Being Good About Bad Photography

If you look at anything from the outside, it's easy to make sweeping, ungenerous judgements.
   Harlan Coben, Hold Tight

Thanks to the Web, it's easy to look at a great deal of art, however you, or the artist, might define that. Since this is a photography site, I'll limit my subject to photographs. I suspect most towns have a gallery or two; larger cities likely will have several, and perhaps an art museum (or several). There's no shortage of venues.

An excellent way to improve your own work is to look at the work of others. I do a lot of that, frequently visiting local galleries; within a 100 mile (161 km) radius from home there are dozens, along with several art museums featuring rotating exhibits. I regularly look at the Web sites of several outstanding photographers. I also regularly receive e-mail with links to other photography sites.

Sometimes the work in these galleries and sites is exceptional, the sort of pictures that leave me wanting to give up photography, sell my gear, and find something else to do with my time. For better or for worse, I've so far resisted that urge. Everyone's a photographer these days, and while some of those people are extremely good, many more aren't. Forget about the billions of out-the-car-window cellphone snaps, selfies, vacation pictures, kids-doing-the-many-captivating-things-kids-do pictures, the photos your TV weather guy solicits, and other rubbish photos that should never have been taken, let alone “shared”. Those pictures rarely are artistic, but serve other needs; they're fun to take and fun to look at, at least by those who take them. There's certainly nothing wrong with that.

But disregard all that. Instead, consider pictures made by people trying and hoping to do something better—making art, however that's defined, rather than bad postcards.

Everybody's a Critic

We look at other peoples' work through the lens of our own experiences, judging it, whether we intend to or not, based on our own concept of what “good” is. We are moved by great pictures, those exhibiting subjects that excite us, great technical skill, and an artist's talent for composition, whether or not we recognize those specific attributes. Sometimes we even buy these pieces. When you find a photographer who produces such work, you'll rarely find a stinker picture in the exhibit. These people have a vision, a style, a passion, and have developed the skill and talent to bring all that to the final print. They won't display anything less than excellent work.

If you're a fine-art photographer (or a painter, sculptor, or artist in any other medium), the “lens of your own experiences” very likely has somewhat different qualities and properties then that of everyone else. You'll look at other artists' work differently, your inner critic bringing a unique slant to your view. You will see a lot you perceive to be awful; you'll wonder what it's doing on a gallery wall. That's the ungenerous judge at work. You've every right to that opinion.

You'll see pictures with poor composition: slanted horizons; centered subjects or horizons (or both); animals, people, vehicles, etc. moving out of the frame rather than into it; “intruders”, parts of objects poking into the frame around the edges; even pictures that are simply uninteresting, offering nothing to engage the eye. All completely subjective, of course, but you're the judge, so you can be as subjective as you want.

You will see photos demonstrating weak technical skill: distracting lens flare or chromatic aberration (color fringing along light/dark edges); blown highlights and blocked-up shadows; lack of sharpness or the wrong object(s) in focus; spots from sensor dust or dirty optics; too much polarizing filter (artificially dark sky, distractingly dark corners). All are correctible flaws, either when shooting or in post-processing (Photoshop).

These are just a few examples. There are countless ways to mess up a photograph. I know because I've done most of them.

Kinder, Gentler

It's perfectly fine to be brutal and heartless, to make “sweeping and ungenerous judgements” when you're keeping your critique to yourself. In many cases that's easy. But what if you're at an exhibit's opening reception, looking at a piece, and the photographer asks your opinion? This happens to me often enough that it prompted the writing of this article (really!). What do you say when you're viewing work you think could be better, maybe a lot better?

How one responds depends on one's personality, attitude, and frame of mind at the moment, and perhaps on one's judgement of the sincerity of the person asking. I think when they (we) ask, photographers genuinely want your opinion. It's possible to be honest without being unkind. Don't pass up the opportunity to meet someone new and talk shop. You may be a great help to someone by sharing your experience. It's often great fun, you'll surely learn something, and probably make a new friend. And since most art is purchased by artists, you might even end up with a new customer!

At a juried exhibit's opening reception in March, 2014, as I looked at a panorama of a mountain sunrise scene, a woman approached, introduced herself as the photographer, said she'd seen my work, and then (naturally) asked my opinion of her picture. A very wide photo, it had lovely color from soft morning light and exhibited no obvious technical issues, but was a less-than-stellar composition. A small abandoned shack was centered in the frame, some cottonwoods with nice fall color filled the frame to the right, but the left half of the frame had no foreground at all, only the distant mountains that ran the full width of the image. I think the photo would have been quite good with about one-third of the left side cropped out, but the photographer worked hard to capture all those pixels and never considered throwing any of them away. The first-place ribbon attached to this picture indicated generosity of the show's judge. The photographer had never exhibited in a show; she couldn't have been more excited to win that ribbon. Even better, the photo sold that evening. We talked for some time, an enjoyable conversation. I think she'll do well with a bit more time in the field.

Since then she's become a client. I've made several large prints for her. You just never know.

It Takes All Kinds

The world is full of terrible art. (I'm reminded of the T-shirt with “Good art doesn't have to match your sofa.” printed across the front.) But there's a lot that's not terrible, only a bit less than good. My wife takes my snarky comments about sub-par art with a grin (they're worth much less), and always reminds me that I've made a great many bad pictures, too. Nothing is ever so screwed up that it can't serve as a bad example. I hope I've learned from those, and perhaps my experience has helped someone else along the way, just as I have learned so much from others.

April, 2014

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