For Great Photographs, ‘This Is What I Saw’ Isn’t Enough

Looking at photographs is a very personal experience. Everyone has their opinions about what is good art and what is not. When it comes to photographs, some like landscapes, others go for street photography, and others prefer conceptual photography or portraits. It’s all a matter of personal taste. Of course, I have my own preferences, but it is not a particular style of photography that I prefer over another. What interests me are the way a photograph is made and the impact it has on me as a viewer.

Seeing and Believing

Photography these days is moving along two separate, distinct paths. The first is the photographer observing something, photographing it, and printing the image exactly as he or she saw it. Outside of correcting the RAW image for color balance and exposure, nothing else is done to the photograph. No burning in of the corners, no darkening or lightening of the subject, no darkening of the background or dodging of the subject — nothing. What they are telling me is, “This is what I saw.”

In order for these types of images to succeed as photographs, what the photographer saw has to be special — something unique; something that is unnoticed by the casual viewer. A different angle, a shadow, a relationship between between subject and background, anything to tell me that the photographer noticed something out of the ordinary. Then it is transformed into a photograph, something special. Unfortunately, when it does not work, it is because the photographer was working to a formal, preordained plan or statement and the resulting images are no more than a checked-off list to suit that plan. Working this way results in dull, uninspiring images.

Once More, with Feeling

The second path is to view something ordinary and make something special from it — to take what the photographer saw, and then by some form of manipulation such as framing, dodging, burning in, contrast adjustment, adding something personal to the image. I am not referring to extreme Photoshop manipulation techniques but simply the same adjustments that photographers have traditionally used to place their distinct marks upon an image — passion, feeling, something to tell me, “This is what I felt.” That is done by working with the image, changing it in such a way as to put some of the photographer’s heart and soul into it. Dark corners or background, lightened subject, bleached color or color desaturated or super-saturated — all of these techniques may contribute to putting the photographer’s personal impression upon their image.

This is nothing new. Photographers have been doing this for years. Eugene Smith was fanatical about his printing and would spend days working on a single print — bleaching small areas, darkening foregrounds, and lightening shadows until he got what he wanted. Man Ray would solarize his images (exposing the negative to light while processing) to create the surreal image he desired.

In my view, the best images work when the viewer is transformed from an ordinary reality (seeing what everybody else sees) to what the photographer saw and felt when he or she snapped the shutter. These photographs work because they make the viewer want to linger, to explore and involve themselves in to what is happening in the image. If the all the photographer has to say is, “This is what I saw,” I am left unimpressed.

5 Responses to “For Great Photographs, ‘This Is What I Saw’ Isn’t Enough”

  1. Where would you place William Eggleston?

  2. "In order for these types of images to succeed as photographs, what the photographer saw has to be special — something unique; something that is unnoticed by the casual viewer."

  3. Does it have to be so either/or? I tend to see myself as a combination of the two – in subject matter, I tend toward the second type, while in technique I'm much more in line with the first (I think that's mostly because I once did high-end retouching professionally and got a bit burned out on it).

    Not that I claim anything like greatness, but I do think I've made some great images over the years.

  4. Good point of view. Not alternative but some different angle: photography by eye, photography by heart and photography by soul. The last one is ignore the technical aspects. But only includes unforgettable frames of every thing.

  5. The good thing about "this is what I saw" is that other people didn't actually see it and you, as a photographer, offer them your eye to be a witness of that captured event. From that point, they could be the one to paint the picture based on how it made them feel.

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