Sunset Gulls

sunset gulls

This is a "sister" image to another photo by the same photographer, so I will review this one in a very different way, rather than cover the same ground.

When I look at this image I think I can sense what the photographer was seeing and feeling: a moody, dramatic situation, with sun setting, gulls flying every which way, and a single lone figure, face in silhouette, looking lonesome and even sad. 

At this point, I will put aside any specific technical quibbles for later and talk about the image as if I had seen it on the wall of a modern art museum, or in the pages of The New Yorker.

The fact is, I frequently see images in both of the aforementioned venues that I think would be rather heavily criticized in the sort of camera club competitions that I judge.

And yet, one sees these photos displayed in the most exalted locations. Which leads me to suspect that either my viewpoint on photography is narrow-minded and behind-the-times or that The New Yorker and MOMA don't know what good photography is. Perhaps both of these are somewhat true.

Warning: heavy sledding ahead...

Here is a specific example:

Here is a photo by well-known modern photographer Barbara Bosworth, from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, possibly the ultimate arbiter of what is Art in today's world. (See photo at MOMA site).

The truth is that if one of my viewers sent me this photo I would say the following: OK concept, but basically just a photo of somebody with an attractive bird on their hand; the dark part of the bird's face blends badly with the dark jacket, the logo on the jacket gives the image an ordinary, snapshot quality; the jacket is too dark on the left and falls into inky blankness; the cropping is much too loose – cropped in much tighter this would be far more powerful.

And in truth, I would say the same things about a photo I saw on the wall of MOMA. (But nobody at MOMA cares what I think.)

(Actually, I feel more emotion and energy in the submitted bird photo at left than I do in the Bosworth.)

But Bosworth is a major photographer whose images are viewed as part of a large body of work. And the person who sent in the photo to the left is not in that category. Am I saying that an unknown artist can and probably has occasionally painted a far better painting than one of Picasso's less worthy works? Yes, I am saying that. 

So, having criticized the work of a MOMA-approved prominent photographer, let me go ahead and do the same for the sunset gull image sent in by my viewer. I said I can sense the drama that the photographer felt, but I think that drama could be brought out more powerfully. How? My technical quibbles are that the photo is a bit dark overall, and that the gulls that are right behind the person's head and neck are visually confused with that head and neck. Here is what I think would elevate this photo to the next level, though I myself would not necessarily have the courage to do this: if the photographer were to walk right up and stand next to the man so that we see his face clearly, surrounded by crazed Hitchcock seagulls, that would be, perhaps, an unforgettable photo. It might have required some added lighting to illuminate the man's face, even a tiny bit, but if we could really see his face we would be brought into an intense personal encounter with him, instead of a more polite, distant observation. It takes a lot of nerve to enter into a scene as I suggest, and a telephone lens would not work because the birds would likely not be in view. You would have to engage with a stranger, something I wish I had the courage to do more often. 

And what I am also saying is that my viewer could become a MOMA level photographer. Two phases are required: 1. Build a large body of work that puts forth a consistent point of view, 2. Play the NY art-world game well, go to the right parties, use the right phrases, get to know the right people. If you are too busy to do both, just doing the 2nd phase is enough.