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2 - What's a Good Photograph?

Three Takes on the Topic

Leo Tolstoy


. . . a boy, having experienced, let us say, fear on encountering a wolf, relates that encounter; and, in order to evoke in others the feeling he has experienced, describes himself, his condition before the encounter, the surroundings, the woods, his own lightheartedness, and then the wolf's appearance, its movements, the distance between himself and the wolf, etc.

All this, if only the boy, when telling the story, again experiences the feelings he had lived through and infects the hearers and compels them to feel what the narrator had experienced is art.

. . . the receiver of a true artistic impression is so united to the artist that he feels as if the work were his own and not someone else's - as if what it expresses were just what he had long been wishing to express.

A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist - not that alone, but also between himself and all whose minds receive this work of art.

In this freeing of our personality from its separation and isolation, in this uniting of it with others, lies the chief characteristic and the great attractive force of art.

Leo Tolstoy

What Is Art? (1896)

Ansel Adams


Self-portrait, Monument Valley, Utah (1958) by Ansel Adams

All art is a vision penetrating the illusions of reality, and photography is one form of this vision and revelation.

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed, and is, thereby, a true manifestation of what one feels about life in its entirety.

This visual expression of feeling should be set forth in terms of a simple devotion to the medium.

It should be a statement of the greatest clarity and perfection possible under the conditions of its creation and production.

My approach to photography is based upon my belief in the vigor and values of the world of nature, in aspects of grandeur and minutiae all about us.

I believe in people, in the simpler aspects of human life, in the relation of man to nature.

I believe man must be free, both in spirit and in society, that he must build strength into himself affirming the enormous beauty of the world and acquiring the confidence to see and to express his vision.

And I believe in photography as one means of expressing this affirmation and of achieving an ultimate happiness and faith.

Ansel Adams

The Ansel Adams Guide:

Basic Techniques of Photography: Book 1


Vitaly Komar & Alex Melamid

The artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid did surveys of people in different cultures to determine what people wanted in a painting.

The above painting is the most wanted painting by the sample in the United States.

That's George Washington in the middle!

Dia's second artists' project for the world wide web, begun in 1995, was created by the Russian emigrant artist team Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid. The Most Wanted paintings, as well as the Least Wanted paintings, reflect the artists' interpretation of a professional market research survey about aesthetic preferences and taste in painting. Intending to discover what a true "people's art" would look like, the artists, with the support of the Nation Institute, hired Marttila & Kiley, Inc. to conduct the first poll. In 1994, they began the process which resulted in America's Most Wanted and America's Least Wanted paintings, which were exhibited in New York at the Alternative Museum under the title "People's Choice."

Komar and Melamid:

The Artists and the Project


Photography is much more than the getting or making of good photographs.

Since everything is but an apparition, perfect in being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may well burst out in laughter.

Long Chen Pa

(14th-century Tibetan Dzogchen master)

While you may not agree that everything is an apparition, do keep this critical-thinking exercise in perspective.

The product, the photograph, is often privileged above other aspects of photography.

The photograph may not be so deserving of this importance.

The journey, and those you meet along the way, may be more significant for many photographers.

For more about the journey, go to PATH: Ways-of-working in Photography.

Other Articles

Aesthetic Universals Denis Dutton

The universals are: Expertise or virtuosity, non-utilitarian pleasure, style, criticism, imitation, "special' focus, imaginative experience

Authenticity in Art Denis Dutton

Joerg Colberg - What makes a great photo?

Rev. Dr. Susan Durber - Katie Young Memorial Lecture 2005, Southampton Solent University, What makes a good picture? The ethics of the image Lecture (PDF)

Adam Kirsch - The Taste of Silence

The above articles discusses poetry, not photography. But, there's a discussion of Heidegger's The Origin of the Work of Art.