52 by 52 – photographing the un-photogenic

Brick wallBricks – yes, but look at those colours!

I stumbled across the 52 by 52 project recently, which is a weekly photography challenge set by a different ‘accomplished’ photographer each week.  You can join in at any point (it’s about halfway through now) and you can post photos in response to old challenges as well as the current one.  I’m not terribly good at sticking to this kind of thing, and I don’t think I’m going to try doing more than the occasional one, but the challenges seemed a lot more interesting than the usual ‘weekly theme’ that you see in other places.  They certainly require a lot more thinking about, to the extent that so far I’ve only thought about them and haven’t actually done any.  I’m not sure whether this is a good thing, but at least it’s engaging my brain cells.

I’m still pondering the one just gone: ‘take a photograph that is strong and necessary of something that is not photogenic’.  OK, ‘strong’ I get, but ‘necessary’?  Mmmm………not sure what that means.   More than that, though, it’s got me thinking about the question of what’s photogenic and what isn’t and why that might be.  If something is ‘photogenic’, my dictionary tells me, it means it looks good when photographed.  By this definition, anything that looks good when I photograph it is not going to be ‘not photogenic’.  I hope I haven’t lost you with all the double negatives here – what I mean is that if I photograph something and it looks good, I haven’t satisfied the brief.  Trouble is, I don’t want to photograph something without attempting to make it ‘look good’ in some sense; I can’t quite see the point.  And I could, of course, get horribly pedantic here and start disappearing up my own philosophical tutu by asking what it means to say that something ‘looks good’.

You’ll be relieved to hear I’m not going to go there; greater minds than me have spent eons on that particular question.  All this pondering, though, has made me question my own need to make things ‘look good’.  (I’ll assume we all know what we mean by that)  There is a photographic trend at the moment for photographing the banal, and keeping the influence of the photographer out of the image as much as possible – that is, you try to leave things looking as banal in the photograph as they do in real life.  My problem with this is that it then becomes very boring to look at (certainly to me); the idea behind it might be interesting, but if there’s nothing to hold my attention visually then I think there may be better media to use to get the concept across.  Photography is a visual art, and I feel there needs to be something visually satisfying about a photograph in order to make you want to look at it.  (And when I say ‘visually satisfying’ I don’t mean it has to be beautiful – which is a word that strikes horror into the souls of art critics – just that there’s something in the purely visual aspect of it that makes you want to keep looking, even at an ugly or boring subject.)

I’m thinking as I say this about the photograph that won the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize for 2011.  (I should point out that the photo doesn’t look anything like as good in the small size online as it does when you see it huge on the wall.) The subject matter is some pelicans who’ve been caught in a an oil spill and are covered in black, sticky crude oil.  It’s a disturbing subject, and one that you want to turn away from.  But the photographer has documented the plight of these birds while also managing to create something so visually interesting that you can’t turn away even when you want to.   The colours, the tones, the composition, all pull you in and make you want to keep looking.  Suffering animals distress me a lot, and normally I don’t want to know, but I kept going back to look at this again and again because of its photographic appeal, and for me its emotional impact was heightened by this more than it would have been by a straighter, more journalistic, approach.

But I digress.  I’m aware that I have a strong need in my photography to make what I photograph look good, in this sense of visually satisfying. If I wasn’t allowed to do this – by the art police, say – then I’d give up photography.  It’s that simple; it just wouldn’t hold any interest for me.  I’m a lot out of line with the times in saying this, but that’s how it is.  And I don’t mean that all I want to photograph are sunsets and cute puppies and mountain landscapes, as some of the tutors I know rather condescendingly assume of someone in my position.  I like the mundane, the banal and the everyday, but I want to take them and make them visually interesting or satisfying in some way (and my definition of visual interest/satisfaction is a wide one).  If I can also give them a deeper meaning, one beyond their surface appearance, that would be a bonus.  But deliberately making something look as uninteresting as possible? – well it’s just not for me.  Should I see this as a flaw, or an obstruction to doing quality work?  I’d certainly like to think not, but I’m often given this impression and even start to feel some small sense of shame or embarassment when I know someone who thinks this way might be looking at my work.  Foolish, or what?

This has been an ongoing challenge in my landscape course – how can I work with my need for visual interest and satisfaction without slipping into the realm of the cliche and the chocolate box?  I’m still working on answering that one.  I think a number of students simply jump on the bandwagon of what’s currently approved of by the art establishment because you get a lot of ‘strokes’ for that, and it’s the easy option.  But perhaps I’m doing them a disservice.

Going back to my starting point, I rather suspect the key factor in this challenge is the word ‘necessary’. I include some pictures of very mundane things that I like to think are ‘strong’ in some sense.  However, I somehow don’t think they’re ‘necessary’ – even if I’m not very clear on what that means – and to reproduce them without any of the photographer’s artifice would simply make them dull pictures of dull things.


Bird on a wireBird on a wire

SunpatchSun patch


Stacked chairsStacked chairs

Floor, with sunlightSunlight on floor