What Makes a Successful Photo?

That’s exactly the question you ask yourself when you’re looking at a successful photo. What does success depend on? There are objective reasons, of course: the photographer’s technical virtuosity and talent, the quality of the printing, the choice of subject, But those factors alone don’t add up to to a good photo; a some little anonymous, tattered, unimaginative and badly printed photo can be absolutely fascinating.

So there’s no explanation. Chance or some sixth sense can play a part – and of course some photographers are better than others at spotting or conjuring up the chance element. A photograph happens quickly and doesn’t allow for half measures; and when it comes off, it retains something of the raw intensity of its making, that grabbing of the right moment. This is doubtless one explanation for the emotion we feel when confronted with a picture that works.” – Sylvie Aubenas, Curator, Photography Department, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris

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3 thoughts on “What Makes a Successful Photo?

  1. Dan Newell

    Hard to say. I don’t take hardly any.
    What interests me is how a pic that was taken 12 years ago changes over time in my estimation.

  2. Rob Campbell

    Maybe not the answer anyone’s looking for, but I’m inclined to suggest that it comes down to luck.

    I’ve outlined before how, during a model shoot, one can take a series of shots that of themselves are nothing, but at the end of that series, may well have paid off and led you to catching one image that brings it all together at the same time. Sure, there’s some experience involved in getting there, but quite often the money shot comes as a surprise, one of those little gifts that the photo gods occasionally bestow. But of course, you have to be shooting for it to happen.

    I have just been listening to a early Dan Milnor podcast, and he says that he can’t understand how people can run out of enthusiasm, out of directions to travel; he puts it down to copying others and not having original ideas, the result of that being that when interest in the thing you have been copying ends for you, you become lost. That may well be so, but it’s a bit too simplistic a stance that doesn’t cover all cases. Health can make you lose the spark; you can be suffering anxiety due to all sorts of problems that have nothing at all to do with photography. It’s hard to remain motivated when you may be facing bills you can’t meet; your car may be off the road and you know that getting it back into service is going to cost an arm and a leg, that unless you do fix it you can’t even sell it. Or, you may just be stuck in a location where the possibilities of shooting what you want don’t exist anymore. I think Leiter said that in respect of his street work as, I think, has Meyrowitz. Perhaps it explains the large format, landscapes and books; didn’t Meyerowitz recently sell his entire back catalogue? Would you do that if you felt you had more to say in that genre, felt it to be anything but a closed chapter of your iife?

    Too much familiarity with a place can turn you emotionally blind. I think that’s what’s hit me over the past few months: I just lack the heart to go back out doing more of the same. Maybe I need to increase my toxic footprint and drive around this island again…. Perhaps that’s why Winogrand left NY and went westwards across the continent. Maybe it also, as with Leiter, explains the masses of unprocessed films both men left behind them: did they just know it wasn’t coming together anymore?

  3. Rob Campbell

    I was sitting on my verandah this morning, waiting for it to be time to make lunch, when I decided to have another look at my latest Leiter book, The Unseen Saul Leiter.

    To my dismay, and surprise, I felt quite deflated. Well, perhaps deflated isn’t the right word, but I was certainly hit with a wave of sudden doubts about almost the entire book. The images appeared to me as if they had just been picked from the files at random, no editing done to shake the wheat from the chaff. I concluded that either the team handling the Foundation isn’t really competent to edit the stock, or has simply seen too much of it in the past few years to make objective choices any longer based on quality, which in this case, may actually mean nothing more than how closely or otherwise it follows the thread of the work in his earlier books. Is the iron getting tired from so much striking whilst it’s hot?

    It was really quite a distressing morning; Leiter is one of the very few photographers I still admire, and have done so since first seeing his work in 1959. I hope the fatigue is all mine, that it is just an emotion coming back at me through the current filter of my own blues. I can’t afford to lose more heroes.

    There have been two women in my adult life that I felt represented photographic subject heaven: Bardot and Jean Shrimpton. It was ever a burning desire to snap both, and though I made it to Bardot, Shrimpton I have never even seen, and it’s too late now, anyway. Last night I came across a picture of the latter shot in Cornwall, where she owns a hotel. She was seventy (it says) when the shot was made. Harsh sunlight in her eyes, screwed up expression; all the physical signs that hit women who refuse to get skin-fillingly plump as they get old. There’s an agency credit to the pic, which makes me wonder about the mentality of anyone in this profession who is callous, cruel enough to want to make such imagery for nothing more noble than to turn a stinking buck. Bardot, too has been subjected to this treatment. No wonder there is little love for the paparazzi of this world from the people so disrespected. Sometimes, your fellow photographers can make you feel sick.

    Maybe that feeling carried over into this morning, when I picked up that Leiter book.

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