John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Good and Bad Shots

a bad photograph

"Can't they see it's crap?"

Did you ever come across a photo that you thought was rather ordinary, weird, or just plain bad, but other people were bubbling over with praise for it? Did you feel like you wanted to rattle your head or rub your eyes, as if that might somehow free you from this twilight zone experience? It reminds me of the scene from the movie Art School Confidential in which the teacher and students enthusiastically extolled the virtues of a seemingly plain, childish looking painting from one of their peers, while our hero in the story, a genuinely fine artist, bites his tongue to stop himself from shouting “It’s crap!”

So what’s going on here? Do photographers and artists become so jaded by an infinite supply of images that they lose perspective about what’s good? Do they like something just because it defies the usual standards of good photography? If a reputable photographer happens to proclaim it as good, do others simply follow along in conformity even though they don’t actually believe it, like in that classic psychological experiment where a person agrees that a six inch line on a piece of paper is actually a foot long just because others in the room, whom he doesn’t know are actors, all agree that it’s a foot long?

On the other hand, if you think a shot is bad, maybe you’re wrong and the others are right. Maybe they see or know something that you don’t. It could very well be an acquired taste for an artistic style that you haven’t developed.

Defining "good" art ain't easy

Many people will tell you that art is subjective, or that people have different tastes. Does that mean that there are no universal standards about what is good and what isn’t? Some works win prizes and get displayed in shows and museums, others don’t. How do those decisions get made? Why does history judge some artists as geniuses but not others? And if they’re geniuses, how come history sometimes doesn’t recognize that fact until after they’re dead?

Tricky questions. Defining good and bad art fills volumes of philosophical, historical, and sociological text, much of it we probably would rather not want to read. Besides, what do these kinds of questions have to do with us everyday photographers who just want to take a few good shots?

Use "good versus bad" to learn about photographers

Well, it means that if you took a shot that you really like, or aren’t sure about, don’t be surprised if someone else thinks it’s ho-hum or bad. You can please some of the people some of the time, but don’t hold your breath expecting to please all of the people all of the time, or even all of the people some of the time. And don’t be surprised if some people really like one of your shots that you never considered “good.”

What you also can do - and in the process learn a lot about photography as well as people – is ask them why they do or don’t like your image. It might help to expand your understanding of what “good versus bad” means. In fact, as a Zen master might say, you may eventually find it valuable to forget “good” and “bad,” to set aside those concepts and move forward with what you like about your photography.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche