I'm Sick of Pretending: I Don't 'Get' Photography

By Jamie Clifton


Is this a good photo? (ColorPlay by Photo Illustration Man. Courtesy of www.fotokunstmann.de.)

In a moment of precocious insight, I once quizzed my photography teacher on how she marked all the high-saturation fashion shoots and black and white pictures of people smoking she had handed in to her, "When, like, taste is all personal opinion and stuff." She gave me a laughably vague answer that involved the words "composition,” "depth of field," and "lighting,” but I knew she just wanted rid of me so she could go back to drinking coffee and flirting with her graduate assistant. Ever since then, the concept of what makes a photograph "good" has baffled me.

Photography isn't like painting or illustration or sculpture. Literally anyone with hands can take a photo (sucks to be you, bomb victims), but you still hear some photographers' names being bandied around in hallowed tones. What makes Nan Goldin's picture of some people having sex better than the amateur porn photo booth session I just finished? And why does that pretentious photo blog editor you know sneer at the monochrome portrait you took, but holds a daily commemorative circle jerk over one that Irving Penn shot 40 years ago?

Now that everyone with a smartphone and an internet connection is a pro photographer, I've decided it's time to work out an easy system to identify the good from the bad. That way, we can finally all pat ourselves on our backs in a haze of pseudo-cultured self-satisfaction, and slam everyone else for being complete fucking idiots.

OBSERVATION #1: CASH = QUALITY

How about this photo? Is this good?

If I've learned anything over the last 23 years of being a human being, it's that, if something's good, it's going to be far more expensive than all its counterparts—like "Taste the Difference" tomatoes, or a relatively peaceful death in a clinic in Switzerland. So, following that logic, let's start out by looking at the three most expensive photographs ever sold:


(Rhein II by Andreas Gursky. Courtesy of Christie's New York.)

#1. Andreas Gursky, Rhein II. Cost: $4,372,329.
Someone (who presumably cares very little about where their money goes) dropped a cool $4.3 million for this picture of a path next to some grass next to a river, making it the most expensive photo ever sold. To quote literally anyone who's ever seen this photo, "Nah, I wouldn't pay that, man. I could do you one of these with a disposable camera and a train ticket to Bognor." A point that's incredibly hard to argue with. So what makes this so expensive/good? The "rule of thirds" appears to be at work here, but does some arbitrary rule made up 200 years ago to make taking photos seem more complicated than it really is justify such an outlay?


(Untitled #96 by Cindy Sherman. Courtesy of the artist.)

#2. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #96. Cost: $3,920,890.
Cindy Sherman has two photos in the top ten most expensive photos ever sold, so she must be good, right? I'm definitely more instantly immersed in this photo than the river one—what has she read in the paper to make her so bummed out? What's waiting out of shot? Is a full orange outfit a sensible choice for someone with ginger hair? Etc., etc.—but does the fact that it provokes questions mean it's a good image? I question myself every time I wind up listening to Radiohead because I fucking hate all of their music. Surely that means internal questions equal bad? And why would you pay all that money for something that made you feel bad?


(Dead Troops Talk by Jeff Walls. Courtesy of the artist.)

#3. Jeff Wall, Dead Troops Talk. Cost: $3,695,139.
Spending millions of dollars on a photographic print is arguably the best way of kicking a starving child in the teeth, because prints are just that: prints. An original Rothko painting has been painstakingly worked on, to the point that you can examine each separate layer of paint he applied (which justifies spending $55,000,000 on art, rather than giving it to dying infants, btw), whereas the original Jeff Wall print you'd buy at auction started its life as a replica, because that's what all prints are: replications of the negative.

Despite all that, I reckon I'd pay $3.6 million for this photo. I think maybe because it has enough of an ambience that I could talk about it earnestly with a hot French girl and not die of embarrassment.   

In summary: In order for a photo to be good, it needs to be dull, make you feel bad or also—by definition—unoriginal.

OBSERVATION #2: DEAD PEOPLE TAKE GOOD PHOTOS

(Hyères, France, 1932 by Henri Cartier Bresson. Courtesy of the artist.)

Just as nobody gave a shit abut Elliot Smith until he topped himself, photographers never become great until after they're bereft of life. Henri Cartier Bresson, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, and pretty much every other person that came up when I googled "Who is the best photographer ever?" have all been dead for aaaaaages.

In summary: In order to take a good photo, you need to be dead.

OBSERVATION #3: THE CRITICS MUST KNOW
Let's check in with what some experts think, by examining the last couple of winners of the World Press Photo Awards, widely recognised as the most prestigious honor you can receive as a photographer. (Except for Tyler Shields tweeting a link to your website, of course.)


(Sanna, Yemen by Samuel Aranda - 2012 World Press Photo of the Year. Courtesy of The New York Times.)

2012 Winner - Sanaa, Yemen by Samuel Aranda
This photograph depicts a mother cradling her son after he'd been tear-gassed at a protest in Yemen, where at least 12 people were killed and more than 30 injured. The son was in a coma for two days after the incident, and injured on two further occasions as the protests continued.


(Bibi Aisha by Jodi Bieber. Courtesy of Institute for Artist Management / Goodman Gallery for Time Magazine.)

2011 Winner - Bibi Aisha by Jodi Bieber.
This one is of Bibi Aisha, an 18-year-old Afghani girl who was given to the family of a Taliban fighter to settle a dispute between their respective families, forced to marry him when she hit puberty, and then abused by his parents. She ran back to her parents, because no one likes being beaten up by their in-laws. Then she was tracked down, taken to a mountain clearing, and had her ears and nose cut off as punishment for running away.

Jesus Christ, that's depressing. For a photo to be W.PPA-worthy, it apparently has to make you involuntarily curl into a ball and cry all the water out of your body, so next tip for spotting a good photo: If it instantly makes you want to kill yourself to escape all the horrors and evil in the world, you're on to a winner.    

Obviously I'm neglecting a few other genres of photography here—stock images, wedding photography, food photography, etc—but I've never heard someone say, "That picture of hillbilly Santa licking a lollipop surely ranks amongst the greatest, most iconic images of the modern era," so we can forget about them for now. There's all the hipster photographers, too, but that's a whole new realm of quantifying what's good with its own set of rules and codes, normally involving endless dialectics and self-serious head-nodding at photos of wan girls in forests, so let's not get into that for now, either.

In summary: in order for a photo to be good, it must make you hate humanity.

OBSERVATION #4: A PRO MUST KNOW

(Portraits of Team USA 2012 by Joe Klamar. Courtesy of Joe Klamar/ AFP/ GettyImages)

What about this photo of the US Olympic taekwondo team? Is this a good photo?

In a final effort to understand what makes a photo good, I thought I'd chat with a guy I know called Lysha. He recently finished putting together a photography auction with Bloomsbury Auction House (one that arty old men with circular spectacles respect), so I thought he might be able to drag me out of the dark, uncultured chasm I've been stuck in and illuminate my path to understanding. 

VICE: So, tell me, Lysha, what makes a good photo?
Lysha: It definitely varies from photo to photo, but good composition helps, and if it's got some history behind it and a good subject matter, that's all cool too.

What makes a good composition? Does it have to follow the "rule of thirds"?
No, definitely not. I think if you see a photo and you like it, it's a good photo, regardless of whether it follows the "rule of thirds" or not. Obviously, photos that follow the rule do normally look good—they look professional—but anything can be good, it doesn't have to follow any rules.

Why do you think that Gursky sold for so much and amazing photojournalism with an actual subject matter doesn't really sell for anything?
Well, Gursky's seen as fine art, whereas photojournalism is just seen as straight photography. Fine art sells for silly money, obviously, so Gersky's got that going for him.

Do you think a photo needs to have a concept or an idea behind it for it to be good?
No, not at all. It can definitely make a photo more interesting because you've got some reference for what you're looking at, but as long as it's aesthetically pleasing, it's good, you know? And, if it's part of a movement, that can be good. Like, there was an outtake photo from the Abbey Road cover photo shoot in the exhibition I helped with that the media were going crazy over, but this Dora Maar photo sold for, like, three times the price because it has this amazing history behind it. She was Picasso's muse, so there's that.

In summary: In order to take a good photograph, you need to have fucked Picasso.

After that doctorate-level case study in photography, I think we can agree to settle on what makes a photo good: expense, death, antipathy, and nepotism.

So, next time you're trawling through holiday snaps with your friends and come across a particularly funny one of Johnny being pissed on by a monkey, you're permitted to say, "Hey, that's amusing," or "God, I'm glad we got a picture of that," but by absolutely no means should you call it "good"—you'll be laughed off the face of the planet by everyone who you ever thought loved you. Unless monkey piss makes you sad and your friend who took the photo is dead, then you're all right, you expert photo critic, you.  

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamie_clifton

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