mastering of the light makes for a very contrasty and powerful black and white styled photographs.
- Melissa O’Shaughnessy. Is an American, New York based, street photographer. She’s been mentored by Joel Meyerowitz and it certainly shows in her work. What I admire from her photography is the incredible eye she has developed for every element to come together in the frame. Her sense of timing and composition is really accurate and creative. She is quite present on social media, and she is keen in participating on Youtube interviews and Podcasts and explain her photographic journey and motivations, which is always very nice as I’m always very interested in learning and understanding a photographer’s inner process.
- Eugene Richards. Is an American documentary photographer with an extensive body of work. I got to see a little part of his work in Visa pour l’Image this year (2022) and I was blown away. The exhibit was a selection from the work he has been publishing on his Instagram account ( following a suggestion of his son he did so ). As I always say, one thing is seeing photographs in our tiny screens and another is seeing them printed hanging on the wall . What really stroke and marvelled me was the way he frames his subjects. I later learned that he often used a 21mm lens, and if you ever tried one such a wide angle lens you will know that you have to get pretty damn close to your subject (like on your face close) if you want it to fill up your frame. On the other hand the effect of such a way of photographing is such that we, as viewers, are right there in the action. When there is so much happening and entering your frame, you have to be very careful and talented to get a composition that works. The other thing that working with such a wide angle lens implies, is that you have to establish a sort a connection, a bond, an intimacy with your subject to be able to shoot so close up to him. It’s not like you can get away with shooting at a distance like you sometimes do when doing street photography. This is truly documentary photography at his best, in the very tradition of Robert Frank. In this very interesting interview Richards explains how he often kept long lasting relations and stayed in touch with many of the people he portrayed. The photography of Eugene Richards is a good reminder and motivation to get out of your comfort zone and get more personal with your subjects.
- Suzanne Stein. Is a social and documentary street photographer with an extensive body of work which mainly focusses on those human beings that are commonly referred as living on the margins of society. Her style is direct and with no concessions to compromise. She usually frames her subjects in a very close-up way, her images are impacting and graphic and can sometimes get a bit deranging. It sometimes seems as if she is throwing at you some piece of reality that hits you like a quick jab to your stomach. She often works in very depressed neighbourhoods and her photographic style sometimes exposes her to a fair amount of anger and even danger. When she shoots, she doesn’t try to edulcorate or depict a softer or gentler reality but what strikes me, is the absolute respect with which she portrays her subjects often in very difficult life situations and/or physical condition. She is really interested in the personal life and circonstances of the people she shoots and often goes back to the same subject in a kind of follow-up diary. It is very interesting to read her blog because she gives plenty details on the circonstances and the stories of those whom she portrays. You might like it or not but her work will surely not leave you indifferent.
Whatever your photographic genre interest is, look for what has already been made by the masters. it will surely teach you invaluable lessons.
Developing your own eye and style
So once you are familiar with the many aspects and ingredients that make for a good photograph you can start the path of developing your own personal and unique style. There’s nothing wrong with exerting to replicate famous photographers styles, in fact it can teach you important lessons and help you progress into your own technical mastery. The more photographic situations you replicate and are familiar with, the better you’ll feel at ease with your own material and will be able to grab the decisive moment.
In a next article I will tell you some of my favourite “ingredients” that make for a great photo.
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