Making Images That Endure The Test Of Time

May 28, 2014

Author: Brian Dilg, Chair, Photography Department, New York Film Academy

How can we make great images, photos that will still be looked at generations after they were made? A search for “greatest photographs” produces mostly historically significant images: war, disasters, records being broken.

While a definitive, generic definition of what makes an image iconic may be elusive, I’d like to list a few qualities that make images effective without losing sight of the “gestalt” – the mysterious sum of its parts – that makes an image transcendent.

1) An element of imagination. The most powerful tool you will ever have is the imagination of the viewer. Not a better lens. Not more megapixels. This begins by how you frame – and thus by what you omit. Anything that is left out, obscured, or merely hinted at activates the imagination, which is personal and unlimited.

A great example is Jorge Guerrero’s memorable image of men steering clear (sorry!) of a disgruntled participant in the Spanish running of the bulls. It is not just a great moment; we laugh as we imagine what happened just before the photo was taken, and what might happen next.

Yukie SatoA more sophisticated example is this image by one of our students, Yukie Sato. Has the cat just been chasing a feather, or is this all that’s left of an unfortunate bird? We can only see the cat’s expression in our mind’s eye. By omitting so much, multiple interpretations are possible, and a fantastic thing happens: the audience becomes an active participant. The imagination of the viewer completes the picture.

2) An element of surprise. See Chris Johns’s image of camels crossing the Sahara. Graphically, this is very simple. What makes it a great viewing experience is the moment when we realize that we’ve been fooled by shadows seen from an unfamiliar angle.

Often changing your vantage point can lead you to forms that look familiar, but which turn out to be something else. Our brains love to solve puzzles. If you exploit this, you’ll satisfy your audience with an “aha!” experience that rewards repeated viewing.

3) Puts you vividly there. This need not be any place exotic; it can also use visceral elements to trigger our other senses. Like Michael Nichols’ famous image of a tiger drinking. From incredibly close, the powerful animal has been caught in an almost awkward moment, delicately balancing itself as it drinks. Unlike the usual king of the jungle shot, it feels like an authentic behind-the-scenes moment.

4) Graphical quality. Galen Rowell’s Split rock and cloud is a great example. The use of silhouette, simple but contrasting forms, and a two-color palette makes this a stunning composition. Contrast this with what plagues much of modern digital photography: high contrast, myriad colors, intense saturation, overcooked HDR, everything sharp. When everything in an image vies equally loudly for attention, the result is exhaustion. Simplify.

5) Magical light. Example: Michael Crouser – Bullfight in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Ansel Adams understood very well that it is selective light that annunciates and elevates a subject, and he was a master not just of finding it, but also of orchestrating tones in the darkroom.

Morro Bay6) Heightened by context. Everything is relative. If you want to heighten any quality, contextualize it with its opposite. In my image of the surfer, the human figure gives the rock (in Morro Bay, California) a sense of scale. See also Steve McCurry’s image of an oil-soaked bird for a stark color juxtaposition.

These are not “rules.” If what makes an image truly great is highly subjective, then I would argue that your only hope of satisfying yourself is through a personal approach. Don’t show us a picture that any number of people might have made. Make an image that only you could have made. Integrity to your own vision is the greatest satisfaction.