What Makes a Photograph “Good”?

Street Reflections

By Ellen Bedrosian

During a recent field trip to the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan, I snapped some images of street scenes with my iPhone to post on TCC’s Facebook page and to send to a friend of mine who couldn’t make the trip. As I was deleting them from my phone that evening, this photo of the prominent black leaders that was hanging on a street vendor’s booth grabbed my eye. The more I looked at it, the more I got lost in the details of the image. Details that had escaped me when I first snapped it. So I emailed it to myself to get a better look at it on my computer screen.

Technically, a judge would say the image sucks. I can hear the critique now: “There’s too much going on. The eye doesn’t know where to focus.” If one of the photographers who gives lectures to the club used this image in a presentation, I’m sure he or she would qualify it by saying, “This is one of my favorite images but I would never enter it in competition.” And that’s a great attitude.

I’m getting to a point where I’m really tired of hearing my “inner judge” censoring my images because they don’t meet the idealized version of what makes a good photograph. For me, the emotion (or story) behind an image is what makes the photo come alive. So here’s my story behind this image.

I snapped the photo as kind of a joke to send to my friend, who happens to be black. “Here’s your boys” I texted to him. I didn’t use my dSLR to get a “good” image because it was, initially, just a throwaway shot.

As my eye studied the reflections, it brought back memories of the day. It was pretty hot in the city, and the ice cream trucks were out in force. In fact, there’s one coming right out of Malcolm X’s cheek. Looking more closely at Malcolm X, the ring on his finger is right next to the reflected D-ring on my backpack’s strap, which makes it look like he has a lip ring. My bracelet’s colored beads are reflected over his lips, which add an effect that’s kind of eerie, reminiscent of chains of silence. The bracelet leads up to my palm, which covers his eye.

The red brim of my hat reflected over Barack Obama’s ear and eye initially bothered me, and I tried getting rid of it in Photoshop. I wasn’t pleased with the result, so I decided to leave it in. It is jarring and distracting, but it should be that way because that cap was from an NRA basic pistol class. The red over the president’s face symbolizes all of the death threats that he received since he began running in the primaries in 2007. He was the only candidate to be assigned Secret Service protection so early in a presidential campaign. So red brim was staying in. Then, there’s the white man in the white shirt and sneakers walking out of Obama’s shoulder. And what about the wrought iron fence reflection leading from Martin Luther King into same man walking? Could those possibly symbolize racial unity?

Remember all of the controversy surrounding Obama’s birthplace? One of the places that he was supposed to “really” be from was Indonesia since he spent part of his youth living there. The yellow and green symbol on my shirt that’s reflected on his suit is a souvenir from a vacation in Bali. That’s kind of ironic.

The button on Nelson Mandela’s coat? Is that a reflection or part of original photo? And what about the American flag lapel pin on Obama’s jacket? A reflection or part of the original? Little puzzles for the mind to ponder.

For me, this image isn’t a shot of whiskey that gets right to the point. It’s more like a fine wine that you linger over. Abstract impressionism in a photograph. Diving into the details and enjoying the swim.

Or, as a judge would say: 6!

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  1. Eleanor

    Loved your beautifully written discussion of your abstract impressionistic photo.

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