Good/Bad Photographs

What defines a good photograph?

Some may say it’s the dynamics: the composition, the lighting and the detail; others may suggest it’s the narrative or the message portrayed; I, however, believe it’s the purpose and context of the photograph. I look at images and at face value I dismiss them as terrible, but this is only the final image; there are reasons to why a photographer has selected this image. It’s important for a viewer to consider more than just what is presented, analysing why one part is over exposed or out of focus.

Paul Graham, Films, 2011

I was asked to select a good picture and bad picture from the library. From this at face value I chose a book called ‘Films’ by Paul Graham because the images inside were of what I can only describe as white noise. I didn’t like them. Similarly, the lack of text corresponding with the set meant that it was difficult to comprehend why the images were taken. The images were all part of a set across double spreads, scaling to A3 size, with no text so they were all encompassing. From researching the nature of the book, Paul Graham wanted to celebrate film by taking extreme close up photographs of film.From a closer examination, the images reminded me of darkness, those nights when you can’t sleep and you are staring at your eye lids. They remind me of the darkness that we all consume. From face value this book seemed like one of the worst examples of photography; yet, it is a clever piece of Art, evoking hidden depths of the human condition, if a viewer allows it to. Others may just dismiss it and put it back on the shelf.

When considering what I thought was a’good image’, and concluding that it is the message and context that is so vital. I started to read ‘Polaroids’, a collection of photographs by Robert Mappleton. I discovered that during the 1960s he acted hetrosexually although when he was sixteen he bought homosexual porn:

I became obsessed[…] seeing what was inside these magazines. They were all sealed, which made them sexier somehow, because you couldn’t get at them

Published by Prestel Verlag, May 2008, in conjunction with exhibition

ISBN: 978-3-7913-3835-4

He was beginning to ‘explore sexual impulses’ at a time when the sexual revolution was rife: with the first pornography shops and films being distributed. The polaroids are considered to access Mappleton’s development in shaping his identity and therefore some capture ‘unexpected tenderness and vulnerability’.I chose this image from the collection. It denotes a man, Sam Wagstaff, lying in bed with the white bed sheets wrapped around him. The light looks natural, coming from the left side of the image, as if from a window. The subject is slightly underexposed, but his figure is the focal point of the frame. The image is landscape with about 7mm border. 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Plate 56 Untitled (Sam Wagstaff), 1973/75

There are varying connotations to this photograph: it not only reiterates how Mapplethorpe celebrates homosexuality, but it is not pornographic, although it could be argued to have sexual references. However, the white sheets are symbolic of purity, highlighting the fact that homosexuality was becoming less and less of a sinful act in society. 

This image is part of a series of four of this man; the images depict a narrative, not of his life as such, but the images explore how he does not lead such a different life to a hetrosexual. 

Technically this image is considered to be ‘good’ with a wide tonal range, use of thirds in the composition and the attention to detail. However, I like this image because it is an image we can all relate to; it’s universal. Be it merely the waking up in the morning, or the morning after intercourse. More importantly, the message sent from this series is important for not only his own, but viewers understanding of homosexuality. 

From this task, I have now become more interested in the work of Mapplethorpe for my own project. But I realise that I cannot dismiss images as ‘bad’ without researching the context and creative process as to why an image is how it is. 

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