Good or Great Photo? Is This Opinion Self-Righteous, Sanctimonious, or Absolutely Correct?

What's the difference between a good photo and a great photo? Can anyone even agree on how to distinguish the two? One man has tried, and it's a rather polarizing view.

Recently here on Fstoppers, one of my fellow writers opened the debate on what constitutes "fine art," and that article has generated some very interesting discussion. What I liked reading most was the variety in readers' ideas of how they define art and fine art. It's a very polemic topic and shows that people have their own interpretations of terms, definitions, and quality with regards to art and photography. And so it is with how you define good photography and great photography. Again, it's almost impossible to create a universally accepted definition that clearly distinguishes the two, because there is so much emotion and personal interpretation involved.

However, Marc Newton, from The School of Photography, has put his neck on the proverbial chopping block and tried to put a line between the two. As I watched and listened, at first, I thought he was way off the mark and a little bit condescending, but in the second half, he turned me around somewhat. What I liked is that not only is he forthright with his opinion, he also gives reasons and endeavors to provide evidence for his views. I do recommend you watch it and stay to the end, because he does provoke thought and considered discussion, which is always healthy. 

What do you think? Is he self-righteous, absolutely correct, or somewhere in the middle? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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55 Comments

Robert Nurse's picture

I'd dare wager that, right here on FS, there are photographs that if you hung in a gallery, would be just as compelling and thought provoking. And yes, when I saw that image of the solar panels, I wasn't impressed. Not every photograph will move me. But, to say it's not good, because I don't like it is, frankly, absurd. Just as it is to say that because photos hang in a gallery, that that makes them worthy.

Robert Nurse's picture

Hah! I gave French food a try once (https://theinnatlittlewashington.com/) and wasn't impressed. Caribbean and Indian food, however, is my obsession. As you said, different strokes for different folks.

David Pavlich's picture

Ya' see! Right here we have a disagreement. I really enjoy French food, especially after spending 20+ years in New Orleans. :-)

Jeff Walsh's picture

"But, to say it's not good, because I don't like it is, frankly, absurd."

That statement is what makes art such a wonderful subject. 100% agree with you

Iain Stanley's picture

I often wonder how someone gets “spotted” and rises above so many other wonderful photographers......

Alex Yakimov's picture

Basically Marc believes that a single subject photography however nice would account to a penny. It will take a sophisticated technique (Gursky painstaking editing and large prints), exquisite style and a relevant message to have a shot at being great. There are exceptions though... To my mind comes an image of the bird covered in oil after a spill.

David Pavlich's picture

He's not offending me. He did state that we have our opinions. My first reaction to an image/print is, "would I hang that in my living room?" I wouldn't hang a picture of a mountain of solar cells in my living room. Just the same as I wouldn't hang a picture of a wind farm in my living room. I happen to like good landscape shots. Wind farms and solar cells don't comprise a good landscape shot. I'll stop here. From this point, opinions about energy production becomes too political.

David Pavlich's picture

In full agreement. An image can be terrific, but not for my living room. Then again, who is your audience/clients? I sell prints and pretty much know what the average home owner/office dweller is looking for. These people are mostly different from those that go to an exhibit of a famous photographer. I can sort of tell if people are looking at my stuff whether or not they are 'artistic types' or someone that just likes a neat shot that has some pretty nice colors.

Jeff Walsh's picture

This is the best part of art. It's completely and totally subjective, and it's worth and value is rooted in it's ability to move people in some way. I've recently become obsessed with photographer David Butow, his work is incredible to me. He does a lot of political shots, but the work that's really caught my eye is his work from Hong Kong. It's graphic, but it's very moving. I question whether I would hang it on my wall, which is thought provoking.

Jan Holler's picture

Thanks for that. I'll have a closer look this evening at the work of David Butow. Just yesterday I visited an exposition of Peter Dammann (1951-2015) in my home town. Check out his reports: https://dammann-lookat.ch/category/reports/ I think you will like it.

Iain Stanley's picture

The living room test is a good one and I use it too, but a gorgeous landscape, no matter how gorgeous and how “living room worthy” it might be, is so readily accessible these days. You needn’t look any further than some of the outstanding photos contributed by the Fstoppers community here.

So, for me at least, a great photo has to be more than something I can find pretty easily on Instagram or on photography sites. Granted, a huge field of solar panels doesn’t cut the mustard, but I’m hard pressed these days to claim many landscape shots as “great”. I guess that’s why I struggle sometimes, coz I love landscape photography more than any other genre.....

David Pavlich's picture

No disagreement here. It's all subjective, that is for sure. Telling a story is part of what makes a great shot and Gursky's stuff does that. But, if it wants to pass my test for great, it has to do more than tell a story. The guy in the video makes the claim that it's the story that the image of a pile of solar cells that makes it a great shot and, just as I am allowed my opinion, so is he. I don't agree with his opinion because it takes more than a story to make an image great.

Iain Stanley's picture

yep, wholeheartedly agree. I've written a number of articles here on Fstoppers relating to the importance of storytelling but, like you, I feel a photo has to be more than "just" a story. Street photography, photojournalism, a cat holding a mouse can all "tell stories", but they mightn't do much for me at all aesthetically. So I think perhaps we're alike in that a photo needs to be aesthetically pleasing and possess some element of thought provocation in order for it to jump into the possible realms of "great".......

Mark Houston's picture

Art is in the eye beholder...I have this masterpiece in my office/man alcove..

Mike Shwarts's picture

A classic. Why isn't the original hanging in the Louvre?

David Pavlich's picture

Okay. I did my due diligence and visited Gursky's webpage. Some of his shots are compelling, but some I've seen at our image review nights for my photo club. Not his shots in particular, but shots that mirror Gursky's shots. Some of his stuff would work well on a travel brochure. I'm not saying that Gursky is a typical photographer....far from it. What I am saying is that even Gursky produces 'camera club class images', but because he has a name and reputation, he gets the accolades.

Iain Stanley's picture

Are the camera club images similar to Gursky’s a testament to his influence?

David Pavlich's picture

I don't think so. They are shots that I've seen not only at our club, but on Smug Mug and Viewbug. Not all of Gursky's shots, but enough of them to be able to say that some of his shots are 'great' because he has a name and reputation.

Deleted Account's picture

"Art & Photography should be one in the same, You can not have one without the other."

What? You cannot have art without photography? What about paintings? Dancing? Music? Sculptures?

Phillip White's picture

HE'S OUT OF HIS $#@&*%+ MIND! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder . . . But wait - My first thought when I saw the solar panels was to wonder, "Where in God's beautiful world would we place so many man-made objects so as to obscure that beauty?" Wasn't that Marc's intention when he set out to define great FINE ART photos - to create THOUGHT not kudos for a BEAUTIFUL picture? By pointing this out, he gave ME a new perception of what ART is in photography. I learned a new way of looking at, seeing and photographing the world around me. Thank you, Marc!

T Scarb's picture

The guy is an idiot... and button pushers are not artists and do not create art.

Solar panels show us " what humans are doing to this planet"

I can say... Kingfisher birds show us how beautiful the creatures are on this planet and how we are not alone and should help protect these creatures...

waxing poetic about a picture does not make it art... it just blows smoke at people with more money than sense.

Deleted Account's picture

Count me as someone who is not only impressed by the photo of the solar panels but inspired by it.

What I'm more curious about is the gentleman he was interacting with... I obviously don't know enough about the context of the situation but who brings their expensive camera gear to a show? Wouldn't that be similar to someone bringing a musical instrument with them to a concert? I've seen people do this at other shows and it never fails to make me cringe. I feel like it's a very desperate attempt to look like they'd be an expert because what photographer doesn't constantly carry thousands of dollars worth of equipment around their necks.

Steve Wood's picture

I would love to find out what defines a GREAT photo, but this does not do it. Looking beyond the photo sounds good, but is just an exercise in creative fiction. Say I show a a typical camera club baby shot, maybe technically good, but looking beyond it I can see over-population, immigration, birth control etc. Likewise a kingfisher - looking beyond the photo I see water pollution, habitat destruction, etc etc.

Iain Stanley's picture

Is that because of your own considerable education or because of what the image you're looking at evokes?

Jan Holler's picture

What exactly is he telling us? There is no reasoning why this Gursky photograph is art. And by just saying it is art, it is not art. And yes, this is condescending: If you do not see the art you are just like the one described in the beginning of this video ("if you don't look into the depth of the image..."). I am not a Andreas Gursky fan like I am not a Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons fan. I still can accept his work but here we have someone telling us: Hey, it is a Gursky, so it is art. You do not agree? Well, you are entitled to your own opinion, but in fact it is you who just does not get it.

So I simply ask: Does this particular photo of Gursky really "going to be changing the world". I highly doubt it.

Alex Yakimov's picture

It is a difficult task to prove that something as subtle and refined as a single art piece have a lasting influence on humanity. But still there is a potential to a Butterfly effect.

Jan Holler's picture

I agree, but this is the only argument the guy in the video is giving. Is this debatable? I think, it is not. So you either believe him: It is art (because it is a Gursky, really?) or you do not (but then you just are not skilled enough to look "into the depth"). I think this is utter BS.

Alex Yakimov's picture

I suspect that Marc in the video did not read himself this excellent book.
https://thamesandhudsonusa.com/books/the-photograph-as-contemporary-art-...

Iain Stanley's picture

I’ve asked the question elsewhere because it genuinely baffles me: how do you think a photographer or an artist in any genre gets elevated to such high status? I mean no offence to Gursky, because I’ve never met the guy and I know nothing about him, but when I look at his website and I look in the works section, I’m baffled how this guy has become such a huge name in photography…

Jan Holler's picture

Yes, indeed! I think the enormous size of Gursky's photographs is one key element which makes a big impression. In a comment underneath a youtube video "Making of ANDREAS GURSKY" somebody aptly wrote the two words "Große Kunst". In English this is normally translated to "great art" and not "big art". In German the word "große" has both meanings: great and big. - And then today, what is considered art is often defined by the high price one has to pay for a work. Gursky became famous far and wide 2011 for what was then the most expensive painting in the world: Rhine II (€ 3.1 million, about $ 4.3 million back then). Have a look: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gursky-the-rhine-ii-p78372

Larry Wynkoop's picture

I'm all for a good discussion about art - what constitutes art? What constitutes GOOD art? etc. But I always get a little turned off when someone defends one piece of art by tearing down another. Especially when they are tearing down an entire pool of potential art which they have never seen. I liked his discussion of *why* he liked that piece so much, but when he prefaces that with dismissive commentary on what others may be able to accomplish it just comes off as terribly condescending.

Jan Holler's picture

I agree. You don't make someone or something bigger by making other things or other things smaller. And if you assume that your own understanding of art, or what art is, is on a higher level than that of others, then there are doubts about what that understanding is about. After all, the only clear statement is that of the educational way and not that of art: "Look at what you do as a human race." So this is definitely not l'art pour l'art - art for art's sake. It's a message. I wonder what Gursky would think of his claim that that's what all his photographs are about.

David Pavlich's picture

After visiting Gursky's site, it becomes evident that a lot of his work is trying to pass along the message of the ravages caused by the existence of the human race and that's fine. But that message has to be accompanied by a great image and like I said, some of those message images are just like the images I've seen from many unknown photographers. Gursky has a name, so the shots are given a lot of thumbs up.

Iain Stanley's picture

I've asked the question further up and Jan Holler has weighed in nicely. I wonder, regarding your last sentence, just how Gursky got his "name"...?

David Pavlich's picture

He produces a lot of good images and he was 'discovered' at some point. It's like guitar players. I knew guys back in the days of Jimmy Page that could outplay Page, but never got that push for whatever reason. I make the 'name' comment because had Gursky not been 'discovered', there's a good chance that his work would have been seen at local exhibits and camera club image reviews just like most of the rest of us.

Right place, right time? Had money to throw at his profession? Hard to say how he became an internationally known photographer. I don't begrudge anyone their success. I wish I had gotten serious about photography BEFORE I retired. I'm at the age now that I'm content getting a couple of awards at local exhibits and selling enough prints to keep me in ink, paper, and wood.

Alex Yakimov's picture

I think it is is more due to the limitations of the youtube format, that Marc's message turns out a bit simplistic and polarising. It is an interesting topic, we would never completely agree upon. I personally would recommend to read excellent take of Charlotte Cotton on such matters.
https://thamesandhudsonusa.com/books/the-photograph-as-contemporary-art-...

Jim Dugan's picture

Photographs often need context. Gursky's whole body of work is what gives his individual photos real power. They're powerful alone but as a record of (and comment on) the world right now, they are amplified by seeing them in a group.

Rosalind Furlong's picture

Quite a few people here seem to have looked on Gursky’s website and formed an opinion of his work from that. I would have been of a similar opinion to be honest until I went to the Gursky exhibition at the Hayward and was totally and utterly blown away by his photographs. They are monumental with the most incredible details. His picture of Antarctica is just mind blowing. I took my son who was about eleven at the time and he was just as bowled over as I was. Gursky is a truly great photographer in the way Rembrandt is a truly great artist. I’m not even sure it’s a matter of opinion but just a given. You may not like his work but that doesn’t mean he’s not great. I’m not that keen on Picasso but I would never argue he’s not a great painter. So it was a bit unfortunate in a way that Gursky was chosen as the example. I’d like to know his thoughts on someone like Peter Lik who also sells high priced work (he claims to have sold a photo for $6.5m) - some people would say this is fine art but I’m not sure all art critics would agree.

Jan Holler's picture

I read your comment right until here: "Gursky is a truly great photographer in the way Rembrandt is a truly great artist", but then I realized you have no clue at all. And fine art is definitely anything else than the photos of Peter Lik.

Rosalind Furlong's picture

Have you seen Gursky’s work in a gallery? Because if you haven’t you can’t really comment. It would be like saying you’ve seen the Taj Mahal when all you’ve seen is a photo on TripAdvisor. And I wasn’t comparing him to Rembrandt. I was saying Gursky is to photographers as Rembrandt is to painters. Gursky is in the pantheon of greatest photographers of all time, as Rembrandt is of painters. You may not agree with me but you can’t stop other people, who I would hazard a guess have more of a clue than even you, agreeing with me. I personally think the Beatles are overrated but I realise that is a minority view and I wouldn’t say you don’t have a clue if you thought they were the greatest band of all time. I do agree with you about Peter Lik though!

Jan Holler's picture

I have seen Rembrandts in several occasions. I'd never intentionally visit an exposition of Gursky (as I would not any of a Koons or a Hirst). Your comparison is pathetic. If I want to see big, I visit our mountains. They are even bigger than any Gursky, can you imagine?

Steven Gotz's picture

Sounds like pretentious art gallery BS to me.

There are people paying big money for a banana taped to a blank wall. Likewise, a single red dot on a canvas is, by somebody's standards, great art.

That thief, Richard Prince sold stolen photos for $100,000. So it must have been great art, right?

What makes a photo great? Some guy's name on it? Nonsense.

A large body of work might increase the perception of greatness in any one photo, but that particular photo, if I showed it to you as one of mine, would be considered mundane.

What makes a Peter Lik photo on Artsy.net worth $25,000 to anyone?

Does having a photo hanging on the wall of MOMA make it a great photo just because it is in a museum.

Art is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but this guy saying that the photo of a bunch of solar panels is better than anything in a photo club is just him being pretentious and trying to tell other people what to think.

I don't buy it.

David Pavlich's picture

Well stated! I was thinking about what photo really grabs me. Karsh's portrait of Churchill when he made Sir Winston rid himself of his beloved cigar is such a shot. First, I'm a Churchill fan, so there is that. But the moment Karsh captured is priceless. That picture of solar cells wouldn't belong in the same room as the Churchill portrait.

Robbie Keene's picture

Art is subjective. What constitutes art is very subjective. You believe this photograph is art. Even though I understand the message you say this photograph is conveying I disagree. I do not find the image compelling at all. I do not think this photograph is art. I think that 90% of the time, the greatest contributing factor that convinces people into believing photographs like this are art, is marketing. Photographers may work at capturing images their whole lives and never produce more than a small handful of images that are art. They may produce and great amount of very good work but that perfect transcendence into art may never happen. If you are lucky you may catch that wave a few times. Very, very lucky.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Interesting reply, Robbie.Given your mention of "perfect transcendence" it seem that you believe that photographs do not intended as art and few very very lucky somehow become?

Robbie Keene's picture

I'm very sorry but I don't understand your comment. I realize English is probably not your first language but the way it's written I am not sure what you're trying to say.

Alex Yakimov's picture

Thanks, mate. My bad. Let me try again. You believe that photography art is subjective, 90% of the time it becomes art due to labeling or marketing and “perfect transcendence” is rare. Right?

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