What Makes a Good Photograph? It Depends

Lincoln Tunnel, NYC

I’ve just returned home from a weekend trip to New York City, 18 hours there and back in a car with a 17 year old Czech girl, made to listen to an ear-bleeding mix of Justin Bieber and One Direction with some unlistenable Czech heavy metal thrown in as counterpoint. Occasionally I’d manage to commandeer the sound system long enough to attempt to educate her with examples of great classic rock and roll – The Who’s I Cant Explain, Rain by the Beatles, Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds etc – to which she’d listen politely and then switch back to some current overblown pop anthem.  If she’s incapable of hearing the simple brilliance of those songs, forget about schooling her in anything more esoteric, say John Coltrane’s Plays the Blues. Totally lost cause – not gonna happen.

We did have a great time in NYC, however. There for less than 36 hours, we walked half the city – Times Square to Central Park to the UN to Rockefeller Plaza Friday night, Saturday day starting at the Whitney Museum on the West Side to Washington Square to Soho, through Chinatown and Little Italy and the East Village to the Brooklyn Bridge, then the World Trade Center Memorial via Wall Street and then back up to the West Village to eat at John’s Pizza on Bleeker, my favorite place to eat in the entire universe. Sunday Morning back in the car at 5 AM, home to North Carolina. I made her listen to her music on her headphones on the trip home.

Nicki is our current international student, living with us for a year and attending high school here. She’s from Prague, smart, speaks English better than most American kids, nice kid, stunningly beautiful and completely oblivious of the fact. It was fun walking Manhattan with her. She’s a natural, having studied ballet from a young age, moving with an easy grace and elegance that’s impossible to ignore, made more so by the fact that she’s un-selfconsciously unaware of it. It was fascinating to watch other women watch her – well-dressed, rich and powerful women very obviously eyeing her jealously while trying to figure out what she’d be doing with an old guy like me – aging rock star with teenage girlfriend maybe? Rich old sugar daddy with young model? Dad with daughter? We have a lot of fun together, although she treats me with the casual disdain youth treat adults – no recognition of how cool I actually am, or rather, I think I am.

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Not NYC, but Close Enough

And she claims to love “photography”, although her definition of it is obviously different than mine. I’ve been trying to educate her about aesthetics and photography, inviting her to look at some of my photo books and hinting to her that a good photograph can be about more than something colorful or pretty. She seems completely uninterested in what I have to say about aesthetics, and, based on her lack of response to the photo books I’ve set in front of her, unimpressed by the photographers I revere.

How can one account for various tastes? Is it even possible to rank the aesthetic value of art? Do we have a basis for concluding that the Beatles are inherently better than Justin Bieber, or that Ray Metzker’s photography is qualitatively better than what’s popular on an Instagram feed?

Gottfried Leibniz, an 18th Century German philosopher, would say yes. He argued that there exists a definable, measurable, essence of aesthetics that makes one piece of art objectively better than another, citing canonical works like Michelangelo’s David or Mozart’s Lacrimosa as proof. Leibniz would say that there’s a reason these works have remained appreciated by successive generations – they’re inherently beautiful and aesthetically pleasing in a way few other works are. In this sense, Leibniz is a “Platonist,” an aesthetic theory  articulated by Plato wherein things are beautiful to the extent they mirror an eternal, timeless beauty of which individual things are a degraded manifestation.

Scottish Philosopher David Hume meanwhile, argued that beauty is subjective and there exists no ultimate criterion, no “Platonic form” to rank the relative merit of any artistic work. Consider the photography of Garry Winogrand, which offers a powerful aesthetic experience to some, others finding it shallow and banal. Hume would say that both opinions are correct, if by correct we mean legitimate for the person with the opinion.

The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant saw the truth as something in between. For Kant, aesthetic judgments are neither wholly objective nor subjective. Rather, such judgments  involve a confluence of sensory, emotional and intellectual impressions all at once – and, as such, depend on the state of mind of the observer and thus can, and usually do, change over time. That’s why 17 y/o Nicki can find a photograph of a sunset “beautiful” while finding work I love – Ray Metzker for example – uninteresting or ugly, while my aesthetic sensibility can be precisely the opposite. They are both the result of our individual life experiences.

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A Favorite Ray Metzker Photo

I think that Kant thus gives us a way out of the either/or subjective/objective dilemma posed by Leibniz and Hume. If all judgments of beauty depend on the viewer’s sensory, emotional and intellectual history, then one’s aesthetic sense is always valid but can ripen and mature and as one matures is thus able to draw upon more varied and nuanced life experiences when responding aesthetically.  This is just another way of saying that all assessments of beauty are individual and valid as such (Hume), but that some standards of beauty are the product of more experience and mature understanding, which itself means that there is a riper aesthetic understanding that mature experience leads us to (Leibniz).

If, as Kant claims,  taste is a function of experience and knowledge, then this suggests we can make relative value judgments about individual taste. The more experience, the more knowledge one possesses, the subtler and more nuanced one’s aesthetic sense becomes. One’s tastes can mature and become…better. This is why I’ve advocated broad learning – reading literature, listening to music, viewing photographs, learning history – as opposed to the quick fix of a better camera, a new lens, or a street photography seminar by the usual suspects. It’s only in that way – by becoming a citizen of the world with broad sympathies and varied interests – that you’ll create photography that matters.

16 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Photograph? It Depends

  1. Rob Campbell

    Why did you blow the opportunity of showing us a snap of your bouncing Czech?

    It’s a rare bird indeed not aware of the value of its plumage. But I’m willing to put that down to middle-age crazy thinking on your part. (Check it out with Jerry Lee Lewis.)

    However, on the music and photography, I offer you no argument. My own kids and grandkids look on blankly if I try to explain or introduce idols from my own youth. I had some basal carcinomas removed from my earlobe and above a nostril a couple of years ago, prizes of my sunseeking career, and as I lay there, listening to the three chatting ladies, surgeon and nurses, their conversation was all about music. I might as well have been a sack of potatoes, so in order to prove I was really there, I opined a liking for Chuck Berry. Like a bomb had detonated, and the world waited in post-bang suspended animation, one eventually asked me to repeat the name. Not one of the three had the slightest idea who he was.

    I had an estate agent in some time ago, and I was showing him my own pix of the apartment; he caught sight of my models gallery and instantly forgot why he was there, and why I’d switched on the computer. Anyway, we scrolled through the stuff, and came to my row of Brigitte Bardot shots. I mentioned her name and the movie she was making at the time, and all he said was this: who is Brigitte Bardot?

    We live in our capsules.

    Rob

    Reply
  2. Dominique Pierre-Nina.

    Hi, love your writing gives me much to think about,Thank you. As for Justin B well yes thats not music, and as for photographs I am with Kant and Leibniz. Having said that, I think in photographs, art and music every now and then they hit the right note or visual ecstatic that the brain recognises as harmonious.

    Dominique.

    Reply
  3. Dan Castelli

    My first reply rather than a response on this site:
    Ha! Can I cut through the philosophical smoke screen? I can still remember when I was 17…I had all the right solutions and couldn’t figure out why the dummy old people couldn’t see things my way. I thought French onion soup was high cuisine, and drinking Boone’s Farm Apple Wine was sophisticated. I’ve got a Honeywell Pentax H1a and I just think I’m hot sh*t. Nothing has changed for anyone who is 17. Now I’m a bit north of 67 years young. I now know I know very little. I’ve come full circle and think a ‘cheeseburger in paradise’ is pretty much authentic American cuisine. I’m now of the opinion that occasionally sipping Jack or Jim at the end of a long day is a fine way to relax. I know we’ve screwed up much in politics, so maybe the younger ‘kids’ can make it a better world. Camera? A three-pack of Leicas (film) that are all older than my daughter. Kodachrome used to be my go to, but now I know that a nice black & white shot is like a kiss from an angel. I’m still pushing film through an obsolete device and happy as a clam. So, you are privileged to see the world through the eyes of a wonderful 17 year old. It’s an amazing, confusing vision. But, don’t worry, she’ll someday glance at a beautiful sunset on her way home, but she’ll have your Ray Metzker hanging on her wall.
    Great site, I’m glad I stumbled upon it. Intelligent and informative.

    Reply
  4. StephenJ

    Hi Tim, thanks for the entertaining piece, I love the bit about, old men being cool… I am the same age as you, and have similar pretensions sometimes. I was recently at my younger daughter’s 30th bash, and one of her friends said that I looked like David Byrne, I just gushed about “Life during wartime” or some such banality, and made a quick exit.

    I am not so sure that your student is unaware of her powers though, she might be modest, but she knows.

    As for what is good and what isn’t… The good persists and the bad disappears up its own fundament. Long after we have passed, John Coltrane will still be good, and who knows who will still be remembered from today…? It might be from different media, like film or video even… Who can say?

    BTW: Up here in the Spanish mountains, I only brought some very select Bob Dylan, like the second helping of Self Portrait, some Neil Young, and some Louis Armstrong, and that is doing me fine until I go back to the s*ithole that I used to call “home”…. All Americans, what does that say?

    Reply
    1. Andrew

      “As for what is good and what isn’t… The good persists and the bad disappears up its own fundament. Long after we have passed, …..”

      I used to believe this. But then Rap Music (rhythmic talking to annoying sound effects) came out in the mid 1980s, and contrary to what is bad disappearing, it’s still here today.

      Reply
  5. Rob Campbell

    Dan Castelli – I admire your optimism! I’m a few years further up north than are you, and trust me, the next bunch does not revert to our ideas of what’s what or, at least, should be what. It carries right on with its collection of punk rock “classics” – classics? can you imagine?

    But hey, I look at Tim’s idea of classic rock and wonder whether he really doesn’t like stuff prior to the awful Who… even the Beatles, at least at the start, were doing nothing but ten- to fifteen-year-old Chuck Berry reincarnations without the touch. Which isn’t surprising. But hey, Chuck’s famous entrance riff wasn’t his either. The Stones, for me, never outdid their first album – very few of their own numbers convinced me, but at least they have always been perfectly happy to honour and acknowledge the black guys that gave them their roots.

    You see the problem? We have our personal datum line, and upon that we base everything that comes next. Photography isn’t any different, and my own heroes are all about my own age and usually older.

    Apart from his excellent photographs, other of the delights of this blog of Tim’s lie in the writing, and the sometimes amazing links to photographers of whom I had never before heard. Ray Metzker is one such, and I can’t understand how he slipped under the (my) radar so perfectly and silently; I’ve been into this stuff since the 50s, for pity’s sake!

    Rob

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      But hey, I look at Tim’s idea of classic rock and wonder whether he really doesn’t like stuff prior to the awful Who… even the Beatles, at least at the start, were doing nothing but ten- to fifteen-year-old Chuck Berry reincarnations without the touch. Which isn’t surprising. But hey, Chuck’s famous entrance riff wasn’t his either. The Stones, for me, never outdid their first album – very few of their own numbers convinced me, but at least they have always been perfectly happy to honour and acknowledge the black guys that gave them their roots.You see the problem? We have our personal datum line, and upon that we base everything that comes next. Photography isn’t any different, and my own heroes are all about my own age and usually older.

      You do have a point. Older guys than me (e.g Rob Campbell) can play the same trump card I’m playing….against me. The Stones were mostly white Chuck Berry imitators in their early years. The Beatles, prior to 64, much the same. As for the Who, I agree – they were generally awful, but “I Can’t Explain” is the one R&R song I’d bring to a desert isle if I could take just one. A sublime example of the genre, (albeit with Jimmy Page cranking out the tightest, most direct-to-the-point between stanza guitar riff ever played, because Pete Townsend couldn’t yet play anything but chords). If that song, or “Rain” by the Beatles doesn’t get you moving, you’re dead. Plus, Chuck Berry ripped off Jimmy Reed. And on it goes….

      Reply
  6. Lee Rust

    It seems to me that any “aesthetic” is a sensory language that manifests entirely through the eyes, ears, nose, taste or touch of the beholder.

    So, to each their own. Justin Bieber = Ray Metzker.

    Still, why not try to enlighten the endarkened? Nicki might yet surprise you.

    Reply
  7. Rob Campbell

    “Still, why not try to enlighten the endarkened? Nicki might yet surprise you.”

    At seventeen, she may yet surprise herself!

    I’m glad I’m not seventeen anymore; I would love to be fifty again, though. It was an ideal age: wonderful wife, confidence, enough spending power, stock photography was still going to be my slowing down lane and second pension, and enthusiasm for travelling and making pictures was running high. I could see the world with my better half at other folks’ expense and eat whatever the hell I felt attracted to on those fancy menus, and getting old and retiring happened to other people, just like bad health always did.

    Fool’s paradise.

    Nope; best let Nicki be herself. Life will enlighten enough without friendly help. Just pray she isn’t tempted by a career in the photo world of today; not, of course, that she has a snowball’s of getting into the one of yesteryear, long gone. However, if she just wants to become an art photographer, she can even get degrees in that these days. A course in business studies wouldn’t harm, either, and perhaps drama college would be of additional help too. In some countries you can remain a professional student for quite a long time, though I believe they are cutting back on grants… Tump card she holds: good looks; best passport, and it works for both the sexes and always will – until they genetically modify the food too much.

    😉

    Rob

    Reply
    1. Dan Castelli

      I’ve got a card pinned on my darkroom wall from my daughter. It’s a bunch of old farts arguing “Stones” vs. “Beatles.”
      This is what this thread resembles.
      Remember to vote this year.
      Dan
      Flickr.com/photos/dcadtelli9574/

      Reply
      1. Rob Campbell

        But they were contemporaries, which removes them from the war of the generations. The Beatles even gave songs to the Stones… according to Keef.

        Photography, perhaps, was best summed up by the person who declared that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants.

        Okay, some just lie at their feet, but whatever turns folks on…

        As I write, sitting in a bar having lunch, I have my ears on and am listening to Radio Caroline Flashback, based on a station that made its name back in the 60s as a pirate, broadcasting from two old, barely floating tubs moored out in the seas off Britain.

        The music they play is what was current as I made my start in this business, and everything about it floods back memories of girls I worked with, jobs I shot and places we visited like a commando unit: shoot, and get the hell out pdq.

        Sarah Moon still does much what she did in the 70s; Peter Lindbergh does the same as ever he did, and mostly black/white. I suppose these stars see no reason to fix what ain’t broke.

        It’s tough to separate photography, music, emotions, memories and halcyon days lost.

        Photography, at its best, is life.

        🙂

        Reply
  8. Jim Barcelona

    Very interesting piece. I’m getting to be at that age where any 18 year old would be mistaken for my daughter. 🙂 Kant’s great because he clearly delineated what goes into the subjectivity of taste: experience and knowledge. He lost me when he started positing that all this beauty must have some sort of purpose. It’s not a question of whether or not beauty can save us, but rather this is really a possible way to frame and live in the world. I think the 18 year old didn’t think that Metzker was ugly because she used Kantian categories of experience and knowledge. Instead I’m reminded of a NY Times editor who opined that her generation saw photos in terms of aesthetics whereas this generation see photos as building blocks for communication, as word units. This explains why this generation tolerates so many bad photos. Each bad photo might be just an awkward turn of phrase in a mere moment of the days where they will send off 100 to 200 more photos to friends. People are willing to forego the quality of the image in order to share it with their networks immediately.

    Reply
    1. Leicaphila Post author

      Interesting take by the NYT woman. Never thought of it that way. I think she may be on to something – photos as communication without any aesthetic purpose.

      Reply

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