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As a professional photographer, I sometimes find myself asking two questions: “What makes a photograph good?” and “What makes a good photograph?” I do not believe that these two phrases are asking the same question. Yet I know instinctively when I see either.

I’ve come to think that there are two main categories of photography (forgetting about industrial uses for this discussion):

The Commercial: where the camera is merely the tool in an assignment to record an instant or a product, a moment or a story for widespread use: press, advertisements, magazine articles, books, weddings, yearbooks, packaging etc, etc. These images assault us every day. It is the SUBJECT which is being viewed; who the photographer is, and with what camera/equipment the image was captured, is completely irrelevant.

The Fine Art: images captured by the artist driven by his or her own inspiration and creative impulse for their own purposes. We, the viewers, look upon these images as if we, too, are looking through the photographer’s lens.

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There is, of course, overlap between the two, if sometimes only accidental.

I’ve also wondered if photographs (in this case the Fine Art kind) of extremely manipulated subjects and images are photography at all, but merely the documentation of the subject, which could be called design. Does the Fine Art then become the Commercial…? Does the photographer become another kind of artist? Is the photographer’s skill then that of a stylist or designer?

Not long ago I was in Savannah, Georgia. While I was waiting for the light to cross a street, several buses from the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) went by. Each bus was vividly screen-printed with art works advertising the various art & design depts.

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One bus, in particular, caught my eye. An image of a woman’s head occupied the entire side of the bus; both the background and the woman’s face were dead-white. Her face was artistically made-up. However, instead of lipstick she was holding a row of bright purple feathers between her lips which formed a kind of apron for her chin. This image advertised the SCAD Dept of Photography.

I asked myself would I have viewed it differently if it was advertising the Fashion or Design departments at SCAD instead? Would I have viewed it differently if I’d seen the same photo in Vogue, for instance, used in an edgy shot for a brand of makeup, where it iswhat is in the image, not the photographer’s eye , which is the subject.

I did not give this idea much more thought until a few months later when I saw an ad for an exhibit of photography. The key image was a car’s seat into which had been melded a model of a person’s body and face to become a person-seat. I was reminded of the purple lipped face and again wondered: If this was announcing an exhibit of sculpture or design, would I regard it differently? And, if it was sculpture/design, would the identity and skill of the photographer matter any more than the small image credit line?

Are we seeing what the photographer sees, or are we seeing the documentation of some cleverly designed work that the photographer has created? Is the photographer’s talent as photographer or is the talent actually that of a stylist or a designer?

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Do we look at fashion photos for the photography or for the fashions? (Of course, there are the greats in fashion photography: the late Irving Penn immediately comes to mind.) Do we think first about the fashion, the scene in the photo, before we ponder the photo itself? If, in the case of fashion, we ponder the hows and whys of the photo at all?

Trendy as it may be, this particular kind of photography almost negates itself.

The actual photography becomes merely digital tubes of paint, simply recording the woman with the purple feathered lips or the sculpted car seat, which are the actual creations.

Since the beginning of the art, photographers have manipulated their subjects to create more compelling images. Matthew Brady’s re-arrangement of corpses on Civil War battlefields, the lushly painted backdrops used in storefront portrait studios of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and more compellingly, the manipulation & designs of images to create an atmosphere or situation which may never have existed. Jacob Riis was known to have posed his subjects to depict even greater squalor, Roman Vishniak’s arrangements of the (finished) photos themselves created situations seen by the viewer but which were never, in fact, actually seen by Vishniak. And, of course, we are all familiar with the tricks of photography in the world of political intrigue.

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But may we compare the woman with the purple feathered lips, a cow painted blue in Adobe PhotoShop® or something equally contrived, with an 18th century still life painting? The painters also deliberately composed and contrived their subjects.

Painting and/or drawing a still life is very difficult indeed; we are awed by the careful rendering of a pear or a lace table cloth. Photography of such a scene takes little or no skill, especially if someone else is doing the arranging, merely the focussing and pressing the shutter button. So who is the artist? Who is the designer?

The stylist, the designer or the shutter pusher?

The popular program Photoshop® is more about the science of photography itself, merely digital. In Photoshop®, photographers do all the tricks, and more, that photographers have always done in the darkroom: removing undesired people and objects, smoothing complexions, merging and blending images, creating new backgrounds etc. Unfortunately or not, it is easy with such digital tools, for the casual photographer to appear quite good, even talented.

I am reminded of a parallel debate. “Fastskin” swimsuits vs. Michael Phelps: while this latest accessory may increase speeds, does it actually a better swimmer make?

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I’ve been looking at photographs for as long as I can remember. I was familiar with images from The Family of Man long before I could read.   I’ve spent years in photography classes. I’ve often thought that, no matter how the end photographs are used or viewed, there are three categories of photographer (naturally, there is overlap). Talented artists all:

The Visionaries, through whose eyes we see the world anew. They humble us with their insight and vision. Into this category I would put Dorothea Lang, Harold Edgerton, Elliott Erwitt, the late Helen Leavitt & Steve McCurry among many others.

The Technicians, whose work is very, very good. They are supremely technically skilled. We are impressed and often deeply moved by their images. Here I would put Stephen Crowley of the New York Times, Margaret Bourke-White, Jacob Riis, the late Irving Penn, Vince la Fouret, Ansel Adams, Onne van der Wal, to name just a few.

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The Manipulators, those who contrive, contort and, well, show off. They are voyeurs. And while there have always been such artists in the [visual] arts, photography, more than any other artistic medium, save the stage, allows them to manipulate us, the viewers. While they may be technically very skilled, like con artists in every profession, we are taken in by what they do. Truly, they are not without talent. However, it is they themselves who must be the subject of the photograph, albeit through the image they have shot. It is they, not the image or the designed theme, which we must notice and remark upon.

This category has always been both repellent & interesting to me. Into this one I place Dianne Arbus, Annie Liebowitz, Man Ray, Barbara Morgan, Weegee, Platon and the later work of Richard Avedon. There are certainly many others. I’m clearly in the minority here, however, given the enduring popularity and ongoing emulation by budding photographers of several of these artists.

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