Friday, January 2, 2015

What makes a compelling photograph?

 Recently I have been pondering what makes a compelling photograph.  Perhaps it is because I have been rummaging through the more than 10,000 images on my hard drive for a select few to submit to shows, realizing that while occasionally a few may resonate with me, so many fall short.
Or maybe it is because of the many more images I see regularly by my digital photography students or on contemplative photography forums that this has arisen. As a final exam exercise, I randomly selected images from my files and had my students rank, edit and make a slideshow of them.   I included a wide variety of both "good" and "bad" images for them to consider.  I found their selections to be quite enlightening.  In some cases, students rejected what I considered my "best" and chose to rank highly images that I found pedantic, even boring.  Taste truly is subjective, but perhaps there are some key factors to consider, particularly in a time period when we are overly exposed to digital photos.

This top image stopped me in my tracks after a compelling day of mahamudra meditation (a practice of looking at the mind and sense perceptions with inquisitiveness about the direct experience.)  It is called "Emptiness/Luminosity", which are terms used to describe the fleeting yet vivid experience of the mind in the moment.  This image is compelling to me because it relates directly to my state of mind and remains as a postcard of that experience.  But does it translate to others?  This is always the open question for the artist.

 This image was one I included in the final exam exercise and the student rejected it as uninteresting, perhaps because the original was a much more neutral gray.  I find it compelling because it places man as a small entity encased in concrete with a vibrant foreground of nature.  Yet not much is happening beyond the contrast of organic and linear order.  The compelling aspect is in the contrast.  Does the image need to have a narrative?  And who supplies it?  The artist or the viewer?

Perhaps an image needs a punchline or maybe two, like this image.  To make a statement on society, or just make us laugh.  Evoking an emotion or mood can cause us to connect with an image like the quiet, abandoned feel of the image below.  I continue to consider my work in this light, with no solid answers, just more questions.  Duchamp said “What art is in reality is this missing link, not the links which exist. It’s not what you see that is art, art is the gap.” That gap happens between the work and the viewer and artist. What makes an image compelling to you?

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