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Brown Study

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Member Since: Mar 11, 2004
Location: Winnipeg
Posts: 1,964
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These are just a curmudgeon's thoughts on what makes a good picture in general and for a beginner considering photography as an advanced hobby or as a career, together with the criticism that comes with it, and whether such citicism is prompted by you because you want to learn, or it's thrown in your face, without even a by-your-leave.

A good photo can be what people say is a good photo, whether it is or not, and as is the case with a lot of products, "good" can depend on name recognition. This, in turn, depends on promotion and self-promotion. P.T. Barnum's methods have worked well for Microsoft, for one. As most here would agree, a ton of MS's stuff is awful no matter how or how much MS flogs it. But self-promotion is for the good, too, and it starts at home with something perhaps as basic as a well-designed web page.

I know a photo editor who contends that Yousuf Karsh was successful more as a self-promoter than a photographer, that he was a windbag but only a run-of-the-mill "lensman," whose famous prints of famous people are littered with hot spots, among other failings. He points these out with ease, and there's no denying that if Karsh's name wasn't attached to those particular prints, they would not receive the recognition they do. These are not examples of knowing when to break the rules. They are simply bad. But he gets a free ride while you might not. (This epiphany for me hit when I had remarked, "Who do you think you are, Karsh?" He had answered, I hope not!")

I don't agree with everything he claims of Karsh. But how many people would be *gasp* critical *gasp* of the legendary Karsh, who helped immortalize the great and the rich and the famous for being famous?

A beginner whose faults are pointed out time and time again should remember that a pro photographer's bad pix (and especially if the critic is a photog) never see the light of day — if that photo editor's opinion of Karsh is discounted. Those pictures are destroyed, with even the memory that they once existed expunged. I'd love to see some of Ansel Adams' turkeys, and there'd be plenty.

Amnesia wasn't new to photography, and certainly not even to an artist's paintings (Turner's "pink steam" comes to mind.) And who would know if Michelangelo's David was his third attempt after he had sculpted Bill with two left feet, then Fred with a quartz carbuncle on the end of his nose? It's worth remembering the next time a picture of which you are proud is shot down by the critics. (The fly in the ointment, though, is that the critics might be right.)

Fads that make a picture good or great play a role, too, as does the general philosophy or psychology of the times. And like everyone else, a critic is a prisoner of the times in which he or she lives, and a picture can't be deemed good without critics, paid or a member of the unwashed masses.

A "great" photograph that caught the critics' and the public's fancy 50 or 60 or more years ago might be laughable today — and may have been as laughable then had the photo existed in its own little bubble. But the circumstances — the politics and the reigning political correctness — that were part and parcel of the photograph obscured the reality, as they do now. They always will.

Consider the era of heroic, now-farcical poses of "heroes" struck for an admiring public or by the head of a household in a pic meant only for his family. Or pics of hale and hearty fatcats, each with a giant, steaming stogie, celebrating at a banquet their group's success at raising funds for the starving. Or a painstaking and expensive picture of John L. Sullivan, bare knuckles raised in front of a handlebar moustache — and standing in his underwear. And each print is proudly signed by the photog. It's easy to laugh (and I do), but wait 20 or 50 or 100 years, because whatever makes a photo good or great now, as then, can be as ephemeral as fashion.

None of this denies the foundations of good photography that are so well documented by the posters above and in another thread, and any aspiring photographer would be foolish to ignore them. I just wanted to mention all this about what might help or hinder making a photo good, and about photographs that might fall under a microscope, because I found it worth while to keep in mind. Someone else might, too.
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