Does that mean all art is subjective, and then, that any image is good if I say it’s good? Not so fast...
What Would It Mean to Be Able to Say an Image Is Objectively Good?
Objectivity would suggest that no matter who is viewing an image, they, as a well-informed, diligent reviewer, should be able to come to precisely the same conclusion as anyone and everyone else about a particular image’s degree of goodness. There might even be an algorithm that one could turn to, a 27-step process that would codify which aspects of an image are important to consider, that would tell us how to rate the efficacy of an image along each of those axes, and would even guide us through a series of rigorous, analytical steps to combine the results into a single, simple number, say, a goodness quotient.
Wouldn’t that be fantastic?
There wouldn’t be any more arguments about the quality of Bruce Gilden’s stuff. We could simply, and with absolute certainty, assign each work a number, then maybe take an average over a large body of his work to determine if he was any good or not. The result couldn’t be disputed.
Magnum could have a threshold score for taking on new photographers: “Note that all images in a submitted portfolio must have a goodness quotient, GQ, of at least 96 to be eligible for consideration.”
Every judge of a photo contest would arrive at precisely the same ordering of entries; well, actually, we wouldn’t need multiple judges, or any judges at all for that matter, would we? The sponsors could just upload each image into the algorithm and see precisely how good they were.
Of course, there could be unintended consequences. The wine industry might suffer a bit. If we can’t argue about art, why bother drinking?
What Is Good?
In order to come up with an algorithm for assessing goodness, I suspect we’ll need to decide what "good" even means. And to understand that, we probably need to think about why we create photographs in the first place. There’s certainly plenty of room for debate on the subject, but at least one critical function is likely to be to convey an emotional experience to someone else, even if that person is just our future selves. From this perspective, a good image would be one that effectively communicates the desired feeling to the photographer’s audience.
While that’s at least a concrete objective, a significant stumbling block arises almost immediately. Imagine that a photographer has both a precise feeling in mind that they want to convey and the technical adroitness to visually represent that feeling on film (or sensor or whatever). The problem is that that process of communication necessarily involves someone else, our audience. Each viewer will bring their own set of life experiences and perspectives with them when interpreting our work. And we won’t typically have any idea what those other experiences and perspectives are when we’re creating an image. In fact, there are likely to be as many backgrounds and viewpoints as there are viewers.
Yet, all is not lost. There is some room for hope.
The visual interpretation of a photograph involves many different regions and structures within the brain. The raw signals from the retina are first translated into simple compositional building blocks: lines, edges, forms, and colors. These are then associated with the objects that they collectively represent, say, a puppy, a mountain, or a portrait of an aboriginal woman. These represent an image's subject matter. Depending on the image, our brains may then be asked to place these subjects into a broader context, to consider the course of events that may have preceded the moment captured or to imagine what may have transpired after the shutter closed. We may be asked to consider what the juxtaposition of certain objects or symbols means.
How objective are these different stages of interpretation?
Objectivity in Image Composition
There’s actually some reason to hope that some amount of objectivity may be possible in the early stages of interpretation, when an image is resolved only as an abstract composition of lines and forms. We all have the same basic structures in our brains and the same basic connections between them. The initial structures in the visual processing pathway interpret signals from the retina as areas of contrast. They then turn these areas of contrast into edges, combine edges to form the boundaries of shapes, and assign swatches of color or texture to these shapes. These structures, their functions, and their outputs are largely determined by our evolutionary history as a species. They’re common across nearly every healthy individual.
In most instances, then, it’s likely that the vast majority of viewers will respond in a similar way to the basic stimuli within a particular scene. We’re all drawn to regions of contrast, we often find saturation pleasing, we prefer symmetrical subjects and balanced compositions, etc. Universal preferences such as these form the basis for some degree of objectivity about the strength or weakness of an image as an abstract composition. It’s the reason there have been books and classes written on effective composition for centuries: we generally agree on what that is.
Even so, we should note that there are complex feedback loops between the systems of the brain responsible for rudimentary visual processing and those responsible for our emotions. The strength of these connections can vary over time in response to our life experiences. Further, researchers have found that even something as simple as color preference can vary significantly, not just between individuals, but between cultures. (Actually, the fact that color preferences do vary may suggest that they have little impact on our evolutionary survival relative to, say, an innate attraction to areas of higher contrast, which tends not to vary.) Still, it suggests that even at this lowest level of image interpretation, there can be significant degrees of subjectivity in what an individual may consider good.
That said, it may be possible to objectively, i.e. nearly universally, agree that an image is bad. An image that fails to tickle the lower-level structures responsible for visual processing in the brain, those that respond to contrast, grouping, symmetry, leading lines, etc. (the basic elements of composition) may be ineffective at conveying much emotion to anyone.
The Interpretation of a Subject or Story
More advanced elements of the visual pathway in our brains interpret these abstract compositions as objects, analyze them against our own historical experiences, and even draw stories and meaning from them. There are two different aspects of this higher-level interpretation that are relevant to a discussion of subjectivity: the actual emotion or idea being conveyed and the quality with which it is expressed.
It’s actually in the latter case that we have more hope for objectivity. Let’s think about writing as an analogy. What if we were planning to go off on a solo jungle trip and before we headed into the forest, a local guide wanted to caution us about jaguars. S/he could simply tell us that jaguars are found in this area of the Amazon and that they can be dangerous. Certainly, in this case, the basic information about the subject of jaguars has been expressed, but in a way that’s unlikely to convey any emotion. It works as an instance of information sharing, but very poorly as an example of art.
What if the guide is a better storyteller, though, and recounts a previous encounter they’ve had nearby:
I remember waking into darkness like the belly of a black hole. Alone in my hammock, I listened desperately. Something was nearby, something big. I could hear breathing ... A growl erupted from the darkness. A god’s voice. Warm breath fell on my neck in savage staccato like thunder, cosmic and overwhelming. Every fiber of my body understood the command of that growl: don’t move. Rosolie, Paul. “Mother of God.”
I've spent just a tiny bit of time in the jungle listening to the rain patter heavily through nights of utter blackness. The steady rhythm of the drops is more than loud enough to obscure the stealthy footfalls of 200 pounds of claw and muscle and sinew. That passage rarely fails to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Which form of expression was more effective at conveying emotion?
Well told, a good story can have an objective, measurable, effect on the brain. fMRI studies have shown that a good story can light up all the areas of the brain that would normally be involved if we were actually having the experience ourselves. That’s an objective way to measure the impact of art.
What’s the analog in photography?
We could shoot an image of a jaguar in many different ways. We could head to the local zoo and use a telephoto to make an image on a nice, sunny afternoon. Even a shot from 50 yards would be more than sufficient to show viewers what a jaguar looks like. If we happened to catch it with its mouth a bit agape and teeth visible, it might even convey the potential for a growl fairly well.
Now, imagine how that image would compare with one actually taken from a hammock in the oppressive darkness of a simmering jungle night, rain drops sizzling as they fall on the dying embers of a fire a few feet away. Feeling hot breath on your neck and hearing a low growl, you raise your camera slowly from your chest and turn it toward yourself. You catch, just over your own shoulder, the haunting glimmer of the embers reflected in a pair of orange eyes, the faintest outline of teeth, a whisker, and there in the foreground, your own face, barely recognizable for the panic carved into it.
Which image would tell a stronger story? Which image would be more likely to light up the emotional centers of a viewer’s brain? One is objectively better at engaging the imagination.
While our ability to express something with our art may be objectively measured (at least in principle), the subject matter we choose to focus on with our work may resonate very differently with different members of our audience. Someone from a different cultural background may interpret the subjects and narratives depicted in an image in a wholly different way than we intended or not have the requisite cultural tools to decipher an image’s proffered meaning or emotional value at all. From this perspective, the efficacy of an image can be highly subjective.
This subjectivity can also feedback on the efficacy of the expression. A viewer that doesn’t have the same historical or cultural context that we do, that doesn’t understand the implicit meaning to be found in the juxtaposition of two loaded elements within an image, is likely to find the quality of the expression very poor, even wonder how anyone finds value in the image at all.
A second consequence of this subjectivity is that art can inadvertently highlight our differences. Painter Dana Schutz and sculptor Sam Durrant have both been at the center of significant controversies in recent years as a result of the way their works were interpreted by different communities. The artists intended their works to help foster understanding and empathy across deep cultural rifts, yet inadvertently, they in many ways bred additional pain and division. Suffice it to say, the goodness of the works wasn’t universally agreed upon.
What Might We Focus on to Improve Our Photography?
I hope that we’ve conveyed a couple of important ideas here. There are good and perfectly valid reasons why some photographs resonate more with some viewers than others. And that’s okay. There’s something important to be gained as an artist in trying to figure out how to communicate more effectively with different audiences. There’s something important to be gained as a viewer in coming to understand why an image, particularly one that’s highly spoken of by others, would resonate with them more than it does with us. The subjective nature of art is both expected and valuable.
There are other aspects of our work that can and should be judged much more objectively. What should we focus on to make sure our images are as good as they can be? Good composition is as close as we’ll get to something that is universally agreed upon. Blow it, and you can definitely hamstring an image, no matter how important the subject or clever the story. Ian Plant’s “Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition” is an excellent place to start.
Beyond composition, we can work to hone our craft as story-tellers. We should reflect on what we're trying to communicate with each image, think through the role that every element of an image plays in communicating that idea or emotion. What if we could change one thing about an image; subtract something, or add one additional element? What would it be? Would it make the image more effective? Can we do that? If we were setting out with a blank canvas and could do anything we wanted with the elements of the landscape, people, or environment around us, would we create the image we're currently composing? Could moving to a different location or waiting for a different moment make our image more effective?
Finally, we should always think about who our primary audience is and beyond that, about other potential audiences as well. How might someone that doesn’t share our background, knowledge, or preconceptions interpret our work? Could it do more harm than good? Is there a way to alter the image or subject matter to make the image more effective for them as well?
What have I missed? Are there other perspectives we might objectively consider an image from? Are there other complications that only make interpretation more subjective? If so, let me know!