I still remember the first time a photograph really affected me. I was 9 years old and reading a Life Magazine book on the history of World War II. It contained hundreds of pictures by Life photographers — but the one that grabbed me was Robert Capa’s blurred image of soldiers landing on the beach at Normandy.
As a child, I had no idea why the picture had such an emotional impact on me. I later learned that it was a very famous image, considered one of Capa’s best — so it must have had the same effect on others, too.
What Makes a Great Photograph?
Today, many years later, I still can’t say exactly what makes a great picture — why one picture resonates with me and another one doesn’t.
If you were to read a book on photography, it would tell you the importance of composition, exposure, building interest, and so forth. But that’s not really what it’s about. If photography were about following rules, we could all agree on which images were great based on specific, objective criteria.
Of course, we don’t usually agree, do we?
How many wedding or portrait photographers have shown their clients photographs they thought were outstanding, only to have them dismissed as “boring”? Or even worse, criticized because the client doesn’t like how their hair or smile looks in the picture?
How many news photographers have had their “gems” dismissed by editors in favor of other, less interesting images – or even worse, cropped so that the initial impact of an image is lost?
I recently showed a gallery owner an image of mine that has been a favorite for years. I took it over 20 years ago, and I still consider it one of my best.
The gallery owner instantly discarded it because it “reminded her” of a newspaper ad she had once seen.
It’s all very subjective and personal, isn’t it? Everyone has their own reality.
Blending Random Notes into Art
Since my teen years, I have enjoyed listening to jazz. I am fascinated by the way the musicians blend a series of seemingly random notes into music, and it just flows.
I love what jazz does to my head. For me, it’s magic. But I could never explain why it has such an impact on me. I just know that it does.
The best photography is like jazz. It doesn’t overly concern itself with rules. It reveals the passion of the artist.
All photographers have opinions about which of our images are the best ones. Sometimes editors or clients or gallery owners have other ideas. We all have to deal with that.
But if we’re fortunate, every once in a while one of our photos just clicks with people. That’s when the real magic of photography occurs. It’s when the random notes come together, and we make music.