Judging a “Good” Image- Felix Staub

In the camera club movement we have evolved from the early days when producing a well exposed, well focused image was the most important achievement. With the assistance of past masters and technological advances, these goals have long been taken for granted and photographers have been able to look further.

From the initial documentary approach to photography, we have progressed to regard fine art photography as our goal. For this purpose, the term “Fine Art Photography” would have to be the creation of photographs that people would like to hang on a wall and admire day after day.This still leaves a very wide range of imagery that could fall within that description. The subject range and variety in media exhibited in camera clubs and in exhibitions, locally, nationally as well as internationally reflect this incredible variety.

Camera clubs teach us the many “Rules” of composition that can be employed in photography. However, these are simply tools and tricks to achieve what it is we are trying to express. They certainly form no basis on which to judge the images presented to us.

So what makes a photograph “Good” and what causes it to fail? If we study visual art and photography in particular, we develop an experience that tells us what is “Good Art” to a greater or lesser degree. Sounds awfully nebulous, doesn’t it? In practice, it really is surprising how similar this assessment is among viewers who are asked to make such judgement. There are no rules or numbers that define this in any way and no doubt is often quite subjective. And yet, there seems to be a surprising consensus all over the world.

To follow this question further, I have consulted – what else but the internet. Among the many sites dealing with this subject, I have found a site at www.artbusiness.com. It contains many quotes by art dealers, critics and gallery curators. You notice, they are not specific to photography but art generally. I have printed some of the quotes that I believe to be particularly well expressed. However, I recommend that the readers look up this website for themselves. It is really very illuminating to see how the art world generally comes to terms with this vague notion of “Good Art” in much the same way that we are trying to understand it in respect of photography in particular.

Brian Gross, Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco: Art that is unique in conception and well executed.

DeWitt Cheng, freelance art writer and critic, Bay Area, CA: Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces molded by time, certain twilights and certain paces-- all these are trying to tell us something, or have told us something we should not have missed, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation that is not produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality." While art has become, in the experimental 20th and 21st centuries, impossible to define-- critics learned long ago to stop being prescriptive, perhaps a little too well-- Borges's tentative manifesto makes a good starting point-- as long as we don't succumb to mystical mush. Good visual art looks stunningly right and, in retrospect, obvious, or inevitable-- yet it's also continually surprising. It is a powerful paradox. How can someone have possibly made this? How in the world could it not have been made?

Catharine Clark, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco: When it has its own internal logic. It took me a long time to get to this place, but that is the answer that I now give. I used to say that good art is like porn; you know it when you see it.

Jack Hanley, Jack Hanley Gallery, New York: I like something where the intensity of the experience of the person making it comes through. Maybe somebody is turned on by the nature of the materials, a psychological issue or some kind of narrative. Maybe some people have greater intensities of experience than others. What makes art good on a grander scale is how extraordinary and profound the components of those experiences are. Some artists are maybe better than others at tapping into their own idiosyncrasies and conveying them to others.

Justin Giarla, The Shooting Gallery, White Walls & 941 Geary, San Francisco: What makes good art is when you see a piece from across the room, you immediately fall in love with it without knowing anything about it and are in love with it forever.

Alan Bamberger, itinerant artster, San Francisco: At its most fundamental level, good art is an effective combination of concept, vision and mastery of medium (the ability to get the point across). Good art is also uncompromisingly honest, unselfconscious, bold, ambitious, enlightening, original, challenging, and a feast for the senses. It doesn't necessarily have to have all of these qualities, but at the very least it has to keep you coming back for more... and never ever bore.

It is interesting how the “Art World” judges art. If we apply these considerations to our own work, how many of our photographs would we consider to be “Good Art”? Looking around camera clubs, I believe that there are quite a number of works that would pass muster when looked at through these eyes.

Camera club judging may never be quite the same again.