“What makes one photograph better than another?” Surprisingly, I never really thought to ask myself this question until recently.
“How can I take better photographs?” Now that’s a question I’ve asked myself a thousand times. But to actually ask myself to define what “better” means? It just never occurred to me.
I always treated the definition of “better” as if it were a mathematical constant — like Pi or the Golden Mean. “Better,” I assumed, was simply a given, and it was up to each photographer to use all the variables at his or her disposal — variables like equipment, knowledge, practice and motivation — to derive a photographic formula with which to achieve it.
I’m certainly not the first person who’s asked, “what makes one photograph better than another?” If I were, we wouldn’t have photography classes to teach people the meaning. We wouldn’t have bookshelves filled with paperback tomes of photographic rules. We wouldn’t have internet forums where all who possess knowledge of photography’s great “constant” can sit in derisive judgement of their peers.
Strangely, the more one digs into the definition of “better,” the lengthier the answer becomes. Some sources equate “better” with color accuracy. Others opine that sharpness, clarity, highlight detail, shadow detail, contrast or noiselessness are the key. I’ve seen “better” measured by truthfulness, and I’ve seen it determined by an adherence to geometric rules. Some definitions require that the photo possess a clear point of focus, that it lack ambiguity, that it convey a moral center, that it change public sentiment, that it provide an utterly unique perspective, and that it does all this while looking damn good hanging over the sofa.
Initially, these definitions all added further fuel to my assumption that “better” is a mathematical constant. Like the previously mentioned Pi and the Golden Mean, “better” seems to be an irrational number — infinitely long and thus only ever an approximation. Because its full value can never be reached, this offers one possible explanation as to why, no matter how good our pictures are, we can always take a “better” one.
Yet the more I thought about it, the less this made sense. Each time you extend the definition of an irrational number, you increase its precision. If someone defines the Golden Mean as 1.6, then someone else defines it as 1.61803, then someone else says it’s 1.6180339887, we can clearly see that each definition builds upon the previous one. But when you gather all the various definitions of “better,” they don’t work this way. Rather than building on one another, these definitions often contradict. Sometimes the “better” photo is the one with the most accurate colors — unless you’re shooting black & white, in which case it’s the one that’s the sharpest — unless you’re shooting portraits, in which case it’s the one that’s the most truthful — unless you’re shooting for advertising, in which case it’s the one with the highest dynamic range and resolution — unless you’re selling something ethereal, like perfume, in which case it’s the one with the most unique view of your subject — in which case we should all agree that Hollywood proctologists take the best portraits of movie stars.
I’ve received many an admonishment in online forums because some photo of mine isn’t sharply focused, or it has a tilted horizon, or I’ve violated the rule of thirds or some cropping law. And if my goal for those photos was that they be sharply focused, have a level horizon, slavishly adhere to geometric dictates and clip my subject with anatomical precision, then I would have failed to accomplish my mission — which means those photos could very well have been “better.” But what if I had no intention of adhering to any of those requirements? Now my photos are being judged against a set of rules that I never intended to observe. It would be like an Olympic skating judge disqualifying an Olympic diver because they failed to execute a Double Axel on their descent — different sport, different rules.
So it turns out that “better” isn’t a constant at all. Instead, it’s just another variable. And in the equation of photography, it may well be the biggest of all variables. In fact, the numerous definitions of “better” are so inconsistent, so irregular and so random, that I’ve come to believe that “better” is simply another word for “bias.”
Bias is the sole reason we believe one photo is better than another. Our measurement of “better” is shaped by our knowledge of the history of photography; by the thousands of wonderful images we’ve seen before; by public opinion, by fashion, and by our need to have some sort of standard against which we can measure our own achievements. Most significantly, our assessment of what makes one photograph “better” than another is biased by the photograph’s intent.
So what happens if we ignore a photo’s original intent? What if a photo just “is?” What if the intent of a photo isn’t to sell something, to create a memory, or to please the eye? What if the intent of a photo isn’t to document some truth or propagate some lie? Without intent, there can be no basis for judging a photo. Without intent, there can be no such thing as “better.”
What happens if I reject intent?
Farewell, So Long, Bye Bye, Dearest Photos
I’m actually a very frugal photographer in the field. I’m not one who takes photos indiscriminately in hopes that something might turn out. Every time I press the shutter, I do so with intent. Because of this, I’ve always judged each photo based on how closely it realizes that intent. Rejecting intent is in direct opposition to my nature. But to reject intent is to eliminate the stale orthodoxies of photographic evaluation, and thus the bias that one photo is inherently “better” than another.
My notion that “better” may be a totally arbitrary concept is not altogether unique. In fact, it’s one of the foundations for Daido Moriyama’s 1972 book, Bye, Bye Photography, Dear. But even that book, though it successfully obliterated all previously supposed definitions of “better,” still possessed intent — an intent to undermine the medium and, in Moriyama’s words, “destroy photography.”
What if I went one step further and ignored not only a photo’s original intent, but also ignored any desire to select photos based on manufactured intent? What if I selected only previously rejected photos totally by chance, then let those photos imply new meanings, new stories and new connections, based solely on their content?
This was the impetus for my latest vBook, Masquerade (shown at the end of this article). By randomly plucking images from arbitrarily selected folders full of past rejects, I gathered a pool of 100 photos in less than an hour. I made no allowance for style, subject, location or perceived image quality — I simply gathered them quickly and thoughtlessly. Once collected, I began the process of scrutinizing the photographic mélange — searching for common themes, structures, moods and an overall narrative.
It didn’t take me long to realize that eliminating expectation and bias from my photo selection allowed me to synthesize entirely new perceptions of intent. If I changed the sequencing and altered the pairings, then the collection’s perceived intent would change as well. And as this perception of intent shifted, so too would my perception of which photographs were “better” than others. Obviously none of the photographs underwent any sort of physical change, but since their sequencing would alter their apparent intent, then the individual appeal of each photograph would rise and fall accordingly.
I began to think of the vBook as a sort of masquerade ball — where no photo appeared as originally purposed, but in some sort of costume that created the illusion of some new purpose.
In the end I was able to assemble a sequence in which each individual photograph — though widely disparate in content, technique and original intent — could flow into the next photograph, and create interesting juxtapositions and artificial narratives. Most importantly, I was able to prove to myself that just about any rejected photo can become “better” by simply ignoring its original intent.
Because of this, my entire back catalog of photographs is now suddenly awash with new material for new projects. Photos I once deemed “bad” need only be re-purposed by ignoring their original intent. Either I’m onto something good, or I’ve created the most intricately devised ruse ever concocted by a photographer in order to convince himself that all his photos are good. Whichever it is, I couldn’t be happier…
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Masquerade Photo 51,” shown at the top of this post, is but one of the 74 randomly selected ‘rejects’ contained within the ‘Masquerade’ vBook. That photo, should anyone actually care, was shot with a Leica M6TTL and a Voigtlander 50mm f/1.1 Nokton lens on Tri-X at ISO 400, and developed in Ilfotec DD-X. In general, the photos contained within ‘Masquerade’ were shot with all manner of cameras, lenses, film and sensors, and processed with all sorts of chemicals and software. They were sequenced in Final Cut Pro X and set to a custom score, which was recorded into Ableton Live using all 10 of my fingers and at least that many software-based synthesizers.
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