There are probably as many ways to look at a photograph as there are people who do so – and what is a masterpiece to one person may seem pointless to another. Nevertheless, when I find a photograph particularly good or intriguing – or indeed not-good – I find it useful to have a framework to help me sort out in my mind what aspects of the photograph work and what doesn’t.
This framework has 3 elements: the design, the subject and the story.
When visiting a photographic gallery or exhibition, it is interesting to stand in the middle of the room, far enough away from the photos that one can’t be drawn into the detail of any particular picture. Looking around, do any pictures stand out? There are usually one or two that somehow leap off the wall and demand attention even from a distance. It might be the colours, shapes, layout or something else but certain pictures have more appeal at a distance than others.
Now coming up closer to each photo, what is there to say about it as a piece of of pure artwork – ignoring the subject and looking just at the design – i.e. composition, the colours or tones, the balance, lines and shapes and so on? If it were a painting instead of a photo, what would we think? Is it well designed?
Now looking deeper into the image, what is the subject? This might be a trivial question if the subject is quite obvious. But the ‘subject’ of a picture of a man in the street might be the man himself or it might be ‘poverty’ or ‘fashion’ or ‘sadness’ or ‘social exclusion’. As we study the picture, the subject may evolve and the true subject may start to become more clear.
Or not. Many pictures in the realm of surrealism tend not to take the ‘subject’ too seriously, preferring to play with the graphical elements for visual effect. In the extreme, abstract photographs may not have any subject at all, relying purely on design for their effect.
Thirdly, what is the narrative of the picture? In some cases, this might be very straightforward; for example a picture of a flower or a sunrise might just say ‘this is beautiful’. In other cases the story may be much more complex – with multiple levels that only become apparent when studying the picture for a period of time. There may be hidden elements, humour, contradictions. A more complete narrative may call for a sequence or collection of photographs. The narrative may be subjective, as the photo generates different reactions in different people; a photo of fox hunting might generate all sorts of reactions.
Putting it together
A photograph might well work well if it is strong in just one of the above elements. More typically, I find that a really good photograph needs strength in at least two elements. In photojournalism, ‘subject’ and ‘story’ are clearly both important. In landscape, ‘design’ and ‘subject’ may be the most important. But for a great photograph, it is often the case that all 3 elements are strongly in play.
One could make a comparison with writing. In journalism, the subject and story are the key elements. But in poetry, arguably the most artistic form of writing, one needs beauty in the words, an engaging subject and an emotional narrative. Every now and then one comes across a photograph that goes beyond simple narrative and evokes a more emotive response in the viewer, stirring the imagination. This I think of as ‘artistic photography’ and is discussed further in this essay – artistic photography.