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Eye Candy or Meaningful Work?

Ansel Adams is known to have said,

Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.

I often think about why Ansel Adams picked such a low number. Could it be because of his slow work process with large format film and meticulous printing methods, or could it be that he was very picky about his work and would only consider his very best?

Looking back at my work, it is not unusual for me to come home from a month-long photo journey with three to four thousand new images. In my defence, I bracket most shots, so right out of the gate, I am down to about one-third of that. On top of that, I will frequently have a series of 100 or more shots of something challenging to shoot that requires many retakes like a gannet flying close to Niagara Falls, for example.

By the time I am done going through my work, I typically end up with between 5 and 10 shots I am satisfied with; from those, there are probably only one or two which I would print and hang in a gallery.

A two-month trip to Atlantic Canada in 2021 yielded about six thousand photographs, of which I have printed roughly ten, with two winning first prize at the annual Exhibition art show. So using those numbers, two winners from a two-month trip yield twelve images in a year – right on the money with Ansel Adams’ suggestion.

I’m sure Ansel did not come home from a two-month trip with six thousand new large-format negatives, and I can’t imagine me coming back from a similar long trip with only, say, 100 shots. So regardless of our workflow, we both end up with about the same number of good photos – about one a month.

And this brings me to my point that making a great photograph goes well beyond much of the massive quantity of eye candy frequently posted. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a beautiful sunset as much as the next person, but the impression is short-lived and long forgotten before the next sundown. But, on the other hand, genuinely great work forever changes how you see things – it stays with you, and thoughts about it will pop into your mind when you least expect it.

So what is it that makes a photograph a good one that will cause you to revisit it in your mind, sometimes when you least expect it? Some say it happens the first time you see an image of something you have never seen before. For example, think about some of the first images you saw from the Hubble space telescope. However, I think even more memorable are those images of things you know well but which are photographed in ways that bring a new perspective. Usually, they manifest themselves by immediately taking you by surprise, with your first thought generally being, “I never thought about photographing it that way or maybe even just a wow.” My point is that you know it instantly when you see it, and it will change you forever. Put more succinctly – old wine in new bottles.

It takes time and hard work to think about and execute new ideas about the things around us that are familiar, and this is why a “Good Crop,” on average, is only about one image a month. We frequently travel to new places to make images of the unfamiliar, after which we persuade ourselves that this is unique and original work. Spoiler alert, it is not – while it feels new and exciting, it falls squarely into the category of photographing something new rather than photographing something in a new way. If you stay in that place long enough, what once was new and exciting quickly becomes mundane.

Aside from the practical sides of photography like medical imaging, architecture, product, real estate, portrait, and so on, Art photography falls into one of three broad categories when it comes to being memorable.

First, there are the eye candy shots, which typically are well-executed shots that we see a million of – like the milky way, northern lights, sunsets, cute bear cubs, and so on. While these are pleasing to look at, they are nothing more than eye candy passing through your mind at the speed of light. They create no lasting impression; you might not even remember the image by tomorrow. These types of images are nothing more than copies of a large group of similar photos, and the only real thing we can learn about the photographer is their level of technical prowess. Unfortunately, when they are technically well executed, many people mistake this type of work for great art.

Second, are the images from new and strange places. This group comprises macro shots, underwater, distant lands and cultures, and space images from Hubble and James Web – in short, pictures of things and places we cannot usually see and have never been to. These shots are frequently memorable because they are new and exciting to a curious mind. Unfortunately, in so many ways, they are simply an extension to the eye candy shots but with the added benefit of showing us something new – call them eye candy version 2. The problem with photos falling into this category is that they are frequently misjudged and thought of as great images when they are nothing more than a photo of something new and previously unseen by the viewer. As a viewer, we tend to succumb to the novelty of the subject matter while, all too often, the work is nothing more than an “I was here” image that reveals little about the artist or their intent.

Third, this is where the art of photography begins, and the true mastery of the artist starts to come through. In this category, we see things we thought we knew in ways that forever change our perception. Photographs in this class tend to stick with you, pop into your mind, and affect your future work at times and in ways you cannot even begin to predict. I challenge anyone to go through Sebastião Salgado’s “Workers“ photo book and look at street photography the same way again. Some of those images will haunt you and stay with you forever – not because they are from different places but because Salgado captures moments of people in unique and memorable ways. To become an artist with a camera, forget about copying what everyone else does or taking mundane photos of new places. Instead, create new and different work and show people who you are and what you want to tell them through your art.

The goal of any art photographer then would be to operate within the last two categories. Learn to see and photograph the new and exciting in what you already are familiar with, and combine that with work from new and strange places. If you can do this, your work will become epic.

In some blogs, I will get into a lot more detail about how to make better and more unique photographs - so stay tuned.


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