How do we judge whether a photograph is good or not? I’m sure there are many ways to answer this question, and, being someone who enjoys ducking difficult questions when possible, I’m not going to provide an answer here. What I will say is that I am troubled by the equation of technical perfection with the quality of being good or bad, an exercise in judgment that I come across a lot among a certain set of photographers.
I do believe that technical ability is important, and can be an important consideration when formulating an opinion on whether a photograph is good or not. But far more important for me is the feeling I get when I look at a photograph I like. There is an instant click, a sense that everything is just right, that is felt more viscerally than understood intellectually. The best photographs are the ones that sustain that feeling over time, that keep me coming back again and again to look some more.
I was listening to new music on Pandora Internet radio recently (one of the best things yet to come out of the Internet), and observed a similar phenomenon. Some songs seemed to have individual elements I liked – riffs, melodies, lyrics, etc. – but they just didn’t come together in a way that was pleasing to my ear. Others seemed to have nothing individually special about them, but just came together in ways that I instantly liked. I pretty much knew right away the music I liked versus other music not so much. Aside from meeting a certain minimum threshold of listenability, the decision had more to do with the feeling the song produced in me than the technical qualities of the instrumentalists and sound engineers who did the recording.
So when I observe certain photographers nit-picking the work of others – is the focus a little soft on the edges, is there a lack of detail in the shadows, could the composition have been improved by positioning the camera an inch to the left or right – I have to roll my eyes a bit. I really think over-emphasis on the technical misses the point. Art should be about moving people, not checking off a list of technical virtues. Again, while I do think technical concerns are legitimate, they are far less important than the feeling conveyed by an image.
Technical concerns were on my mind during the making of the image in this post, “Moon Over Forest Canyon.” In the end, though, I simply liked the feeling of the piece, and so I’ve added it to my portfolio.