So Just What Does Make a Picture Great?

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. 

Serendipity’s Role in Photography

Most photographers will tell you that serendipity plays a large part in their work. Those fortunate moments when the gods shine on us. When the elements of a good picture fall into place, we are in the right place, we have our wits about us, and we manage to capture the moment.

Most photographers with a bit of experience will also tell you that if you really work at it, practically day in and day out, you may be fortunate enough to get a world class picture every year or so. If that notion was good enough for Cartier-Bresson it should be good enough for most of us. I’m happy to accept the philosophy.

I think the two most difficult aspects of photography are landscape and street shooting. Photographers will appreciate they have absolutely no control over any of the elements which make the difference between a mediocre picture and one which brings the bacon home. Landscape photographers will revisit a location many times, note the light, the time of year, weather patterns. They may camp for a few days, knowing the weather is changeable and will ‘happen’ for them. Similarly street photographers like to be around people, watching the elements which may form a picture and be ready when it happens. I’ve been known to follow two or three nuns for hours (that’s not true – but a lot of minutes anyway) and still fail to get a decent shot. Street shooting and landscape photography are like going fishing. Sometimes you catch something, sometimes you don’t. Either way it’s always good fun.

A few years ago (about 1972 to be precise) I was in Brighton, England, and happened to be looking at a wall who’s bricks had been carefully painted, alternately black and white. I took a couple of frames and turned to carry on walking when I saw this couple walking towards me. So I waited:

Brighton Promenade, England 1972

© Roger Garwood 2012

It was a one framer, no second chance, no control over the picture. Leica M2, 50mm Summilux, Tri-X. Exposure would have been about 1/250th @ f8.

I count this as the first conscious moment of being aware of the part serendipity plays its hand in the work of the street shooter.

Why Am I Doing This?

That’s a difficult question. It’s not because I’m bored. I’m not. I’m happily earning a precarious living preparing features for magazines.  That  involves a bit of  writing, a bit of photography and a bit of travelling. I also enjoying sitting around with colleagues  enjoying sunshine, fresh air and sharing notes about what’s making the world go round. Sometimes that involves navigating our way around a few wine bars.

I like this industry. It’s commonly called photojournalism. I was lured into the media because my mother taught me to read before I went to school, thus print media is a large part of my conditioning. I didn’t see television until I was about 16. That’s a slight exaggeration as I did watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on a television and can remember being told what a privilege it was for me. Let’s not go there but in later years I did spend a considerable time as a sort of proto-paparazzi, chasing the very person I had watched on the TV as she was crowned.

I started work in Fleet Street as a stringer for the Daily Sketch and the Daily Mail and then went onto the London staff of Paris Match. Now I simply freelance, work on my own ideas and syndicate the resulting stories. Then I spend a bit of time with colleagues, navigating a few more wine bars.  Such is life and I have to admit that in terms of lifestyle things don’t get better.

But where next I ask?

It’s clear there are many changes happening in the media and I feel it’s essential to become accustomed to working within eMedia. There are many online magazines emerging; newspapers are collapsing and the new era of electronic media is expanding at roughly the same rate as the known universe. One of the eBenefits is that it’s possible to publish a blog without the  constraints placed by conventional media, and I want to be part of it.  A simple blog is a humble beginning. I feel blogging can be fun, I hope it will be anyway. I can be my own media boss and that is the real challenge. In their own sweet way every blogger can nibble away at media moguls’ empires, challenge their editorial control and offer those who do read blogs an alternative opinion to the mainstream manipulation of public opinion. And of course there is the added advantage that we can become mega bloggers, like the Huffington Post, sell out for squillions and spend the rest of our lives relaxing on large yachts.

So this is my first effort. Over time I’ll probably talk a bit about ideas, cameras and lenses, writing and travelling. I won’t give ideas away until I’ve finished working on them and sold subsequent material – I don’t want to give the competition too much of a head start and believe me this is a very competitive  industry.

I have spend time lecturing in both journalism and photography and I may voice some of my opinions about teaching practices. In that respect I’m  often at odds with mainstream thinking.

By and large my blog will be a random selection of past work and experiences. To kick start I’m posting a picture taken several years ago, several decades ago in fact. It’s utterly sexist but I like it. I’d be mad if I didn’t.

I slipped out of the office to buy a bottle of red before I went for a lunch with my erstwhile business partner, Trish Ainslie. The hotel over the road had a small bottle shop and as I waited at the counter I looked into the bar. This picture was taken after the then Premier of Western Australia, Charles Court (a real wowser) had banned strip shows in pubs. Fremantle is a port city and the pubs were patronised by wharfies, the dockworkers who enjoyed a bit of entertainment  with their beer. So in a true Australian spirit the very next day,  following the ban on strippers in pubs, we witnessed the advent of what became known as Skimpies. They were very welcome and the beer tasted pretty good to.

I am in the habit (or was, pre digital) of carrying an old Leica and 35mm lens around, loaded up with Tri X in those days. I could see no reason to ignore this picture. I didn’t realise at the time that it had started me on a distinct path, a change of direction, as to the type of stories I liked to work on. But more of that later.

Skimpy Barmaid, The Fremantle Hotel. circa 1987

The photograph was taken with a Leica M4-2 and 35mm Summilux lens. The exposure, on Tri-X, rated at 400asa was probably about 1/30 sec @ f2. I can’t remember what wine I bought but it would have cost about four bucks. Lunch would have been the Roma’s chicken, mushrooms and chips – that’s about all I ever had there. I have a cruel sense of humour, I give this picture to friends on significant birthdays, just to remind them how good life used to be before they hit a pensionable age.