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Author Topic: So, what makes a great black & white photograph?  (Read 19850 times)
John Clifford
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« on: December 11, 2008, 04:05:36 PM »
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I understand that different aspects make different photographs appealing, but would anyone agree that great black & white photographs have some common characteristics?

I'm thinking things like, broad tonal range, deep blacks, edges that catch the eye...

I'm not trying to be formulaic about this, but am trying to understand what people (besides me) find appealing.
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PhillyPhotographer
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« Reply #1 on: December 11, 2008, 04:19:11 PM »
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Quote from: John Clifford
I understand that different aspects make different photographs appealing, but would anyone agree that great black & white photographs have some common characteristics?

I'm thinking things like, broad tonal range, deep blacks, edges that catch the eye...

I'm not trying to be formulaic about this, but am trying to understand what people (besides me) find appealing.

An interesting subject.

Take Michael Kenna who's work that can range from almost all shadow to an image that's barely there.

http://www.michaelkenna.net/html/hokkaido_05/4.html

http://www.michaelkenna.net/html/montstmichel/38.html


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John Clifford
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« Reply #2 on: December 11, 2008, 07:26:04 PM »
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Re McKenna's work, I think this is a great black & white photograph: http://www.michaelkenna.net/html/2008/newwork/8.html, because it has a lot of the attributes I described above.

I don't think this one is so good... http://www.michaelkenna.net/html/2008/newwork/18.html, because it's missing a lot of the attributes I described above.

Another good photo: http://www.michaelkenna.net/html/2008/newwork/35.html

Another not so good one: http://www.michaelkenna.net/html/2008/newwork/10.html

Agree? Disagree? Why (or why not)?

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DarkPenguin
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« Reply #3 on: December 11, 2008, 09:02:15 PM »
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That's funny.  I like the two you didn't.
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Eric Myrvaagnes
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« Reply #4 on: December 11, 2008, 10:46:05 PM »
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Quote from: DarkPenguin
That's funny.  I like the two you didn't.
And I'm split: I like the first two but not the last two. So I'm half with Tom and half with Dark P. I think individual taste plays a big role.
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PhillyPhotographer
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« Reply #5 on: December 11, 2008, 11:35:08 PM »
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Quote from: EricM
I think individual taste plays a big role.

That's exactly right, that's what all art comes down to.


There is an exception to this rule and it's the name factor. I've seen people look at Kenna as well as many other photographers prints and while they were not to their liking they changed their mines after the heard who the artist was.
« Last Edit: December 11, 2008, 11:51:24 PM by PhillyPhotographer » Logged

wolfnowl
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« Reply #6 on: December 12, 2008, 01:31:17 AM »
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To me a good photo is about subject, composition, lighting, framing, but some colour images are good because of the colour.  Without colour a good B&W photo has to rely on shading, tones, transitions, shadows, lines...

Mike.
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bill t.
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« Reply #7 on: December 12, 2008, 01:58:14 AM »
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How a photo is presented has a big effect on its perceived merits.

The spectrum of presentation goes from a curled up print in a stack of curled up prints, to a print in just-the-right-framing on a sparsely populated white gallery wall with a spotlight on it with appropriate music in the background.  The same person will have hugely different responses to the same image in those two circumstances.  BTW the best photographic investment I ever made was in framing equipment.  Now all I need is my own gallery.
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russell a
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« Reply #8 on: December 12, 2008, 08:30:24 AM »
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You must realize that questions such as the one that titles this thread are either unanswerable or have an infinity of answers.  If you can tolerate some dense reading that lays out the utter futility of pursing the question of art, I recommend Kant After Duchamp by Thierry De Duve.  In part, he describes how each of us "curate" our own virtual collections of what we consider art.  Which is fine and good, but which breaks down when we try to derive universal criteria from the whims of our choice.   And then, to extend the folly, we wonder why our fellow beings don't share our opinion.
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blansky
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« Reply #9 on: December 13, 2008, 10:55:34 AM »
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I think the most important thing in any photograph is impact.

A technically brilliant photograph without an impactful subject matter is just boring to me. However an impactful photograph with a lesser degree of technical expertise is to me a great photograph.

I think some people spend so much time on technical matters that they often forget to convey any type of human interest in their work. Granted what is impactful to one person may be less so to someone else but there is still an universal appeal to some great photographs even with less than stellar technical elements.


Michael

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kernix
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« Reply #10 on: August 20, 2009, 01:12:33 PM »
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For B&W's I'd say contrast and form are the primary compositional values, especially if you are doing lo or high key shots.
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James Kernicky
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« Reply #11 on: August 20, 2009, 03:20:48 PM »
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Quote from: russell a
You must realize that questions such as the one that titles this thread are either unanswerable or have an infinity of answers.  If you can tolerate some dense reading that lays out the utter futility of pursing the question of art, I recommend Kant After Duchamp by Thierry De Duve.  In part, he describes how each of us "curate" our own virtual collections of what we consider art.  Which is fine and good, but which breaks down when we try to derive universal criteria from the whims of our choice.   And then, to extend the folly, we wonder why our fellow beings don't share our opinion.

Right on! Is Cartier-Bresson's street work better art than Ansel Adams's rocks and trees? The question is absurd on its face. But I'm not sure the question that titles this thread is completely unanswerable. Two characteristics common to both HCB and Ansel are interesting subject matter and exceptionally fine composition. One thing not common to both is technical quality. Russell's right: you can't pin down the answer to the OP's question, but you probably can extract some common traits.
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dalethorn
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« Reply #12 on: August 20, 2009, 04:12:20 PM »
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Quote from: blansky
I think the most important thing in any photograph is impact.
A technically brilliant photograph without an impactful subject matter is just boring to me. However an impactful photograph with a lesser degree of technical expertise is to me a great photograph.
I think some people spend so much time on technical matters that they often forget to convey any type of human interest in their work. Granted what is impactful to one person may be less so to someone else but there is still an universal appeal to some great photographs even with less than stellar technical elements.
Michael

Right on.
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JeffKohn
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« Reply #13 on: August 20, 2009, 11:18:08 PM »
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Quote from: blansky
I think the most important thing in any photograph is impact.

A technically brilliant photograph without an impactful subject matter is just boring to me. However an impactful photograph with a lesser degree of technical expertise is to me a great photograph.

I think some people spend so much time on technical matters that they often forget to convey any type of human interest in their work. Granted what is impactful to one person may be less so to someone else but there is still an universal appeal to some great photographs even with less than stellar technical elements.
I agree that technical perfection won't save an otherwise lousy picture. But I also believe that technical mediocrity will almost never help an otherwise impactful/good photo, and serious technical deficiencies can detract from or even ruin such an image.  The fact that technical quality is not supremely important, does not mean that it's irrelevant. Some people seem to think that if technique alone doesn't make good pictures, then it's OK  to shoot with crappy technique; and I just don't buy it.

Yes, there are examples of powerful images that don't exhibit technical perfection; but that doesn't mean we shouldn't care about technical quality. For some types of images it may not matter quite as much, and sometimes technical flaws can be used intentionally for creative effect. But for many image genres, technical quality can enhance a picture's impact, sometimes by a great deal.


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dalethorn
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« Reply #14 on: August 21, 2009, 12:25:34 PM »
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Quote from: JeffKohn
I agree that technical perfection won't save an otherwise lousy picture. But I also believe that technical mediocrity will almost never help an otherwise impactful/good photo, and serious technical deficiencies can detract from or even ruin such an image.  The fact that technical quality is not supremely important, does not mean that it's irrelevant. Some people seem to think that if technique alone doesn't make good pictures, then it's OK  to shoot with crappy technique; and I just don't buy it.
Yes, there are examples of powerful images that don't exhibit technical perfection; but that doesn't mean we shouldn't care about technical quality. For some types of images it may not matter quite as much, and sometimes technical flaws can be used intentionally for creative effect. But for many image genres, technical quality can enhance a picture's impact, sometimes by a great deal.

This is interesting. Flash forward to 20 years from now, and a non-photographer with their latest 45 mp pocket camera snaps a series of photos at an event that becomes significant for some reason, but was not considered significant ahead of time, and so no serious photographers showed up.  Thanks to the latest software wizardry from Adobe and others, some of these photos get rotated, cropped, color processed etc. so that they (some of them) look pretty good to the critical eye of the time, allowing for increased noise etc. due to the extra processing.

So this is actually a question rather than a statement -- how do you see the final result (i.e. what I can extract from an original capture using software tools) as compared to photos that didn't require that processing?

Don't get me wrong - for a given image that can be well planned with good equipment, the planning and equipment make an obvious difference.  But what if you wanted to assign a percentage of importance to the various aspects of a series of photos, like a judge in a photo contest?  Don't you think it would be better to separate out the entrants based on some pre-qualification, so you're not comparing a noisy beginner photo that happens to look good otherwise due to smart post-processing, to a professional photo that you can see belongs in a different category?
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JeffKohn
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« Reply #15 on: August 21, 2009, 01:45:35 PM »
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To be honest Dale, I have no idea what you're trying to say or what it has to do with the point I made. If you're asking if I think the "fix it in Photoshop" philosophy has any merit, my answer would be that I have nothing against post-processing; but attempts to fix a poorly focused, poorly exposed or otherwise flawed shot will pretty much always be inferior to the result if you had just done things right in the first place.
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dalethorn
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« Reply #16 on: August 21, 2009, 01:55:01 PM »
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Quote from: JeffKohn
To be honest Dale, I have no idea what you're trying to say or what it has to do with the point I made. If you're asking if I think the "fix it in Photoshop" philosophy has any merit, my answer would be that I have nothing against post-processing; but attempts to fix a poorly focused, poorly exposed or otherwise flawed shot will pretty much always be inferior to the result if you had just done things right in the first place.

Poorly focused, yep - agree with that.  Poorly exposed, well, depends on how poorly exposed.  Some of those can fix up remarkably well.  Some can pass for good art without fixup.

The bottom line is, if you don't have access to the "did it right in the first place" image, how do you know it wasn't just taken x-number of years ago with an older technology camera?

Yes, give me better equipment, more experience, and a body like a mule to haul it along on my 10 mile hikes.  But other than what's already obvious to people, what's the point?
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Jeremy Payne
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« Reply #17 on: August 21, 2009, 02:28:49 PM »
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Quote from: dalethorn
So this is actually a question rather than a statement -- how do you see the final result (i.e. what I can extract from an original capture using software tools) as compared to photos that didn't require that processing?

I am also at a loss trying to figure out your point ... but to answer the question:

"With my eyes"

I don't care so much how one arrives at the final image ... and while knowing the methods and techniques applied might alter my opinion of an image, it would rarely make me think less of it ... and perhaps a bit more.
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kab
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« Reply #18 on: August 22, 2009, 12:21:11 AM »
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Quote from: dalethorn
This is interesting. Flash forward to 20 years from now, and a non-photographer with their latest 45 mp pocket camera snaps a series of photos at an event that becomes significant for some reason, but was not considered significant ahead of time, and so no serious photographers showed up.  Thanks to the latest software wizardry from Adobe and others, some of these photos get rotated, cropped, color processed etc. so that they (some of them) look pretty good to the critical eye of the time, allowing for increased noise etc. due to the extra processing.

The description entangles "importance of the event" with "quality of the photograph."  A "recognizable" unique image of a critical event will have great value regardless of overall pictorial quality, e.g., Zapruder film of Kennedy assassination, the grainy images of Armstrong's first step on the moon, and so on.  But I don't think that either "rarity" or "contingent importance" (e.g., having captured an important event) was intended as one of the features that would distinguish an aesthetically "great" B&W photo.

Quote
So this is actually a question rather than a statement -- how do you see the final result (i.e. what I can extract from an original capture using software tools) as compared to photos that didn't require that processing?

Don't get me wrong - for a given image that can be well planned with good equipment, the planning and equipment make an obvious difference.  But what if you wanted to assign a percentage of importance to the various aspects of a series of photos, like a judge in a photo contest?  Don't you think it would be better to separate out the entrants based on some pre-qualification, so you're not comparing a noisy beginner photo that happens to look good otherwise due to smart post-processing, to a professional photo that you can see belongs in a different category?

Wow, you go a long ways in a few sentences...  

First couple of sentences really are answered by J Payne:  "With my eyes."  Or maybe with my entire history, experience, training, depending on your pet theory of art crit.  Alternate statement that means the same thing is: "The image stands on it's own."  It does not matter whether it was processed a lot, a whole lot, or an ungodly amount (all digital images are processed a lot before there is *anything* to see, it seems rather arbitrary to decide that cropping/rotating/compositing/post-print shredding is "too much") -- all that matters is the final image.

Latter question about judging raises a separate issue of "level field of competition," separate from artistic/aesthetic merit.  The reason for dividing entrants into various classes is a social conceit:  It's to give beginners, advanced amateurs and such classes individual attention and reward, either to encourage more entrants ("let's get everybody involved - you might win in your age/experience/hair color group"), and/or to give more specific criticism appropriate to experience level.  We praise little kid's pics a bit more to keep the kids encouraged, we pick the tiniest nits in pro's pics to push them to do even better work and all levels in between.

You consider comparing "beginner photo that happens to look good... to a professional photo" -- but that's an irrelevant factor in judging the aesthetic quality of the image!

Judging "the best photographs" should be entirely without any reference to photographer/camera/processing software or technique.  Somebody's very first photograph may be (accidentally?) brilliant -- "best of show" -- by some phenomenal bit of luck.  (Yes, there was the valid observation eariler that many people will alter their opinion of the photo when they hear it's famous or by somebody famous -- much different discussion.)

All of which now comes back to the original question:  If we are not concerned with the contingent event, nor with the biography of the photographer, nor with the camera/processing/printing details, how do we make that "best in show" judgment?  That is, what makes a good/great photograph?

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ckimmerle
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« Reply #19 on: August 24, 2009, 11:24:05 AM »
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Quote from: kab
If we are not concerned with the contingent event, nor with the biography of the photographer, nor with the camera/processing/printing details, how do we make that "best in show" judgment?  That is, what makes a good/great photograph?

As there is no objective answer to such a subjective query (as we all know), we can only offer our opinions, which is why these types of questions often elicit debates. So, in hopes of getting into my own heated debate (I'm having a bad Monday and need to blow off steam!) here's my take:

As b/w images don't suffer the distraction of color, they have to communicate using primarily form, texture, tonality and subject, any of which, either alone or in combination, can be the visual driving force of the image. The Weston's excelled using primarily form and texture, Ansel's strength tonality and subject, and Salgado used primarily subject and form. (I realize these are over simplistic and arguable points, but that's immaterial).

My point is that any of b/w's strong points can be used to make a "good/great" image. Some will work with some images, others will fail miserably. Can you image if Arbus was more interested in texture than in subject? It just wouldn't have worked as well, if at all.

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