The Best Photos Make You Stop to Look Twice

“When you look into your camera, if you see an image you have ever seen before, don’t click the shutter.”

— Alexey Brodovitch

Based on my recent blog posts criticizing the tyranny of the new and the idiocy of artist statements in photography, you might have me pegged as a “grumpy old photographer,” as one commenter put it.

I like that label; I really do. I am grumpy — worse sometimes. And I am not a kid anymore, either.

A Lot Not to Like

Frankly, there is a lot of photography I don’t like.

I don’t like photographs that are pretty or cute. If it’s pretty or cute, chances are it’s been taken a thousand times before. The Web is polluted with such images.

You know what I’m talking about. Driftword on the beach. Sunsets. Colored walls in exotic locations. Sleeping children with dogs. Rays of light shining through trees. Ad nauseum.

But even though I confess to being a bit of a curmudgeon, I still love photography. Very much.

So I thought I’d try to explain why I love the images I love.

Stopping to Look Twice

Brodovitch’s quote at the top of this post represents my golden rule and guiding compass. I like almost any photograph that makes me stop to look twice.

It’s difficult to achieve this amid the constant barrage of images surrounding us today. You have to have captured something fresh, or in a fresh way.

It could be an ad in a magazine, a billboard, just something I stumble across on the Web. It does not have to be mounted on boards and framed, signed and numbered, be a certain size, or follow conventional photographic standards.

I can get excited looking at Xeroxes of images.

It is, after all, the image — not the medium — that I’m looking at.

An Unexplained Quality

In every great image, there is a certain unexplained quality that draws the viewer into the frame.

Even though I’ve studied art and been a photographer for many years, I can’t always put my finger on a photo’s secret. I just know when a photo is special to me.

In a great photograph, all the elements, shapes, tones and movement come together to make a statement. But this almost never happens in a textbook way, where the rule of thirds has been observed, or there is perfectly balanced color or contrast. Often this kind of precision leads to the most boring images imaginable.

A great photograph can be blurred, lopsided or otherwise flawed, but still have that mysterious quality that forces you to pay attention to it.

Seeing Passion

If I were to try to define this quality, the best word I can think of is “passion.” The photographer cared enough about the subject to add something unique to the image, to communicate a personal vision in a single frame.

I am sure most of you have gone to art exhibits and looked at many images in a short time. When you are walking along, I’m guessing there are some images that you give a quick look — and others that make you linger. Those are the ones that speak to you.

Ask yourself why. What is it about this image, rather than the ones on either side of it, that draws you in?

That might be a clue for the direction of your own work.

11 Responses to “The Best Photos Make You Stop to Look Twice”

  1. Nothing wrong with being grumpy! I'm not sure if I enjoy the process of photography or the end result more, but I'll always be a sucker for inspiration.


  2. This is right on, David. Well said!

  3. Thank you!

    This is by far the best lecture i've read about photography in a long, long time. One can certainly appreciate the honesty and the freeness of your personal expressions regarding the format. You made me see my gut feeling in written format.


  4. I agree 100% even if at times it's not that easy to shoot more than a "pretty" image.
    I would suggest that when passion goes along with awareness and self-consciousness, well, that makes it.

  5. I love the quote. An amazing ideal to strive for.

    Unless you shoot at the other stuff first though, you won't be ready to make the most of the opportunities that fall your way, or indeed to recognise them when you see them.

  6. How do we photographers and writers find our way out of the wasteland of insignificance? That's what we want to know. What do we get? Mostly fluff served up via the blind leading the blind. But once in a while we are surprised by substance. Thanks.

  7. Photography is an addiction as much as hunting is. Hunting for this one image that brings out what is within already. Reminding us of our obscure nature that few of us are really in touch with. Loosing faith in image hunting is easy in this time of plenty and usual. But your article inspired me to go within and really ask what can I do that is different.

  8. Thanks David!
    Very insightful article.
    Passion is the key but getting there is not easy!

  9. We live in a world where everything has been done before!

  10. Superb post.

    My feelings on this subject summed up perfectly. Every person who claims to be a photographer needs to read this.

    I often write on the same subject and have stated often that the good image is the one one the wall that stops the viewer dead in his or her tracks. As to the question of what makes a great photo I think that Picaso's comment about art sums it up the best.

    'At the end of the day, a picture either works or it doesn't' (paraphrased).

  11. Well Said. It makes me feel a little bad, though, about all those pictures I sent out featuring my son and the dog sleeping.

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