How to define a “Successful” image

In order to understand the conscious and unconscious motivations behind my landscape practice I first needed to decide which images were “successful” and which were not. The thinking here is that an unsuccessful image can be a failure for any number of reasons whereas the successful image probably only has a few contributing characteristics. Therefore, it is the study of successful images that will be most effective as a strategy for uncovering what drives my image making processes. Later, I will need to test these findings against a set of unsuccessful images to look for any inconsistencies of thought or process.

As this is an autoethnographic study aimed at understanding my own practice and my own perceptions, this has to be measured against my personal criteria, not that of other viewers. Initially, the only criterium that I could articulate was that a successful image is, one that excited me at the time of making, a day later, a month later, etc. This, purely emotional, test proved to be a good tactic for sorting the successful from the rest but failed to tell me anything about why one image was good and another just average.

Using this methodology, I initially tested ~2500 landscape images taken over the last 10 years and rated just 186 as being successful images. Note, these 2500 images were images already deemed to be anything from excellent to acceptable. Any failures or unacceptable images had already been eliminated from the ~20,000 taken during that 10 year period. Over the next months I added a few recent images and started analysing the successful ones for which characteristics of the scene had “triggered”1 me to make the image and for their different types of “content”2. This was an iterative process which caused me to upgrade some additional images to the successful category and to reject others as my understanding and definitions of the various triggers and contents was clarified. The number of successful images was now 204. However, this process also revealed that not all successful images are equal. I was prompted to further segment the successful group into A, B & C categories based upon the degree of excitement that I felt about an image. Again, this is useful as a working model but is still an emotional, unquantifiable characteristic that needs to be further understood and defined.

There are now just 104 images classified as “A”, my very best images. Re-evaluating these images, I have tried to articulate why they excite me.

First, every one of these 104 images has captured and now evokes the feelings of calm, silence, isolation and insignificance that I felt at the time I made the photograph. These are not negative experiences but a recreation of previous moments in life when I have felt most joyful and free. Like Robert Adams, I too have lived in the prairies of Colorado and can perfectly relate to his comment in the Forward to his book “Prairie” (1978):

“There is everywhere silence – a silence in thunder, in wind, in the call of doves, even a silence in the closing of a pickup door.”  Robert Adams

If I consider one of my images has captured such emotions in the way Robert Adam’s images have done, then I am excited.

Secondly, I am excited when I have perceived something I believe is unique, that I am seeing and interpreting the scene in ways no-one else has ever done before. Often this is where the image reveals to me an “accidental beauty”3 in the arrangements of its man-made and the natural elements or a new perspective that encourages the viewer to ask why, to look for metaphor, to create narratives. As stated by Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian, talking about Robert Adams, I also want to be an:

“artist whose work demands close attention – and a degree of patient attentiveness – from the viewer.” Sean O’Hagan

To do this the image must not just be new but also obviously different so that a reaction, even if it is one of dismissal, is caused. Just like the New Topographic photographers (Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, in particular) I aim to depict the banal4 as accidentally beautiful. Adams used the qualities of light, Baltz uses the geometrical shapes of buildings, my trope is the juxta-positioning5 of human constructs against apparently natural landscapes.

Definitions

Trigger – my trigger words describe what had catalysed my pressing of the shutter. They are: Design (conscious), Design (unconscious), Intuition, Belief, Recognition and Spectacle.  How these were derived, and their definitions are explained in other essays.

Content – words that describe the content of my images, when later reviewed are: Narrative Potential, Incongruity, Light, Shapes, Isolation and Power/Subordinate. These words describe the dominant elements of the content. Most images have at least 2 appropriate content words. How these were derived, and their definitions are explained in other essays.

Accidental Beauty – is when the unplanned positioning of unrelated objects and elements in a scene cause a pleasing, a humorous or an intriguing arrangement. This is “found art” and not the deliberately constructed compositions of the Still Life artist. The expressionist sculptor, David Smith, described his triggers for accidental beauty as follows:

“They can begin with any idea. They can begin with a found object. They can begin with no object. They can begin, sometimes, even when I’m sweeping the floor and I stumble and kick a few parts that happen to form an alignment that sets me off thinking, sets off a vision”. Smith, D.

Or as described by photographer, Andy Wohl, on his website:

“I do not look for typically “beautiful” scenes; landscapes, flowers, animals but find more potential in the random and accidental arrangements of chairs in a courtyard, a pile of cardboard boxes or the still life arrangement of common, mundane and even homely objects found at hardware stores, grocers, garden supply stores, bait and tackle shops and antique shops.”  Andy Wohl.

Banal – “So lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.” Oxford Living Dictionaries, viewed at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/banal on 08/10/18

Juxtaposition – everyone one of my images, other than those triggered by Spectacle, have the juxta-positioning of a human construct or traces against its environment as the key (although, not necessarily the largest) element of the composition.

Bibliography

O’Hagan, S. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/feb/16/robert-adams-photographer-sense-place  viewed on 7/10/18

Smith D. The Search for Accidental Beauty, a video published by SFMOMA, viewed at https://www.sfmoma.org/david-smith-and-the-search-for-accidental-beauty/ on 08/10/18

Wohl A. Accidental Beauty, viewed at https://accidentalbeauty.smugmug.com/ on 08/10/18

 

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