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What Makes a Great Photograph?

The right balance of stimulating subject matter, well-chosen and well-shaped

What makes a great photograph?

Here is a recent photograph taken by Frank Döring, a contemporary photographer whose work I admire.

 Frank Döring, use with permission
Source: Frank Döring, use with permission

I like this photograph.


Clearly, the particular subject matter is one reason. It has a built-in emotional appeal. Even if I had not yet seen this image, knowing beforehand that its content was a set of kids chasing a piglet would have stirred my interest. I might defy a photographer to fully ruin its appeal.

Some sort of stimulating subject matter is an important ingredient in a great photograph.

I’m not so sure.

There are some remarkable photographs perceived so by virtue of the photographer being at the right place and the right time. These photographs capture a startling moment in history, for example. But we might give the photographer little creative credit for the resulting image, iconic though it may turn out to be -- just as we would hardly be in awe of a lottery winner’s skill in picking the right combination of numbers.

The more our response to any single photograph comes from the raw, unshaped subject matter itself, a fluke of great content, the more we hold back our sense that it is a great photograph.

Does this suggest that the subject matter is arbitrary in our evaluation of a photograph?

I am reminded of a statement made by Garry Winogrand as he reflected on his book, Women are Beautiful:

“The thing that was interesting about doing that book was my difficulty in dealing with the pictures. When the woman is attractive, is it an interesting picture, or is it the woman? I had a lot of headaches with that, which was why it was interesting. I don’t think I always got it straight. I don’t think it was that straight, either.”

As I understand Winogrand’s concern, his “headache” was that women could be so darn attractive. As the main content of a photograph, what are the consequences? Is it an interesting picture, or is it the woman?

Think of the implications of Winogrand’s statement. He’s not rejecting the idea of taking pictures of beautiful women. He was proud of his book (though he did not rank it as one of his best books). And yet he is troubled by having the subject be the prime basis for the photograph’s appeal.

He later went on to say,

“In the end, maybe the correct language would be how the fact of putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it. A photograph is not what was photographed, it’s something else.”

An attractive woman obscures the photographer’s role in shaping and transforming the raw material into the image we see. And so, in this sense, subject matter is not the key thing in a great photograph. Maybe it is the perception of this shaping and the appreciation of the transformed material that is key for deeming a photograph “great.”

Does this suggestion go too far?

Back to Döring’s photograph.

I am willing to give Döring much credit for simply finding the subject matter for his photograph and recognizing its rich possibilities. At the same time, I think the more important consideration is what Doring has done with his subject matter. And I think he has done something special with it, starting with the selection of the particular content.

I don’t know how many images he took of the event, but I would guess he took many. I would also guess that he hoped for an image in which as many kids as possible would be displayed in face and body. The kids in Döring’s photograph create a medley of separate photographic treats (my favorite being the one with the Mohawk just about to grab the piglet; the girl in the red shirt is a close second). They are assembled such that we see their distinctive facial expressions, each kid caught in distinguishing mid-stride and zeroed in on grabbing the piglet -- all heading in one direction toward the piglet. It is a remarkable, motely swarm of focused action and separate joys.

Although the scene is frozen in time, the feel is hardly static. Not only do I hear the kids screaming and the piglet squealing in the exact moment, but subsequent moments also come alive in my mind’s eye. My imagination takes me forward and across the grass to when “Mohawk” succeeds in grabbing the piglet, who may then squirm away, as the other kids tumble over each other in their separate efforts.

Döring has achieved something quite rare in the narrative drive in this photograph. Although he had no say in how these kids would behave, by his selecting well I get the uncanny sense that he has been in the director’s chair.

Other compositional elements further the core punch and thrust of the photograph. The kids are the foreground and main event, but the background, even though it is complex, pin balls us back to the kids. The folks watching, presumably many family members, are like us, watching the action. If we take a moment to look at them, our next moment is to return to the kids and the piglet. The background is slightly less in focus, and I think this also directs us back to the main action. Even the slight tilt in the beams holding up the picnic shelter, also in the background, and the more severe diagonal slant to long support beam add to the already strong sense of movement from left to right of the kids, and helps return our main focus on them and the piglet.

Although I think that the background information largely serves to direct our attention to the action, this does mean that the background material lacks interesting detail worth separate study. There are subplots, such as the two smaller kids who want part of the action, so it seems. But they are too young, probably. Each Dad seems to be finding ways to console them.

A couple of men stand in the shadows of the shelter. They appear to be taking in the scene, but with much less involvement, probably because they have no kids among the pack.

Much of this background material adds useful context to the photograph, so that we can place what is happening its fuller, cultural context. This is, as the banner says, “Pickup Country.”

Döring exercises a certain restraint in the selection and shaping of the content of the photograph. For all its built-in appeal, the image takes a while to reveal all its features. Perhaps other images that Döring took of this event might have given greater emphasis to the piglet -- showing less of the background --- I don’t know. Perhaps, if selected, they would have provided a greater initial clout, a greater “wow.” I suspect that Döring opted for the broader, subtler tapestry, trusting the viewer to appreciate this choice more in the longer run.

I also suspect that this restraint is reflected in any number of choices Döring made in adjusting the look of the photograph. I like the array of colors in the photograph, but Döring avoids brightening them so much that they distract our focus. The background blacks are dark enough to keep us turning back to the center stage, but without us being aware of this effect unless we contemplate it. Along with the serious faces of those two men, one behind the central beam, these darker tones provide a muted counterpoint of foreboding, contrasting lightly with the general sense of joy.

Döring’s restraint is perhaps what I admire most about the photograph. I think this enables him to pull off two interesting effects. First, he has taken an event with natural narrative appeal and heightened our multi-layered enjoyment of it with a deft, but understated set of compositional choices and image adjustments. Second, he injects just enough irony into the image to create an unsettling, darker undercurrent, encouraging a critical stance in us as well. One might start wondering about the piglet’s perspective in this drama. Is this animal cruelty? The culture displayed in this photograph may have features we might question. How thick is this overlay of irony? I really don’t know. Nothing Döring has done is this photograph is heavy-handed – and masterfully so.

See more of Döring’s work at this site: Enjoy!