What makes a great picture?

Michele McNally, the New York Times photo editor, at the nytimes.com had a wonderful response to the question of what makes a photograph great. This sparked an interesting conversation on an international photographers forum that I’m a member of. I’ll add a few excerpts of what I wrote about the subject, but first here’s the quote.

Q. What makes a photojournalist grow from making very good images to making brilliant ones?

— Sasha Turk
A. I think the best photojournalists have a philosophical, psychological, and emotional clarity in what they are trying to say with their pictures. They have done their existential homework and have achieved the ability to reach real emotional truthfulness in their images using narrative, gesture, light and composition. They also recognize that what they get to see and do is very special and important — to viewers and their subjects. I’d also say, hard work.

That’s a beautifully put response to the question.

I used to teach a workshop called “Mirror Image” at the New England School of Photography. In this class, we explored how the pictures we took reflected something about the way we viewed the world. I’ve always been fascinated with how the camera really is so good at mirroring our sensibilities, as well as the outer world around us.

If we are unconscious and sloppy in the way we see things, this will be mirrored in the pictures. If we have a dark way of seeing life, this will be revealed, etc. I enjoy reading the clues in an image that show how the artist’s sensibilities and viewpoints are revealed through the pictures.

There is also a spontaneous inventiveness that arises from being open and free in one’s approach, that invites the viewer into that same frame of mind. This makes the experience of looking at the pictures fun and liberating.

We can find out something about ourselves, or our point of view, (which really is ourselves) through picture taking. The Buddhists talk about the liberation that happens when mind looks at mind. In a sense maybe that’s the existential homework she’s referring to. Through wrestling to make good pictures, we inevitably have to have a look into the way we see, mind sees mind, and once we’re a bit outside of ourselves, we may ask ourselves if we want to make any changes in the way we’re seeing.

When we discover that we can actually make changes in the way we see the world, we discover a wonderful artistic freedom. A liberation to see outside of the way we habitually see. It’s this state of mind that has the potential to create great art.

I think the best word in her answer is “clarity”. That to me is the definition of what makes a picture great. The pictures seem to reflect an inner clarity of mind which the artist has brought to bear in the way they view the world. The picture then is not only a scene of the outer world, but simultaneously a reflection of an inner clarity, which is expressed through a mastery of their craft and knowledge of their subject matter.

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