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Sunday, 07 March 2010

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I often play the 'top ten' game in my min--what ten books would I publicly display in my living room, what ten albums would I have out for people to see; and so on. I usually get sidetracked by having to define the rules (should the Beatles be one selection, or just one album?). But until now, I've not thought about photographs...thanks...I'll have to get back to you on this one.

That's a good challenge.

I was more impressed with the collection of world press photo winners from a while back.

But then, that's chosen from a larger pool and from a pool that's more news and dramatic incident based.

As for what I would pick:

My photo style is more to take photos rather than to "make" photos. But still I have an appreciation for the highly staged photo and would for sure include some of those in my personal top 10.

Could you at least think of three or four things that would have to be on your list, for instance?

Easy-peasy.

One, unexpectedness. The best way to describe it would be... well, a photo of a flower wouldn't be unexpected with a bee on the flower. But let there be a snake coiled around the flower, well, that is unexpected. It doesn't have to be that dramatic, of course. :)

Two, composition. I'm a sucker for strong, almost painterly compositions. Not always the so-called bold composition NatGeo usually favours, but still, I like strong composition. Which can mostly be seen in my photos...

Three, the moment. Yes, the infamous decisive moment when a movement of the subject half a metre to the left or right can make a photo excellent or simply good.

These three are what immediately draws me to a photo. That's why I liked Nachtwey's photo and the bear, although I didn't say anything in the comments. Because I think they have those three elements.

Then, I more or less like isolated subjects. Not a necessary precondition for me to like a photo, though. There are some photos full of stuff that I like.

I also like photos that kinda look like paintings. Not photos that were done over in Photoshop to immitate paintings, but photos that have the feeling of a painting... Like the fourth photo in Dalton Rooney's Sicily series.

Which brings me to the final important element. I like nature stuff, I like casual portraits, I like architecture stuff, I like well done sports photos... I really don't feel much about macro or formal posed portraits. But if a photo speaks to my emotions, it rises in my estimate greatly.

That Sicily photo, it looks like the area around my hometown down on the Adriatic. So when I see it, it instantly says, summer, Mediterranean, childhood, not a worry in the world. The fact that it reminds me of a painting is just a bonus in this case.

When I said important element up there, that was meant to say that there are also technical elements of a photo -- both those of the technique and those of the camera/lens themselves.

I think I already mentioned that I consciously fight against letting the technical stuff come to the fore. Photo being sharp or not isn't a deal-breaker for me. Photo having an acceptable kind of noise is not worse off than a squeaky clean one, and may even fare better in my judgement. (I'm not talking about the red and blue blotches, but about the luminance noise.) It's great to have a technically correct photo, but it's not as important as the other elements.

By "things," I assume you mean photographs. My choice would be "Plate 28 Provincetown, 1977" in Joel Meyerowitz's CAPE LIGHT. I pulled CAPE LIGHT out of a remainder bin (!) in a Vancouver, B.C., bookstore in 1978 and knew I had something special, but some of the photos puzzled me.

Plate 28 shows the most quotidian scene imaginable: the glaring rear window and roof of a parked car in the driveway of an unremarkable, brown, two-story house on a very hazy summer's day. Since I liked so many other photographs in the book, I wanted to come to terms with this one and bit by bit teased out its visual strengths: division of space, color harmony, rhythmic line, etc. An autodidact as far as the visual arts are concerned, this photo opened up for me a more complex way of seeing the world.

Mike, You did not mention two important and related factors. Though you implied one in your second paragraph, which is that the National Geographic photo essay is, if not a genre unto itself, at least a paradigm. The related factor is that each choice, as well as the set, is at least in part meant to represent or promote a brand, and an attempt to perpetuate the image--perhaps even "mystique" is appropriate--of NG (or to change it in some way).

The problem is that paradigms and mystiques are collective yet subjective. I'm sure the editors have their own individual and collective NG ideals and aspirations in mind as they select their top ten. But each one of us will judge the selection according to one's own ideas of what NG is about, as well as our taste in photographs.

Also, one thing that may matter more to the editors than some of us is that some kinds of stories or photographs are simply more difficult from a production and presentation standpoint, and such success mean more in that sense. Likewise, editors may have chosen particularly important stories over more spectacular photographs.

(I'm catching up on a few posts chronologically backwards, so please forgive me if I've repeated stuff that was brought up in the previous thread.

As if anyone cares: my personal NG ideal involves some combination of the best photographers, big budgets, long assignments, spectacular color, unusual locations or points of view. The assignments are usually expeditionary, technically specialized, or both; often difficult or dangerous; often important; often aspiring to illuminate seldom seen or disappearing places, people or aspects of our world.))

We are frequently told that a photograph has to stand on its own. Nobody cares if you hiked 4 miles in thigh deep snow while a couger tracked you and your battery life limited you to 3 pictures. If it is still a mediocre shot nobody will put it on their wall and admire it.

I think you touched on the truth of the matter in the second paragraph. These NG photos are, on their own, not necessarily earth shattering or so beautiful you would hang one on your wall. They were taken to augment an article. NG is an eductional magazine and though the writing is good, there is nothing like having a picture to help drive home a point. On occasion NG sends its people to unimaginable places. The fact that they come back with any pictures at all is amazing. And that seems to be the point of their "10 best", the backstory of bringing you images that help illustrate a essay. NG, though educational, is still in the entertainment business and the stories behind these shots is both educational and entertaining, which is their proper setting. So in this context, the backstory is a very important element to these photos.

I think the thing that was surprising to me about NG's top ten list is that there are any number of NG images permanently occupying shelf space my head ("Afghan Girl" e.g.), where the mere mention of the image, tips over a wealth of associations. I can't believe with the depth of their bench that the 10 images shown were the best they could do. If the premise was, "10-pictures-that-lend-themselves-to-a-tv-special-'cause-of -where-we-happened-to-have-camera-crews", then they should call it that. But my standards (or maybe just my expectations) are higher. I want to see an image that is arresting on its own merits, not one that happens to have a good narrative. This is due to a bias/belief of mine: that a talented photographer can make a resonant image out of nearly ANYTHING, by solving the formal aesthetic problems of composing and presenting a static image to the world in a novel way. Add a compelling or unfamiliar location, and you have begun to compile your ingredients list for a great photo-soup. To further mangle the metaphor: Where's the beef?

Ben Marks

I think I would be inclined to exclude any that I felt were lucky, which is to say I would include only those where I had an intention and the result bore some resemblence to that intention.

Unfortunately that would tend to rule almost all my photographs out.

I tried doing this a few weeks ago, with my Flickr photos. I did it by elimination, throwing a bunch into a folder and then turfing them out until I had just ten left. Not an easy exercise by any means. For me it was an exercise in trying to decide what's important to me.

It was interesting to see that half of them turned out to be of musicians in casual (i.e. not concert) settings.

If anybody's interested, you can see them here
http://www.flickr.com/photos/tom_frog/sets/72157623140498589/

Sigh, another reason why I now avoid photo forums. Those were just one guy's favorites for pete's sake. I just really get frustrated at all the kill-joys. I realize that there is a competitive nature in this "art" but so much criticism and so little celebration really takes away the joyous fact that we can take these types of photos and share them with others. Each photo is a unique perspective.

Mike,

while the actual set of pictures chosen by NG was indeed criticized by some commenters, I think the major criticism was directed towards the fact that these photographs were called the "10 best".

At least I can't see how photographs could be reduced to one-dimensional ratings, giving you numbers that you could sort them by and determine which are the "10 best". To me that seems just like trying to rate lenses by a single number - only worse. Who could define if a portrait by Yousuf Karsh was 'better' than a street scene by Robert Frank? Makes no sense to me.

There are many excellent and interesting photographs to be found on the pages of the National Geographic Magazine. There is no need to establish an order of 'greatness' nor is it possible to do so.

Carsten

The National Geographic best 10 photos may have occurred with the one photographer from one story. But that wouldn't be the best story to tell either...
Whenever we post images on our blog or facebook we're constantly surprised by the feedback we get regarding readers favourite images or the ones they consider to be the best.
It so often doesn't cross paths with what we choose for each shoot.
We have to remind ourselves that people have inherent biases. It's because they like a face, a place, an event and don't weigh up the artistic aspects the way we do.
Doesn't make anyone wrong of course... just different.

Three of my four are sort of cliche choices, but then again cliches are cliches because they're good:

"Napalm Girl" by Nick Ut.
"Hubble Deep Space Field" by NASA.
"Flag Raising at Iwo Jima" by Joe Rosenthal.

And the fourth choice stroked my imagination like no other and showed me the abstract, artistic possibilities of B&W photography that inspired me to take up photography a few decades ago:

"Grasses In Snow" by Harry Callahan.

This is why i'll never be an editor… the prospect makes me shudder! I'm likely to give you a different set each time you hold the proverbial gun to my head

1. Sailors in Key West Whorehouse (Cosindas)

2. Blind Woman (Strand)

3. Pepper #30 (Weston)

4. Napalm Girl (Ut)

5. Migrant Mother (Lange)

6. Afgan Girl (McCurry)

7. Winston Churchill (Karsh)

8. Children Playing in the Ruins, Seville (Cartier-Bresson)

9. Paula (Cosindas)

10. Pond (Steichen)

11. Iwo Jimo Flag Raising (Rosenthal)

12. Natasha Kinski and the Serpent (Avedon)

13. Chez Mondrian (Kertesz)

14. The Kiss (Eisenstadt)

15. Herschel (Cameron)

16. Wall Street (Strand)

17. Earth from Apollo (NASA)

18. Oak Tree (Tice)

19. The Critic (Weegee)

20. Stravinsky (Newman)

21. Tomika in her Bath (Smith)

22. Clearing Winter Storm (Adams)

23. Dali Atomicus (Halsman)

24. Picnic on the Banks of the Marne (Cartier-Bresson)

25. Young Girl in Carolina Mill (Hine)

26. Grand Prix Car (Lartigue)

27. American Gothic (Parks)

28. Girl with kitten (Davidson)

29 Tricycle (Eggleston)

30. Cross and steel mill (Evans)

I could go on for another 30 - don't know how I'd stop at 10!

The only harder assignment I can think of is picking the top 10 of my own photographs (and none are award-winning).

You're right about the back story. Some of my photos are technically better than others, but that doesn't exclude the less-than-perfect from being favorites for reasons other than skill in technique or their universal subject matter appeal.

There is always a problem with picking "ten best" lists and that is context. Any list is going to be constrained by some sort of premise and this set is no different. Controversy arises when the premise isn't clearly explained.

As you state, you'd probably pick ten better ones but would probably be looking as a picture editor ratherthan a story editor. Here, story seems just as important. Trouble is, a great back story does not a great picture make per se.

I wish I could get to see the programme, then I could judge whether this collection works in the context of illustrating great stories.

As to picking my top ten photographs, that would necessarily be limited to the subset of photos I have seen, which is quite small in the context of all photographs. And that is another problem with the Nat Geo set - they are culled from 1000 published from 1 million. Whose to say individually great photographs weren't redacted because they didn't fit with the story/layout/whatever?

This kind of commentary has become common everywhere, not just in this case; there are many more people with the means to produce good photographs than there used to be, and they also now have the means to air their opinions on the same pages as photographs such as these. The combination of these two factors means that, while a corporation like National Geographic can continue to produce excellent work, the playing field has changed; the veneer of professionalism that enshrouded such institutions has fallen away. It is inevitable that everyone, those whose work may be worthy to compete with them as well as those who have done nothing but bought a new camera, will be able to criticize them on the very medium in which the work appears.

"I can think of a few that would be on mine."

Yeah. Me too. But I don't know that anyone else would agree.

That's the beauty of any expressive medium – my list is just as meaningful to me as yours is to you.

Perhaps the comment writers' high expectations weren't met. I overlooked the link to the pictures themselves and only went to visit after reading this post and the comments you referred to. Wasn't expecting much by that point, obviously ("bland", "where's the culture?") but really liked the selection.

As for your question, one that would have to be on my list is by Stephen Shore. It's Room 28, Holiday Inn, Medicine Hat, Alberta, taken August 18, 1974 and it's in his book The Nature of Photographs and probably plenty of others. I just LOVED it the moment I saw it but couldn't say why and found that odd. Its appeal is just as strong today. I've shown it to other photographers and raved about it and the reactions go from politeness to amusement with a nod or two to sympathy.

Well, just two days ago, I was pointed to this interview, which I'm so glad I sat through. Shore specifically singles out that picture and that made me feel so much better about my taste. I know that's silly and shallow but it's true. The picture is among those in the slideshow here but isn't particularly appealing as a small JPEG. Exquisite in the book, though. One day, I hope to see a print of it at an exhibition.

I have been surfing flickr to find pictures that I like ("faves" as they call them) that are specifically shot in styles very different from my own. I know I am not going to change the way I photograph fundamentally but I like to be inspired to try at least some variations so the process of discovery can continue in my own work.

Photographic work includes always some kind of selection. You must "crop" reality, including only part of the world into the frame, select the focus, delete bad exposures, etc.
So a good photographer must also be able to select into his/her own work, until building some kind of portfolio.
But sometimes it would be simplier if you let others to select

I wonder in the abstract whether seeing a "Top 10" list from a publication like NG, which is justifiably famous for its photography, creates extra disappointment in the viewer if there are no images that resonate with him or her. It would be like turning to Life magazine's 10 best pictures from, say, 1965 and finding blank pages. I was recently thumbing through the year 2000 gimmick coffee-table book (and by this I mean that it is thick enough to BE a coffee table) CENTURY, which purported to represent every year of the 20th century photographically, and was saddened by how many of the images chosen to represent one year or another were war photographs. That editor's challenge was different than making a "Top 10" list, but surely in the same family of problems. What else is one supposed to choose from 1940?

Ben Marks

John wrote:
"We are frequently told that a photograph has to stand on its own. "

That's certainly the mindset that a lot of enthusiasts have. And it's true when it comes to postcards and calendars and wall art. Which may be what a lot of enthusiasts aspire to (and seems to be what the popular magazines perpetuate).

Mike wrote a piece some time ago on the importance of captions that was enlightening to me. Since them, I've come to see how much more powerful many photos are with the addition of a caption: a title, a sentence, a paragraph. These photographs illustrate something and are powerful in their ability to illustrate. They need their captions to succeed but that doesn't make them any less successful than the standalone picture; just different. You might say photojournalism is handicapped without captions because it doesn't set out to create purely visual art without context.

"So in this context, the backstory is a very important element to these photos."

I agree completely.

I can't possibly pick any universal "top ten" list, because I don't feel my memory or exposure to the field could possibly justify any such labeling. (Since it's explicitly about my choices, I don't object to "top" in that sense; I'm willing to own up to my preferences, and don't take them for any more than that.)

There are a number of photos I remember; some of them have even come up on the lists a few have given already. Some of them I'd have rather a hard time tracking down who took, I suspect; others not so much (there are some Ansel Adams and some Richard Avedon I'm quite sure of just from memory).

Definitely some Hubble and some Apollo photos on my nonexistent list!

1,000,000 (ONE MILLION!!??) photographs? Doesn't this sum up the sorry state of photography today?

If anyone is interested, PBS is carrying a one hour show as a part of the National Geographic Magazine series, "National Geographic Magazine's Ten Best Photos of the Year".

The show is tonight, at least in my area, but check your local listings as they do vary.

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