That Extra Something

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Some photographs continue to hold our interest long after they are taken. Others don't. What accounts for the difference? It's worth looking at our own work with that question in mind. The answer may tell us what kinds of photographs we should be taking.


The question came to mind as I was reviewing my gallery a few weeks back. I found myself trying to identify the photographs that still worked for me, without letting my answers be affected by whether a photograph had drawn praise from others. It was difficult to put that factor aside. I like praise as much as anyone. But I tried.

I realized that a number of my better-received photographs haven't held up for me. Those photographs are usually pretty. Sometimes they're also dramatic. Their surface appeal is their only appeal, though, and therein lies their weakness. Such photographs make a good first impression, but they don't reward repeated viewing. They're lovely renditions of nothing much.

There are other photographs that I keep coming back to and viewing with interest. Many of those photographs aren't pretty. Some make a poor first impression. They have something that keeps me looking, though, when their flashier counterparts have lost their allure. The more enduring photographs communicate something that I care about. That, I think, is the key. No one can tell us what will or won't communicate something meaningful to us. Our answers will differ because we care about different things. 

As an aside, professionals probably don't evaluate their photographs this way. Clients and customers must be impressed on first viewing, or there may never be a second. I suspect that there's little interest in whether an advertising photograph will hold up over time. That's not its purpose. But I'm an amateur. My goals are different. I'm not interested in taking photographs that bore even me after a few months. That's what I mostly do, unfortunately, but it isn't my goal.

Here's a simple photograph that still holds my interest. 

I generally avoid taking photographs of saguaro cacti against colorful skies because the results tend to look like a zillion postcards I've seen. This one still appeals to me, though. The more dramatic and colorful shots I took a few minutes later don't. The reddish gash against the eastern sky in this one captures something of the excitement and promise of a new day. That's a feeling I never get tired of experiencing. I think that's why my interest meter still twitches a little every time I look at this photograph.

Some photographs have a fairly obvious point to make, such as this one:

It's hard to look at this shot and not think about how the mass-produced goods we're so eager to acquire typically wind up in junkyards. Photographs of ruins, old buildings and junk often evoke thoughts of how transient human creations are. Maybe that's why so many of us are drawn to photographing them. A surprising number of the photographs that held up for me were of old things. This photograph isn't pretty. It has never garnered any praise. I'm not even sure I like it. But it keeps drawing me back for another look. For me, it has something.

Here's another shot that resonates for me.

Photographs of birds, including my own, usually don't interest me. This one does. The reason is the fish. He may be small, but he's a major part of the picture. I can't look at him without feeling sympathy and a bit of sadness. At times we may feel as triumphant as the heron, but sooner or later life turns all of us into the fish. 

When I tried to discern why some images hold up for me and others don't, I got partial answers. Photographs that evoke a mood or tell a story tend to hold their appeal. Old things are  promising subjects for me. I need to be alert to scenes that prompt some emotional response on my part, or that pique my interest to an unusual degree. When that occurs, I need to look for a possible photograph. When that doesn't happen, I shouldn't bother reaching for the camera.

One conclusion that emerged clearly from my analysis was that photographs that have nothing to say except "I'm pretty" don't last for me. The world is awash in such photographs. It doesn't need mine. It probably doesn't need yours. I'm always interested, though, in looking at a photograph that has something more to say—and says it well.

Try looking at your own photographs and asking which ones have held up for you. Skip the new ones—we always think those are masterpieces. Go through the ones that aren't new. At the outset, just ask which ones still work for you, not why. Make a list of them. Don't be too discouraged if your list is short. So is mine.

Once you have a list, see if you can identify any common characteristics in the photographs that still appeal to you. It may be a theme, or a recurrent subject. Perhaps you gravitate to photographs that capture excitement, or perhaps to photographs of machinery or street scenes. The only right answer is your answer. By looking for common threads among the photographs that have held up, you may get a better grip on what kinds of photographs speak to you, and therefore what kinds of photographs you should be taking. You may not get an entirely clear answer. Even glimmers of an answer, though, can provide some guidance.

Identifying the kinds of photographs that last for us may not steer us towards "art," a term that I don't understand, and avoid using. It may, however, steer us towards taking photographs that are meaningful to us, rather than photographs that are designed to please others. That may, paradoxically, be the only way to please others in any lasting way. If a photograph doesn't communicate anything that matters to its creator, it's not likely to have much staying power for others, either.