The "Wow! factor" in photography

Lenswork is an online & print organisation run by Brooks Jensen that takes the view that photography is a way of life and through it he explores a range of themes around photography & the creative process. Though I've not subscribed to their Monograph publications or website content, I do occasionally pick up a copy of the Lenswork 6-times-a-year print edition.  It's very expensive here in Singapore because it's imported but I can definitely recommend checking it out a couple of times to see if it interests you.

As well as their website & printed material, Brooks also publishes a semi-regular podcast.  Though the episodes are short, often running only 6 or 7 minutes long, they are interesting and thought-provoking.  Many other podcasts focus on gear, photography news or dive into critique of specific images & photographers - the Lenswork podcast series covers topics such as how we approach our shooting, processing, printing & presenting and other more esoteric topics like exploring our photographic legacy and treating photography as a way of life.

Because they're short, I tend to download a few episodes in a row to listen in batches and as a result I have only just caught up with a recent episode that really caught my attention. The episode is titled "Wow factor, where are though?". Brook's premise is intriguing and I've paraphrased it below;  I've also included the link to the podcast underneath the quote to listen to it yourself

For "classical" art, such as painting or sculpture, the artist uses mundane tools and produces an artefact that elicits the 'Wow!' reaction.  For photography, Brooks' premise is that it is the photographer's tools that are amazing but the results - the photographs themselves - lack, and are possibly incapable of generating, Wow! factor.

http://daily.lenswork.com/2015/03/podcast-909-wow-factor-where-art-thou.html

An interesting idea!

The first half of his argument I broadly agree with.  Anyone can pick up a paintbrush but it's the vision, skill, experience & creativity of the painter that produces the masterpiece.  People can learn to achieve similar results with time & practice.  Where I disagree with Brooks is that the same isn't true for photography as well.  I believe

  • Photos can have Wow! factor,
  • The skill of photographer doesn't guarantee Wow! factor, but DOES make it more likely
  • Photographic tools can have an inherent Wow! factor themselves, but aren't required to in order to produce an amazing photo

Let's start with a classic photo as an example.

Image credit - Ansel Adams

It's very impressive, and for many definitely has Wow! factor.  The tools used to create it are very modest, certainly by modern standards, and although this view of the landscape is available to anyone who chooses to hike to the same location, Ansel made an image with Wow! factor in a way only he could.  He took the tool and crafted the light & the image to produce this result.

Another well known photograph -

Image credit - NASA, Apollo 8

It's in essence a similar kind of shot as the Ansel Adam's image show above.  Probably the biggest challenge in getting this shot was getting to the location, not mastering photography, but the result is still awe-inspiring.

Ignoring photographic pioneers & astronauts as a source of "wow" for a moment, what about more down-to-earth, everyday artists?  A quick scan through some of the "Best Of" sections from major photo hosting sites or looking at the winners of many photography competitions shows any number of outstanding images that are very deserving of having Wow! factor.  Personal taste is a factor of course, but you don't have to like an image to agree it can have wow-impact!  Even those just beginning their photography journey are capable of a degree of "wow" :)

An image of my own, picked up in the "Oh wow!" section of Reddit.  I figured that qualified it for inclusion!

I hope it's clear from this that sources of "wow" are around us all the time and still retain their sense of amazement & impact when photographed!

Brooks also uses the example of the Hindenburg explosion photograph as a case against Wow! factor, asserting that anyone could have been there and achieved the same result.  

Image credit unknown

He's correct, but again that doesn't mean the picture itself is any less impressive!  That it was not a photographic grand-master who took the photo hasn't diminished the impact of the event either. This split second of time still retains the power to astonish many years - and after many other explosions over the course of history! - since it was taken.

Given the evidence & examples above, I think there's a pretty strong case that photographs can can have an innate Wow! factor, and that the photographer doesn't necessarily have to be a master in his or her craft to capture it. While I'd argue that being a master of your art certainly improves your chances in producing stunning work, that isn't an idea unique to photography either.

The final point Brooks makes is that it is the tools of photography that have Wow! factor rather than the images they produce.  Paraphrasing Brooks again, his position falls along the lines of -

The modern cameras & printers that can produce hugely detailed, tack sharp images are what are truly amazing.

These aren't Brooks' exact words, but a fair summation of the point he was trying to make.  I agree completely that the technical progression of photography from the earliest experiments through to current cameras is phenomenal even if we are now culturally conditioned to expect continuous technological improvement with startling regularity.  Still, the science & complexity behind cameras IS fascinating and I agree worthy of appreciation in ways a chisel and a paintbrush are not. No disrespect to paintbrush makers of course! :)

Hopefully I've shown it's clear that photographs can have Wow! factor. We have seen amazing photographs produced from the earliest days of the art through to today, whether or not your camera is amazing or not is irrelevant to what level of impact your picture has the potential to reach.  The overwhelming majority of that potential can come from the photographer and modern tools are broadening the horizons of the photos we can take.  Quality of gear and quality of image are not mutually exclusive, something that has been proven time and again.  If I had to speculate, I'd say that because the photographer's tools are still evolving - and evolving so quickly - it means that practitioners of the photographic art still suffer from Gear Acquisition Syndrome.  Perhaps it is seeing photographers obsess over kit is why Brooks has surmised it is the cameras themselves that are amazing.

I was pleased with the conclusion Brooks reached by the end of the podcast.  In essence, he acknowledges that photography is different to many other art forms and finishes the podcast by drawing a parallel between novellists and photographers.  Both take tools that anyone can pick up and use but it's the user that has the biggest impact on the outcome.  This is spot on for me. From carving shapes into rocks, to quill pens, to typewriters and modern word processing tools, the ability to write a novel has been made available to ever-increasing proportions of humanity over time.  Photography is lagging behind and is only hundreds of years old, rather than thousands, but the same fact is true - the person using the tool is STILL more important than the tool itself.  Even when the tool is pretty cool!  

-x-

I've been trying to understand the motivation for why Brooks asserts that photographs have no Wow! factor when I think the evidence is firmly against that line of reasoning.  I've concluded it's probably a whole host of reasons.  

Consider the classical arts he refers to, such as the Mona Lisa.  Today we see far, far fewer examples of that kind of painting being produced and the same no doubt applies for classical sculpture. What we do see is almost always from antiquity and has the benefit that other examples from history have been lost or destroyed - you can argue that the masterpieces are viewed as such because they are very good, but also because only a few people in history were privileged enough to create them in the first place, there are only a relatively small number left today and no one is creating any new examples.  Contrast this to photography which is exploding in popularity and unleashing the creative potential of a huge number of people!  Understandably then, sheer probability alone dictates that in our current era we can see far, far more Wow! photographs than could be seen just 50 years ago.  This is a blessing and a curse because more, higher quality images can quickly lead to over-saturation and image fatigue.  

For Brooks, who spends a lot of time looking at exceptional photographic art, it's almost certainly likely to come quicker to him than most.  In other words, it might be fair to say Brooks' standard of what makes a Wow! photo is higher because he sees so many good ones.  I wonder if something similar has occurred every time a new art form has been picked up by the masses?  Perhaps it's also the proliferation of cameras and "citizen journalists" which means images of the best & worst of humanity are much more prevalent than at any time in history.  Time will tell but I think putting a camera into everyone's hands and seeing what happens is a very, very good position for photography as an art form to be in.

Another factor he alludes to in the podcast is that as a photographer himself, he has a deeper understanding of the photographic art & process than most other people probably do. Whereas a layman might find their appreciation of a photograph deepened because they don't understand how it was created, Brooks certainly would understand and he did admit that this could be a reason why he feels Wow! is lacking from photography.

Image credit - Mark Rothko No. 61

I think he's doing himself a disservice though.  Taking an example of art (like the painting above), especially with modern/abstract art, it's a pretty common & cliched sentiment that people may think "That's rubbish, I could do that".  That line of argument is fallacious though!  True, maybe anyone could have done it... but they didn't!   The same reasoning holds true for photographs - just because something is easy to do it, just because many people COULD have done it... it doesn't mean that the end result is any less impressive!

I think maybe Brooks may have gotten his wires crossed - if I've learned anything from listening to his podcasts it's that he does believe that good photographers have a true skill and that results in stunning photo art equal to that of any other field.  He demonstrates it in his publications, both of his work & from the Lenswork family as a whole.

What do you think?  I suggest you hit the link above, listen & subscribe to the podcast then tell me your opinion in the comments below!

Lenswork - http://www.lenswork.com/

Lenswork Daily Blog & Podcasts - http://daily.lenswork.com/