Questions from Bucharest

Melania Usturoi wrote asking if I would answer some questions for her final paper for her MA in Image Studies at the School of Architecture in Bucharest. They’re good questions so I thought I’d share some of the responses here:

What criteria does a photograph have to meet in order to be selected for publishing?

There are no universal criteria for what makes a picture publishable because each publication sets its own bar for what is publishable. The more that people with text backgrounds and little visual accumen are involved in the decisions involving which images get published, the more likely the criteria is based on the photo’s caption, the more literal the published image will be, the less dynamic visually the publication’s photography. But even within the photographic community there is great range of sophistication and taste in deciding which images are the strongest.

I’ve found that the less experience and innate visual accumen a person has, the more that person relies on his or her personal taste in choosing photographs.

Ideally, published photographs would utilize the highest levels of the photographic medium to convey a quality, to elicit a response from people who look at the pictures. Photographs would feel three dimensional, they would have strong qualities of light, usage of color would compliment and help convey the core quality, moment would be important, composition would be complete and the distance from the primary subject would be appropriate to the quality the image intends to convey and the feeling it hopes to elicit from viewers.

Which are the criteria in chosing the first-page photograph?

I assume you’re talking about the front page of a more news based publication or web site. In that case, the front page or home page photograph should be the one that most universally elicits a response from a readership and has the greatest news value. The balance of those two qualities can vary widely on a given day. There may be a strong news event that has no universally compelling imagery or a seemingly unimportant event or happening that has hugely interesting imagery.

Many publications chose images based solely on their perception of the news value of an image, regardless of that image’s strength. Such publications’ photography is often uninteresting as a result.

Do you believe that a photo has the potential to make an article better or, on the contrary, it can distract the reader?

Neither, actually. A photograph can do something that words cannot. So the best images don’t make an article better, they engage viewers in a way that the article can’t. The combination of the image and the article and how they are presented on the page or a web site create a complete experience that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Of course, if images are chosen only to reflect some aspect of the written word, then the potential to engage a readership is diminished.

Most publishing environments create the words then the pictures then the presentation of both and decide what to run in that order of hierarchy. This is the opposite of the way people come to a publishing environment. They see pictures and presentation first and then based on that experience decide whether to read the words. If publications approached subjects from a more holistic approach, where they are presenting topics in a way that is more universal than medium specific, they would engage a readership more strongly. 

How do you see american press photography in comparison to press photography elsewhere? Is there any difference?

This is something I’ve wondered about a lot. A way to ask the question is whether different societies have unique ways of seeing, their own aesthetic. The answer is yes, but it’s difficult to translate that aesthetic to press photography because for every example to prove the point you could probably come up with one that contradicts it.

Bad photography tends to be bad photography everywhere. And all successful images share some aspects.

That said, I would say that the upper level of European photography on the whole tends to be more sophisticated than American photography, that there are variations of aesthetic in every country in Europe, that Russia and the former Soviet Republics have their own aesthetic that is less refined but no less engaging than the European eye, that there is an Hispanic and Asian aesthetic that varies by country.

And what is true in general won’t be for a given person.

You could write a book that comes from decades of study and research about this topic alone. 

What do you think defines an iconic image? Is news photography producing icons?

I’d say there are two sides to iconic imagery: the unique and the universal. They are the same qualities that publications should strive for in presenting photography. The unique layer is the now quality and the universal layer is the forever quality. One without the other doesn’t last beyond the day.

Iconic imagery tends to be fairly simple visually, though is still successful as an image independent of what’s depicted.

There’s also a strong societal level to iconic imagery - an iconic image in one society will have less relevance in another - the photograph of John Kennedy Jr. saluting at his father’s funeral is universally interesting but unless you understand something of the Kennedy family, it will be less interesting, for instance.

News photography is producing icons but there are so many more outlets and so many more people producing pictures and so many more contests that there is less of a way for any one image to reach enough eyes to be considered an icon. 

Any thoughts on the evolution of press photography?

I have many thoughts and perceptions about press photography but few conclusions. It feels as if press photography is at the same stage that the horse and buggy once were, except with the advent of the equivalent evolutions of railroads and automobiles and airplanes happening all at once.

Many aspects that were once certain are no longer.

And in the same way that there were once hundreds of companies making automobiles cheaply, there are now scores of outlets for photography that pay little. Traditional outlets are fading from the myth of mass media without reconciling a new approach to audience appeal or economic model.

Yet there is more powerful work being done than ever. It’s a quandary.

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