Thursday, December 20, 2018

Context and artistic intent

What makes a good photograph? What is the basis on which photographic merit is apportioned and perceived? For some time now I have been pondering this. Recently, these questions have risen to the fore in my mind while attending critique evenings at gatherings of local photography enthusiasts.

Obvious attributes such as technical competence are surely components of such critical narratives. The use or otherwise of colour, use of light, composition of image components, focusing of elements within the frame, image cropping and so on, are all technical factors that most will agree can determine the degree of merit associated with a photograph.

But does the considered application of these and other technical factors constitute a good photograph? Does the presence of technical 'perfection' ensure a 'good' image. If so, how do we explain photographs that are considered significant by the critics, or those that we are drawn to, but nevertheless appear to be far less than perfect from a technical perspective? I suggest that the answer is the context captured or created in an image and the intent of the photographer.

Some of the work produced by Australian photographer Bill Henson on first glance appears to lack technical merit, yet this work elicits a strong response (positive and negative) from viewers. Some of Henson's images of children are intentionally under-exposed and are very soft. We might struggle to find clarity in skin or other physical details. Henson's use of lighting is subdued, and like a fine mist gently surrounds his subjects. As technically imperfect as some of these images appear to be we are still drawn to them; the images resonate with us for better or for worse.

Mathew Westwood writing in 'The Australian' newspaper explains that "...[Henson] was interested in exploring notions of intimacy..." So what appear to be technical imperfections are in fact a deliberate use of selected technical elements to facilitate Hanson's exploration of intimacy. His deliberate manipulation of technical elements serves to frame his subjects within a particular context. Therefore, the context he creates in this way and his intent in doing so, become essential considerations in the evaluation of his work. Hanson has subordinated technicality in the service of context and intent.

The image above was taken at Boeing's Museum of Flight in Seattle. The context chosen was of course flight, with the intent being to capture the exhibits in a dynamic way that supports this. Without knowledge of this intent and the context underpinning it however, it would be easy to think that this was just another holiday snapshot in a museum.

Yet, the alignment of the aircraft and their composition within the frame does suggest that one aircraft is flying in close formation with others around it, led by the float place which seems ready to leap out of the frame. Moreover, the steel framework supporting the roof matches the struts supporting the floats and is an integral part of the archival aspect of this context.

This photo taken on a Murray River paddle steamer at first elicits a romantic notion of a sunset dinner on a placid river cruise. The colours reinforce this, as does the suggestion of a gently flowing river in the water reflections. But some might argue that the inclusion of the gas bottles and dirty mops ruins the 'effect'. Perhaps the image would be much improved by removing these, or possibly re-framing the image to exclude them. Another plausible interpretation however, could be that the photographer has captured the reality of the scene to highlight the contrast between the carelessly dumped mops and utilitarian nature of the gas bottles, and the immaculate dinner setting, thus making a statement about the faux romanticism posed by the scene.

The question here is: what does the intent of the artist highlight; the romantic effect, or the reality of the setting? Evaluating such an image is difficult unless we make an effort to understand the context and intent created by the photographer.

McCurry's now famous portrait of the 'Afghan Girl' has rightfully gained kudos as capturing the pathos and plight of his subject. But critics have not been so generous about some other work by this photographer. Rafi Letzter quotes Candice Cusic, a noted photojournalist and Pulitzer Prize winner who provides evidence of selected cutting, pasting and exclusions in some of McCurry's work. Cusic suggests that "...the core problem with McCurry's alterations is that they privilege an abstract idea of aesthetic perfection over the realities of the places he represents in his work."

Cusic's thesis appears to be that there is tension between the context (photojournalism and requirement for realism in this case), and the intent of the photographer (sanitising the image to promote 'aesthetic perfection'). 

Cusic, according to Letzter suggests that, "'s easier than ever to manipulate these photos we create — and there's massive demand to do so, as evidenced by the increasingly sophisticated processing tools built right into Instagram's sharing app. So, even as we create this massive visual document of our world, the line between its truth and fiction grows blurrier. "

In working hard to create images that have a high degree of technical merit we must also seek to understand what prompted us to capture an image in the first place. I suggest that in addition to the appropriate use of technique, both initial and in post, an image is defined by the alignment between the photographer's intent and the final product - and without this understanding we are not able to fully appreciate the result.

Letzter, Rafi. "The 'Afghan Girl' photographer faked some of his photos. Does it matter?" Business Insider, 21 May. 2016,

Westwood, Mathew. “PM says Henson photos have no artistic merit.” The Australian, 23 May. 2008,

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