What Makes a Great Photograph

This question was posed by J.M. Colberg to his fellow fine art photographers, over on his blog Conscientious. A confession: although I've always enjoyed photography, it has never ranked up there among my favorite forms of art. While I was teaching photography, I had to try and muster the same enthusiasm that had come naturally for teaching things like painting or video. However, the responses have got me thinking;

Anthony LaSala: There are so many, but the past few years I have been in love with this photo by Abelardo Morell. It's titled 'Laura and Brady in the Shadow of Our House, 1994.'
"What makes this and other images great photos? I think, quite simply, it's the images that stay with you long after you first encounter them. Whether they have complexity, a visual intensity, or the power to convey certain emotions. Here, in one frame, Morell captures perfectly the enchantment and imagination of childhood, the charm of family, the splendor of being languorous and the feeling of security offered up by the looming presence of a home. This photo has remained in my mind since I first witnessed it and it never fails to make me smile.

Matt Niebuhr:

Generally, I feel that a great photograph needs to have the capacity to
provoke the viewer to wander beyond the immediate image - towards something
beyond what is ordinarily visible. Photographs that reveal something about the
perception (whether or not I have a similar perception) of the subject are more
interesting to me than photos that merely record the subject.

Brian Ulrich:
To apply a formula to something that like creativity is an ambitious and
interesting endeavor but certainly one that could threaten the creative process.
I think it difficult to say what makes a 'great photo'. I remember Saul Leiter
telling me 'if you could make one really great photograph a year, in fifteen
years you would have 15 really great photographs'. It's a humbling and daunting
charade but well worth it.

I find some of the points so interesting, that it makes me reconsider my own feelings about photography - like I said, the responses got me thinking. I'd add to the points in the post, that in addition to composition and feeling, a great photograph captures an unexpected moment.

There are many good answers to Colberg's question, and it is worth taking the time to read them. Even if you are not teaching photography, some of the insight from the responses extend to all other areas of art.

...and speaking of great photographs, here is an excellent article on thirteen photographs that changed the world.


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