I'm a little surprised that National Geographic's "Top 10 Photos of 2009" have come under such fire in our comments. Although to be honest, my first reaction, like that of several readers, was that the set was a little bland. (Actually, that's not quite accurate—my first reaction was "I could have found better ones." That was my arrogant inner editor speaking.)
It quickly occurred to me, however, that if you know in advance that you're going to do a television show about the 10 pictures you chose, that would influence your choices. You'd pick pictures that have interesting back-stories, wouldn't you? So I'm reserving judgment about the choices until I see the show, which airs here a couple of hours from now.
There are, of course, all sorts of reasons for making specific picks when you pick a list of anything. One of the major early projects I did on this blog was a top ten photographs list. When I did my own list, I was trying to cover most of the major genres of photography—portraits, pinups, landscapes, photojournalism, scientific photography, and so on. So naturally that "program" affected my choices. I was also picking pictures that "stood for" the best of each genre—when I picked a portrait, for instance, I picked an Alexander Gardner portrait of Abraham Lincoln, because it would be well-known to most American readers and because Lincoln was the first politician to realize the political advantages of using the then-new medium of photography to help craft a cult of personality. So I wasn't just saying "this is a great portrait," I was saying, "this is a famous and significant portrait, one that can 'stand in' for all portraits." The needs of the program I'd committed to came before other considerations; if I were just picking my own favorite portrait, it probably wouldn't have been that one.
But that got me to thinking. How hard would it be to pick your own ten favorite pictures?
What each of us likes and doesn't like has a lot to do with our personal interests and tastes, of course. It also might have something to do with the kinds of pictures we take—we might tend to like photographers who do the same sort of thing we ourselves do, only better. Landscape photographers admire landscape photographers, and so forth. Color photographers like color photographs.
Our technical choices might have a lot to do with what we admire. I have a friend who's a great devotee of large format; he'd probably pick ten pictures that included mostly large format pictures. Maybe all ten would be. Personally, I realized about twelve years ago or so that most of the pictures that move me the most are naturalistic black-and-white photographs of "found" or encountered scenes, mostly with people in them; I dislike set-up shots and generic scenics. I have a weakness for pictures taken around water.
Our ten might include subjects we're interested in. A sports fan might pick sports photographs, a military enthusiast might pick great war photographs, a guy who's crazy about cars might pick some great car photographs.
Other people might go for variety, and pick "one of each" of many types of photography they like.
Connotation certainly plays a part. I've done a lot of hiking and photographing in the upper Midwest, and I find I tend to respond better to pictures of that general area than to landscapes of the Rocky Mountains or the desert Southwest, for instance. Even though the latter are usually more spectacular.
I know a guy who loves photographs of New York, and another who has a great passion for architectural photography.
John Szarkowski, the great curator and critic, reportedly had a weakness for pictures of apples. He was an apple grower and a great aficionado of apples, and it was known in certain circles that if you were dropping off a portfolio for review at the Museum of Modern Art during his long tenure there, it wasn't a bad idea to include an apple picture or two.
Depending on the ground rules, you might pick some of your own pictures, too. Or pictures that have personal meaning for you. For many people, photographs by others have a hard time competing with photographs of the things and people they love.
A favorite of yours might be a "breakthrough" picture that was important to you in your own artistic growth. Ansel Adams had a lifelong affection for "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome," which was the first picture he used a red filter on and the key precursor, for him, of the heroic style of western landscape that he later developed into his mature style. He always honored that photograph's significance in his own artistic development.
Apropos my own ten best list that I mentioned earlier, it might be wise to separate our critical judgment from that which we love and respond to personally. There are plenty of photographs I would defend to the end as being indisputably great that I don't personally have much feeling for. (That old "head vs. heart" dichotomy.)
Or maybe not
I'm guessing this might not be an instructive exercise to actually do. That is, it might be pretty pointless to make the hard choices and come up with ten specific photographs. After all, looking at photographs is an appetite and a pastime—it depends in part on a constant stream of new encounters, an ongoing adventure of new discovery. But it could be enlightening to at least think about it. It could tell you important things about who you are, where you stand. Maybe even things you don't consciously realize about yourself.
Could you at least think of three or four things that would have to be on your list, for instance?
I can think of a few that would be on mine.
MikeFeatured Comment by Carl Dahlke: "And the answer is—it's very hard to pick a personal top 10 photos even if I narrow it down to the ones that I personally love and respond to.
"Part of the problem is that some photographers are easy to see in terms of individual images. Other photographers' images seem to live as an interconnected body of work.
"If I think of Edward Weston I think of individual pictures of things (Pepper #30) or people (Gualaloupe Marin de Rivera). Elliot Erwitt is another one of those photographers whose work it easy to see as individual images (one of his dog pictures has to be in my top 10).
"When I think of Emmit Gown I think of the whole extended family portrait he created in his first book. There are individual images in that book that I love—but they always are living in the good company of the other parts of the portrait. So I don't quite know how to pick a favorite—it almost feels like cutting up the book by picking a favorite is the wrong thing to do. And that book is certainly in my list of top 10 books. Ralph Gibson is like that too—his medium really is the book.
"So I think the whole question is biased towards the photographers whose style tends to produce individual iconic images.
"I think the other problem is that if you have a really broad taste for photography (and I do both in what I shoot and what I look at) then the top 10 becomes almost impossible to narrow down.
"If I have one each from Weston, Erwitt, Burtynsky, Meyerowitz, Bravo, Sanders, Giacomelli, Kenna, W. Eugene Smith, and Debbie Flemming Caffery what have I got? Well I've left out Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Richard Misrach....
"I think it's probably more interesting to try to pick the top 10 Westons, or the top 10 portraits, or the top 10 dog pictures (where Jill Freedman and Elliot Erwitt battle it out). Working inside some sort of constraints is so very useful."