This is an excerpt from David duChemin’s upcoming book, The Heart Of The Photograph, coming in March 2020.
As one who makes pictures for a living and teaches others to do so, I have long been preoccupied with what should be, one might think, a simple question: What makes a good photograph?
To hear popular photographic culture speak their answers to this question, we could be forgiven for thinking it is merely a matter of meeting a particular technical standard. When we first learn this craft, it’s miracle enough that we can bring our skills to bear on the creation of a photograph that is focused and well-exposed. That becomes our first standard, and often, though expressed with more sophistication, our last. Our thoughts lean toward, “If only I could wrap my head around the complexities of the technique, or the understanding required to operate the camera in my hands, I will at last create a good photograph.”
I think we can do better.
I am not downplaying the need for that initial skill set, nor the pride that comes when we finally find our images focused and well-exposed more often than not. I am suggesting, however, that those skills are merely the price of admission; they are the foundation we build in order to move forward in this craft. Mastery of craft is necessary, but insufficient; it does not necessarily create a good photograph. And, to some extent, it must be acknowledged that good photographs can be made by anyone, by any means, depending on what “good” means to us.
Ask others what a good photograph is and you’ll hear a variety of answers: A good photograph tells a story. A good photograph shows you something in a new way. A good photograph makes you feel something or ask questions or . . .
Well, which one is it? Is it all of them? Must every image be evaluated in the same way? Is there a more helpful question than “Is it good?” Might it instead be possible to reframe the question entirely? I think it is, and I think this reframing is important. Because while the question “Is this a good photograph?” is next to impossible to answer objectively, it’s undeniable that the drive to make photographs that are good, or strong, or that connect with us and our audience, is what pushes us to explore this craft and challenge ourselves both as artists and practitioners of craft. It is the connection to the human that is at the heart of this book.
This connection is important because it is we humans who decide why a photograph is made at all. It is we who read an image and respond to it on a dizzying number of levels. Was the photograph made to show you something specific, such as what a Blue-winged Teal looks like? Was it made to retain a memory of some fleeting moment? Was it made to tell a specific story, convey a certain feeling, or raise certain questions? Was it made to anger, arouse, or amuse?
I think it’s time we photographers asked ourselves what it is we hope to accomplish with our work. And, in fact, it might be time to stop talking about “good” photographs entirely and find a better thing to pursue with our craft.
This book is, in part, an exploration of the search for that better thing, and before you roll your eyes at me, I ask you to trust me as I make this promise to you: this exploration will be deeply pragmatic. I have about as much interest in debating what art is as I do in arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. What I want to discuss is this: What makes a photograph that pleases us as its creator, and has any chance of creating a desired experience for others who will read that photograph?
To backtrack a little, when we ask about one of our photographs, “Is it good?” I wonder what we mean. It seems logical that at the very least we could revert to those first technical standards and ask, “Is it sharp? Is it well-exposed?” But what if sharpness is not the point? What if the best expression of this particular subject or moment is pure movement and blur, pure impression or abstraction? Asking if it is sharp is no more meaningful than asking if it is blue, unless sharp or blue is the point entirely. And when we talk about exposure, we must admit that to be under- or overexposed means to be “under” or “over” relative to . . . what? The meter on the camera? The camera has no idea what you want to accomplish with your photograph. The best it can tell you is how much light there is. Whether you want to expose for your shadows and allow parts of the image to go blinding white or expose for the highlights and allow the shadows to become black holes free from any detail is a matter of taste and intent. There is no room for what we “should” do in art, and frankly, less room for it in the craft and the technique than we like to imagine.
Every decision we make as photographers is relative not to what we ought to do (as outlined in your camera user manual or by your local camera club) but to what we desire to accomplish. This is where we get the first clue as to how we might start answering the question, “Is it good?” Perhaps we should first ask, “Does it accomplish what I hoped it would?”
If you are starting out and you create a sharp, well-exposed photograph, when before you had nothing but frustration, and you show me that photograph, I would have to be a monster to tell you it wasn’t good. Is it good in the same way Ansel Adams might have meant good when looking at his own work? Is it good the way I think the work of Josef Koudelka is good? Probably not. But I think that has little to do with the work of Adams or Koudelka, or even you, and more to do with the standard against which we measure things. Sometimes the good photograph, at least in terms of our craft, is the one that represents growth, new mastery of technique, or next steps taken. In that instance, to strive for more and to skip the necessary lessons of the craft would sabotage the process of mastery. Sometimes the good photograph is the one that signals forward progress and is measurable only to you.
Humour me a moment and let me suggest that the language we use to talk about photographs is underdeveloped, and maybe, just maybe, the engines of popular photography culture (mostly the camera manufacturers because that’s where the biggest money is) have a vested interest in keeping us talking about a “good” photograph in purely technical terms. Why? Because a target that never stops moving is a target we will continue to spend money to pursue. If the new standard of sharpness becomes the new standard of what is good, it’s reasonable to believe we can spend our way to “goodness,” which is absurd. A Leica does not a better photograph make.
We must shift the language away from what is or is not good and instead talk about whether an image expresses our vision, satisfies us creatively, and creates a desired experience for the reader, and—importantly—we must talk about how it does this. There are many ways for an image to be “good,” just as there are many ways an image might be “bad.” If we can learn to talk about those things, we will be much closer to a conversation that is both meaningful and helpful, at least in terms of getting us to the second and much larger conversation in this book, which addresses this question: What are the things to which we respond in a photograph? If we can know that, then we are closer to being able to put those things into our photographs and choose from among them those that best do the job.
But wouldn’t it be much easier if we created an objective standard or pretended one already existed? Of course it would. What freedom it would bring us to labour without the burden of following our vision (or having to identify it at all) and struggling to say the things we want to say, explore ideas we want to explore, and give the subject an expression that is most authentic to ourselves!
Would it be easier? For the love of Ansel Adams and all the saints, yes! But would the results be good? Would they be authentic? Would they say anything new? Would they shock? Would they inform? Would they make us ask questions? Would they be any more than propaganda or imitations? Would they make us laugh or cry? Would they be the kinds of photographs we’d grab on the way out the door when the house is on fire?
If you’re looking for more helpful questions, would those not be better questions to ask in order to explore and investigate our work? Wouldn’t those questions help us to know if we’re accomplishing something of any value?
They would. They are. That they exist at all is what pushes me to ask them and let them lead me, challenge me, and suggest new possibilities in my work. If my work is to be “good,” it’s more likely to become so by asking those more oblique questions than by asking merely, “Is it good?”
When I ask, “Is it good?” there are two immediate replies possible. Yes and No. Neither helps me do a better job of making photographs that are closer to my vision or doing what I hope for them to do. Yes, this is a book about what makes a photograph good, whatever that means. But this is the last time I will talk in those terms. I won’t ask that question again. But I will ask questions that I think are stronger and more helpful, and I’ll encourage you to do the same, in the hopes of helping us all move a little closer to stronger photographs.
An example of a stronger, more helpful question: Is this photograph dynamic? If dynamism is what you want, and the answer is yes, then you’re on your way. If it’s no, then at least there’s a logical follow-up question: What might make it more dynamic? And now you’ve got some direction. If you know what you want to accomplish with your image, such as illustrating what a particular bird looks like, then asking, “Does this photograph clearly illustrate this particular bird?” is more helpful than asking if the photograph is “good.” In fact, you might not want the image to be a straightforward illustration of the bird at all. You might be looking to create an interpretation of the bird in flight. Or it might be something more about colour and motion, and then that intention gives you your question: Does this photograph give that colour and motion their best expression? Whatever your answer, you’ll use different tools to accomplish what you want to create, and different questions to evaluate the final image.
I’m not trying to be difficult. Lord knows I don’t need a reputation as a troublemaker. I just want to write about this craft I love in terms that actually help us learn and practice it with greater reward for ourselves and deeper connections and experiences for those who will read our images. If I get carried away, I hope you’ll forgive me, knowing it’s mostly just because I truly give a damn about this stuff and would rather trip over my opinions once in a while than play it safe with you or feed you platitudes.
I want this to be a truly human book, something that resonates with you and pushes you to make photographs that come from your deeper and more human places rather than merely from technical proficiency. To create this more human book means to be very human in the making of it, and that means risking the possibility that you disagree with me, which I welcome. Art is not about consensus. If this book prompts deeper questions to which you find different answers, then I’ve done something worthwhile.
What is most certainly true is that all writers write from their particular perspective, and I’m no exception. I can only write about what I know. This book, like my others before it, is not an attempt to write an encyclopedic and exhaustive coverage of the ideas within as much as it is an attempt to explore them, turn them over in our hands, and ask: How can they help us make our images stronger? Perhaps, too, these conversations will help us read photographs differently, and with that comes the possibility of seeing the world in different ways as well.
In the long list of elements and devices that make a photograph resonate with us, I will undoubtedly miss some, if not many. I will get some wrong. But I will try hard not to be prescriptive or absolute about any of it, because photography, like all art, is deeply human and subject to all the nuances, exceptions, what-ifs, and ragged edges that we ourselves are. I have learned to be very suspicious of anything prescriptive or absolute. What is important is not that we have an encyclopedia of these things but a conversation about them. We all approach this craft and art differently and for different reasons, but the basic conversation about what is within ourselves and the photographs we both make and find compelling is profoundly needed.
We all see the world in unique ways from those around us, and photography offers us the chance to both deepen that way of seeing and communicate or express it to others. Some see wonder, some injustice, some beauty. Some see questions and stories and new information. But the final photograph is a two-dimensional thing to which we respond, and it’s the nature of that two-dimensional thing that we must explore if we’re to make it a stronger vehicle for expression. God knows the camera won’t automatically do that for us.
I’m quite sure there’s nothing in these pages that hasn’t been said before by other, and often wiser, voices. After all, nothing in the fundamentals of this craft is truly new. But I’m hoping to express these ideas in new ways. Perhaps more accessible ways. It’s worth a reminder that it’s not the newness of ideas that makes them valid, or important, or that impacts what our photographs become. It’s what we do with those ideas. There is no magic button hidden in these pages, but if for you there is a new way of seeing, questioning, or approaching your craft in the pursuit of your art, then much magic lies ahead.