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Photography theory

What makes a good photograph ?

I want to open this series of articles in the hope they will help me to clarify some of my thoughts in an orderly manner and structure what I have learned over the years.

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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.

The rules

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.

Hopefully I’ll be updating this list with new personal discoveries

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.

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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