What Makes an Extraordinary Photo?

What Makes an Extraordinary Photo?

An image is eye catching when it's extraordinary. So why is it that the ordinary and banal can appear extraordinary? And if that really is the case, how can we go about achieving that?

A photo can appear extraordinary for one of three reasons. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, it's because you've never seen it before. I would put the fantastical work of Benjamin von Wong here, but also for example extreme sports (with Jan Vincent Kleine's in the lead image), news (such as the harrowing World Press Photo Venezuela Crisis) or indeed photos such as Harold Edgerton's 1964 image of a supersonic bullet piercing an apple. These are new to the eye and engage and excite because you've never seen them before.

Following on from the new , comes the beautiful. That is, beautiful in the sense of landscape fine art, so rather than drawing the eye with something unusual, beauty engages other parts of the brain. This can include emotions such as harmony or bliss, where the viewer envisages the scene and imagines themselves within it. I find the work of Art Wolf and Sara Bartocha contemplative, almost hypnotic, able to relax and calm the soul.

A Report of a Man Approaching Children in an Alleyway - Malcolm Craig Gilbert

Contemporary art takes this approach one step further and, rather than appealing to emotion, works at a higher level. The image may not be beautiful and, indeed, abstract and banal imagery often demand the viewer engages with understanding the meaning behind the photo. The image itself can lack harmony, appear "edgy" or disconcerting, or possibly lack an apparent meaning. Man Ray's ground breaking work in the 1930s continues to inspire through its abstract inventions. However, I've recently found Malcolm Craig Gilbert's work to be imaginatively provocative and banal at the same time. His project "Flashbacks" exposes the raw emotion of the photographer and requires the viewer to fill in the gaps of the image with the horrors that are imagined. As a police officer in Northern Ireland, he was regularly confronted with the kind of scene shown in "A Report of a Man Approaching Children in an Alleyway." Malcolm explains (After the Agreement, Tuck, 2015) that it is typical of a ‘"flashback of my service in Newry when they were trying to shoot down helicopters. And then with it being a toy… there’s this temptation to go forward and pick it up, that sense of going forward on trust that could leave you open to being murdered."

The final area of the extraordinary is based upon time. Look at a photo from the past — we find it interesting because it is unfamiliar. This may be a portrait or a location. Portraits are fascinating because they show people (perhaps even family) as they lived and highlight aspects of life which may appear strange today. For example, the death photography that was common of Victorians during the late 1800s appears alien to many now.

Photos of locations are often banal and we find interest because we are familiar with them as they are now. It's why historical archiving projects are so popular. For example, look at the collections of Francis Frith to see places as they once were. It's also why we find the time slider in Google Earth fascinating and the traditional photography equivalent of "then and now" photos. The BBC compiled side-by-side photos to illustrate the impact of 20 years of IRA ceasefire in Northern Ireland.

Corner of Exhibition Road and Prince Consort Road, London, 2018

It's this last type of photo — locations — that is typically banal and one we can all capture, no matter what type of photographer we are. Shoot the ordinary, the everyday, the common, the normal. Go for the banal because, with the passage of time, it will become extraordinary. You, your family and your friends will look back with relish to remember the specifics of what is in the image, but also will envisage and reminisce what it was like at that time. For future generations, they will have an insight into a world that once was and wonder how it came to be the place that they now inhabit. It was a world that was extraordinary.

Image used by permission of Malcolm Craig Gilbert and Jan Vincent Kleine

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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If only we could pay the rent now with money earned from selling pictures in the future... Jokes aside, reading your article I was really confused until the end. But your conclusion really put everything in perspective. And I think you're right because I don't think the work of Vivian Maier, to name one, would've been appreciated as much as now back in her times.

Appreciate the namedrop!

Ok. Off to take snapshots. Which time of day doesn’t seem to matter right? So high noon is fine?