If anyone starts to worry about this being another boring article identical to the multitude of others that you have read about composition, aperture, shutter speed, and all the other technical elements that go into making a picture successful, please bear with me. It is not. Those of us who have a small place in photography publishing see an almost uncountable number of images every week. Many of those pictures might do a great job of illustrating the mechanical aspects of the craft, but they do not necessarily resonate or appeal. I am sure that you, just like me, have looked at a technically perfect image, yawned, and thought “Why bother?” on more than one occasion.
Regular readers of this column may remember that I recently railed against some of the trends of modern landscape photography. The landscapes that I discussed in that article were ones that elicited the “Why bother?” response: postcard perfect cliches that provoke no thought or tell us nothing about the world. The ubiquitous photographs of Antelope Canyon were one of my main targets. Before I proceed, a couple of amusing things that happened in the wake of the article are worth noting. First, someone sent me a message telling me that I should check out a group of the best modern landscape photographers and their work. The link the individual sent me was filled with exactly the type of work I had just denounced; it even included the bog-standard Antelope Canyon cliché. Second, I get many an advert for photography courses, sales, and the like appearing on my Facebook feed. Yesterday, it was an advert for a gentleman trying to sell his landscape photography course. Naturally, it led with a picture of Antelope Canyon.
What I want to try and understand by writing this column is why some photographs speak to us, either individually or collectively, and others cause us to walk on by. I believe that this is caused by what I name “connectivity” for want of a better word. I cannot name it simply “narrative” because this would limit us: two of the examples below do not have a conventional narrative as such, but they do have “connectivity”. What I am defining here creates an intangible connection with the image and contains the elements of narrative, political rhetoric, unique beauties, and all those remarkable features that make a photograph transcend the ordinary.
A useful place to start is Dorothea Lange’s famous portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, universally known as Migrant Mother. Almost everyone who has a passing interest in photography will know the picture. The work is universally recognised as a great photograph. It has been painted, appropriated, updated, and parodied. Now, if you are so inclined, head to the Wikipedia page on the photograph. The image is now in the public domain, so you can freely download a large high-quality scan. Have a close look at what is in focus. It is not the subject’s eyes. It is the back of the right-hand child’s head. Lange missed the focus. One of the most iconic images of all time has a monstrous flaw!
However, that is not the point. It does not really matter, does it? Nobody really cares, except perhaps me, but then only for the purposes of writing this article. We look beyond the technical imperfection to the greater meaning of the photograph before us. We empathise with Florence. We want her life and those of her children to be better. We hope things turn out okay for them. Susan Sontag once wrote that “Pathos, in the form of narrative, never wears out.” She was right. There is a universality here that connects every one of us who holds their family dear to Lange’s image.
I hope that Lange’s photograph demonstrates that it is not technical quality that makes a picture special. It is an essence, something more difficult to quantify: the “connectivity” that we have with the picture. Let me demonstrate this by looking at three more photographs. All three are technically excellent, but this is not what makes them special.
Australian landscape photographer Geoff Woods’s Antarctic Beech, New England National Park (see the featured photograph above), is technically excellent, particularly as this was crafted on medium-format film. However, as I noted above, landscapes that tick all the boxes of technique are ubiquitous, so that is not what makes this picture special. Woods’s work is clearly influenced by his friend, the late, great Peter Dombrovskis. Dombrovskis’s work was one of the reasons I took up photography and he is, to my mind, Australia’s greatest landscape photographer. Woods has managed to construct an image of similar power and impact to that of the master. It is a great indication of Woods’s own skills that if I were told that this came from Dombroskis’s portfolio, I would not doubt it for a second.
What is it that makes this photograph so good? The impact of the Fuji Velvia film that it was shot on certainly helps. Velvia is known for rich colours and this picture is no exception. The beautiful and ephemeral mist behind the tree adds a boost as well. However, it is simply how the photograph makes me feel that does it for me. In my mind, I can feel the cool moss as I place my hands upon it. I can smell a cool morning in the forest. The light on the right-hand side hints at the arrival of the sun, and suddenly I am there, back in the glorious Australian wilderness for the first time in twenty years.
Visual artist Hany Tamba takes after his cinematographer, painter and photographer father. He is Lebanese by birth but enjoyed an art school education in the UK before settling in Paris. As a multidisciplined visual artist, photography is only one feature of what he does, but he describes it as an “essential part” of his life.
This picture, taken in 2003 in his mother’s 80th year, is warm and humane. Tamba himself describes his mother’s expression as “benevolent” and he is absolutely right. She radiates kindness. Yet, there is also a hint of mischief in her expression that takes the charm to another level. Lovely as this is, there is much more to the photograph. What elevates this picture to special is that her bedroom provides a perfect context for her reflection. Not only is she reflected in the mirror but also echoed in the room. That room is simply furnished with two discrete Catholic icons on display. The bed and its coverings are spotless. The whole area is just so. The picture creates an atmosphere that gives me a sense of the lady despite having never met her. Now, it is critical that I do not reduce her simply to what I can infer from a single image, but after spending time with this photograph I feel like I know her just a little bit, and she very much seems like somebody I would have liked a great deal.
Our third image for this article is Finnish photographer Ari Jaaksi’s Morning Coffee. As much as this article is not about the technical, what Jaaksi did to make this image is somewhat mind-blowing. The picture was taken on Fuji Instax film, a popular modern take on the Polaroid. Yet rather than being shot using an Instax camera, it was made in a medium format Rolleicord. This allowed him to control the aperture and shutter speed, neither of which are alterable in an Instax camera. Jaaksi removed the film from its cartridge in total darkness and placed it into the Rolleicord. After making the image, he placed the now exposed film back into the cartridge, again in darkness, and then placed the cartridge into an Instax camera. Then he took a shot with the lens cap on so that no double exposure was made, and the developing chemicals were released. This is an extraordinary level of effort, but what a result! This image is completely unique. It cannot be reproduced or remade. It is a one-of-a-kind photograph.
As remarkable as the process is, this is not the reason I have selected the photo for this article. I would love this image without knowing the backstory. This image also illustrates what I mean by “connectivity” most of all. This is because I cannot quite articulate why I like it so much. It gives me a feeling of being there in the room. I can almost reach out and pick up the coffee and the apple and snack away. With the previous two images, I was able to describe the “connectivity”, but here it is elusive. The intangible feeling that this image gives me is what makes it special. There is just something about it. My only regret with this lovely picture is that I cannot hold the original in my hands or look at it framed on a wall.
This article has given me the opportunity to spend some time thinking about, studying, and writing about three outstanding images. I found that each one connects to me in their own individual way. What I hope I have managed to illustrate here is the fact that I feel there is so much more to making fine photography than simply following technical rules and guidelines. To make a photograph genuinely special, there needs to be something more, something extra. I have called it “connectivity”, but you may have a better word or phrase that you use yourself. Either way, each of these three images, like every special picture, has that “connectivity”.
Geoff’s work regularly appears in the FRAMES Magazine Facebook Group.
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