What makes a great image is a fascinating question and with regard to photography who better to ask than some of the renowned modern photographers. Rene de Carfuel does this in his book ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ 2011 from which these excepts are taken. Reading the book for the second time I started to pick up an underlying theme on greatness within a photographic image which lies counter to the way those charged with awarding progressive levels in photographic bodies seem to stand. Is it a matter of taste?
The responses in some cases are very short and others more explanatory, by viewing them all as standalone statements an underlying theme develops.
Arnold Newman – Does it work?
Eric Meola – What makes a great shot is undefinable. What moves you may not move someone else.
Jay Maisel – Light, Colour and Gesture, and above all Content.
Jerry Uelsmann – The feeling of amazement
Rodney Smith – A very stong compositional sense, lacking in most modern photography
Michel Tcherevkoff – A great shot is like a great joke, if you have to explain it, it’s not funny. two mandatory ingredients are originality and quality.
William Claxton – The more thought provoking and the more tension created in the eye of the viewer, the more sucessful the photograph.
Howard Schatz -A great photograph stops people in their tracks….. there is an extreme WOW factor. When an image is interesting or good then thats all it is.
Jean Pagliuso – I think it must move the viewer. Tantalize. Provoke.
Kim Weston – To have a great photograph one must be truly excited about the image.
Ruth Bernhard – A great shot affects you emotionally.
Pete Turner – The ingredients of a great shot add up to an image that pleases you, the photographer.
Ryszard Horowitz – an image must not be boring; it must tell a story and touch the viewer.
Andy Katz – Light/Composition/Emotion
Giles Larrain – A good photo is a good photo and you know it when you see it. Your instinct and intuition will tell you.
Bernard Matussiere – I have not found any magic formula. There is cropping, lighting, good subjects, that all can be there in unity, and it still will not work every time.
Willy Ronis – A great shot is a perfect balance between form and content.
Yann Arthus Bertrand – I do not think we can talk about ingredients for a photo; simply put – it must carry emotion.
Jane Evelyn Atwood – Photography is not academic, there’s no magic method to produce a great picture. Exceptional pictures come from exceptionally creative minds, an exceptional eye, and the freedom to be able to work.
Peter Marlow – it goes beyond the obvious……., and often has no need of a caption or explanation.
Jen-Marie Del Moral – The silence it imposes
Eikoh Hosoe – It is when you feel your truth and the truth of your subject is in accord. You might think it is a great shot, but then not all would agree. Time decides.
Irina Ionesco – Desire
Richard Baltauss – There are no ingredients for an exceptional photo, it is simply the encounter between a subject and its reader, the questions it provokes, and the answers it gives.
Janine Niepce – The emotion, the light, and the graphic qualities.
Marc Riboud – If it carries an emotion that is already good and if the photographer has a good eye it is even better.
Francois Brunelle – What is most important is to sense authenticity, truth saturated with beauty.
Roger Lemoyne – The emotion that is caught, above all, but there is always an X factor as in all arts. Ansel Adams said that if there were compositional rules, he didn’t know them.
Carl Lessard – I dont believe there are any ingredients, but I think that a photograph is exceptional when it reveals the truth.
Edward Gajdel – The absence of Ego
None of the above have been selected from the book with any pretense and any other random selection would show similar themes. It is interesting that few talk about the ‘ingredients’ that we know, light, design, form, structure, subject; even though these are implied in the basis of a good photograph there is a counterpoint in many of the statements that the ingredients and application of those ingredients are almost irrelevant. Greatness in a picture is more emotional, it is the story it tells not the technical competency of the artist. Those technical ingredients may assist the story, they may assist the viewer but in themselves do not make an image great.
The paradox in my mind is that the ingredients of light, colour, design, content, subject, form are most often used in modern photographic circles to critique an image, to essentially find fault. A photograph is surly more than a sum of its ingredients. It is very possible to create a technically perfect image from the ingredients but technical perfection still does not make a great image.
My favorite response in Carfuels book came from Robert Walker who sums up the difference between classical arts and photography quite well when asked the question ‘What makes a great picture?:
‘Too difficult to say. In a paining or sculpture, a masterpiece embodies a powerful statement, beautifully rendered with profound interplay between form and content. Because of the perfection of the machine, photography is not governed by these criteria – great shots have been produced by amateurs on holiday, fashion photographers, real estate documenters, as well as all the best intentioned high minded art photographers. Each photograph has to be analysed on its own merit which essentially gets down to a matter of taste.”