As I mentioned in Thursday’s post, I have been debating a friend about what makes a photograph: emotional quality, technical expertise or something else.
I started by asking my husband and my father what photographs were most memorable to them, and when my father pointed out that emotion was required to make something memorable, I decided to tweak my question so that it would be less biased. I then asked blog readers, Facebook friends and the Twitterverse: What is the most extraordinary photograph you’ve ever seen?
Did changing the adjective from memorable to extraordinary change the responses? Yes and no.
The first response after the word change cited works by Ansel Adams, Joel Peter-Witkin, Chuck Close and Lewis Carroll (below left) as the most extraordinary, stating that “they all blew my mind a little.” For me, this comment signaled a shift from emotional connection to a greater appreciation of technique and aesthetics.
The next response, however, proposed Richard Avedon‘s portrait of Marilyn (below right), specifically because Marilyn’s expression was “so raw and reflective.” It appears that an emotional connection was the key there.
Then, one of my photographer friends suggested two portrait photographers, whose work “has a wow flare with surreal composition and use of textures!!!!!!,” so back to a focus on technical excellence.
As more responses trickled in, the answers alternated between those emphasizing technical merit and those focusing on emotional connection. In terms of the photographers behind the selected images, there was a clear departure from the first round. The “extraordinary” batch comprised landscape, fine art and portrait photographers whereas the “memorable” group had been photojournalists exclusively.
One of my former clients — sweet lady that she is — then suggested two photos I’d taken of her family.
Then, my cousin suggested photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt‘s VJ Day kiss (below right).
A photographer from Tokyo suggested Dan Winters’ portrait of Helen Mirren, which is technically stunning:
And then my friend, Stacie, said, “This photo by war photographer James Nachtwey is extraordinary because this famine victim was still aliveIt’s very disturbing”:
As you can see, the word “extraordinary” prompted a lot of back and forth between pure technical excellence and gut-clenching emotion. When all the results were tallied, we were dead even. So the question remains: Is extraordinary photography a result of technical excellence or emotional resonance?
I could say its both, but instead, I’m going to agree with my photographer friend’s assertion that truly great photography is more about how it makes you feel inside than how it looks on the outside. And, of course, my choice has everything to do with who I am and what kind of photographer I am.
So, what do you think? Are extraordinary photographs a result of technical excellence, emotional resonance or a combination of both? Whatever you decide, I think it says a lot about who you are as an artist (and human).