This is an area where photographers can be treading on thin ice. I was in a lengthy email conversation with a colleague. I’ll call him Andrew (because that’s his name).

Andrew and I happened to be discussing snaps. I made a case outlining the importance of the simple family snap and pointed out that whenever I’ve been to a news story which involved fire, flood or similar tragedy which had left property destroyed the response from the victims was nearly always along the lines:  ” … and we’ve lost all of the family snaps … ” I’m sure I’d have no trouble finding other photographers who have experienced similar reactions.

My attitude is that great pictures exist in the eye of the beholder. That invariably puts the humble snap at the top of the heap for many people. But snaps are also an important recorder of history and that happens to be an area where photography scores very highly indeed. It gives us a pictorial record of moments in time. Often those pictures are ultimately treated as works of art, are bought by institutions and traded among collectors.

I’ve been trawling through old negs recently, mainly snaps from my earlier days in photography, and scanning them. I was working on one particular image, taken around 1963 when I was strolling around the back blocks of Paddington. I’d come across this negative while the exchange between Andrew and I continued –

Rag and Bone Merchant, Paddington, London.  circa 1963      © Roger Garwood 2012

I was a carrying the Leica M2 loaded with Tri-X and fitted with a 50mm Summilux. I decided that I’d use this as an example of what I like in a picture. I like it, you don’t have to.

Here’s the slightly edited  extract of what I said:

” … re snap v great picture. It’s a discussion we could have interminably – and forever.

In many respects it doesn’t matter. I’m a great supporter of the snapshot and saying that reminds me of the number of people I’ve met [while covering news events]who have had their property burnt out and say: ” …  we lost all of the family pictures”. In most case it’s a sure bet they were snaps. But to them they were the best pictures in the world and I wouldn’t dream of arguing with them.

In that regard I have no argument with your pictures of the family. They are, and you said so, family snaps. And it is not the right of anybody to pass some sort of etherial, aesthetic, judgement on them. When it comes to pictures which are designed to be published … for general consumption I believe we need to look at some basics which give  pictures broader appeal.

So what are the basics? Well, in that respect, it’s every photographer for himself – that’s what defines style. It’s what makes Salgado, Strand, C-B etc stand out from the crowd.

Thank goodness we each have a set of rules as to what we like, what we define as good or bad, and it’s very hard to qualify what they are. I have a tendency to like media work which depicts day to day life. Some I don’t like. For example, try as I may, I find it difficult to appreciate the work of Robert Frank. Yet the work of, say, Eugene Smith, I deem as brilliant. I also acknowledge that I have tunnel vision as to what I feel is good. I’m  happy to be dismissive of the work of say, *** ***, which has never been great but is sold on the back of bullshit [by third rate curators, particularly in Western Australia]

What do I look for in a picture? Well, attractive lighting is important. Light can make or break an image. Secondly, and broadly speaking, composition which is easy on the eye, where the elements of a picture seem cohesive and the eye can be lead from part of a picture to another. (I can feel a blog moment coming on) Look at this shot and see what you feel makes it work (if you feel it works at all).

I think you’ll find your eye will move over various elements of the picture, taking in detail, reading a poster, the phone number, the man in the chair, looking at the rubbish in some detail but always looking the girl in the door. It’s the sort of ‘snap’ I like and the reason I took it was because of its complexity, its variety of interesting points. All in all it works and had I been ‘working it’ as part of a story I would have spoken to the bloke, taken a portrait of him, detailed shots of the rubbish, posed a shot of him and the girl together, posed a shot of him beside the rubbish and so on. Try and imagine the shot without the girl. Or of him leaning against the ladder with the rubbish around him. It would have worked. As it is I settled for the one frame candid snap.

I happen to like pictures with a lot of detail in them and also with a touch of whimsy. The whimsical touch in this is the girl. She’s totally out of context but without her you’d be looking into a black hole. As it is, small though she is, she is very much an essential element, possibly the strongest part of the image. And, referring back to the last post on serendipity, she’s a touch serendipitous.

Anyway, I’m rambling (hence the blog’s subtitle title).

The point I was trying to make is that if we are to be professional we can’t be indulgent and take pictures which please us alone. There’s enough esoteric stuff out there without imposing it on the whole world. 

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