As I’ve been looking back through old images, I’ve found a pair that I think would make for a good example of what I’ve learned through the workshop I did in Tokyo with Magnum/David Alan Harvey. I’ll just put them below and let you take a look at them first, and then tell you what I think after.
When I did the initial edit of my work from Kyrgyzstan, I chose the first image over the second, simply because the horse being cut off in the corner of the frame really bothered me in the latter photo. I seem to remember thinking at the time “it’s not perfect, therefore cut it”.
This workshop has really made me reconsider how I select my work. I realized not long after Kyrgyzstan that I have a really hard bend towards “perfect” composition when I shoot. As someone who is highly left brained, and had up until this point been unable to accept anything other than frames that balanced well geometrically, I had been choosing images largely based on composition first. Rule of thirds. Shapes inside the framelines. Level horizons. If it can’t be fixed with a crop or rotation, toss it. However with photographs of people I find that emotion is ultimately what makes for a better photo, and that was something that I became even more aware of as the week progressed in Tokyo.
To my eyes, the second image is definitely more emotive and complex; it really grabs my attention much more than the first. Everything from the horses head driving into the snow, to the shepherds leaning into the wind, to the snow moving more right to left, communicates on a much deeper level just how rough it can be out there in the mountains as a shepherd. I feel like this image really is a better moment, and although the physical composition of the first photo is more even and balanced (what I was initially using as my criteria for a good image), it’s boring in a lot of ways.
Evaluating how good a photo is really is a tricky subject. I realized in Tokyo that I had been evaluating my images based on how they looked, rather than how they felt. My left brain was grasping for something concrete and obvious to quantify the quality of the image. I grasped composition first, because it was easier to make tangible.
But in the end, that’s not what photography is really all about, is it? It’s ultimately about what we feel when we look at the image, not just what we see. And that small nuance is what to me separates the two images at the top of the page. The second one has a much more complex and emotive feel to it than the first, something that transcends the technical imperfections. A small nuance that I initially didn’t understand when David was evaluating the work from the class and told us there was no way to explain why he was doing what he was doing. It was just the feeling that he as an individual had when viewing an image.
It’s this intangibility that drives me absolutely nuts a times, but is all the more satisfying when I finally let go of that need to make it concrete. It’s the thing that I feel sets a good photograph apart from a great one, and the thing that I think makes this pursuit of artistry so worth it.