• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: A Good Picture is Not Always a Great Photo

Artists recreated nature and journalists captured the news, and photography changed the way we saw the real world. At first, cameras were used only by professionals, but it did not take long before an amateur market grew exponentially, making everyone who owned a camera into a photographer. Kodak was the largest American company to promote citizen photography in order to sell its film and processing equipment. It launched a multibillion dollar industry, in part through periodic publishing of handbooks, including How to Make Good Pictures—which in turn has influenced Kim Beil's book Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography.



In the book, Beil—who teaches art history at Stanford University and writes about modern and contemporary art—examines 50 trends (including "Portraits, Props and Poses," "Cloudy Skies," "Stereoscopic Depth," "Tintype Types," "Soft Focus," "Candids," "Distracting Color," "Motion Blur," "Fish-Eye," "Golden Hour," "On-Camera Flash," "Squares," "Digital Filters" and of course, "Selfie") that underscore the evolution of the form while documenting photography's legacy through the standardization of what is "good." This is an essential taxonomy of methods, eloquently described, that will be insightful for amateur and professional photographers, graphic designers and anyone interested in the impact of the reflected and exposed image on the history of vision and the vision of history. I asked her about how the art, craft and hobby has become inextricably connected to everyone's lives, especially in the digital age.


Photographer using a reflector for fill-in lighting," c. 1957.

Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography is, as you write, a history but also a kind of visual anthropology. What was the motivation for writing and researching this book?

Some of my initial inspiration came from students who mistook 1970s color photographs by William Eggleston and Stephen Shore for the work of Instagram influencers. Critics in the early 2010s argued that Instagram’s vintage filters responded to a uniquely nostalgic vein in contemporary culture, but I suspected that the borrowing of old styles was more complicated—and that it had a longer history.

As soon as I started looking for it, the reuse of old styles was everywhere in photo history. One of the earliest examples that caught my attention was the deliberate use of motion blur. During photography’s first decades, blur was considered a failure of the medium. Since exposure times were so long, photographers struggled to avoid blur in everything from portraits to landscapes. As more light-sensitive processes were invented, photographers could finally stop even the fast motion of steam trains. But, these pictures seemed unnaturally still, so photographers took to intentionally including some blur to suggest speed. Motion blur was transformed from an accident to an aesthetic effect, just like the faded, shifted colors of early color snapshots became a stylistic choice on Instagram.


Hand painted Daguerreotype with applied color.

There are two significant words in your title: good and popular. How do you define these seemingly simple words as concepts?

The promise of “good pictures” is central to most instructional literature on photography, but I borrowed the term specifically from Kodak’s long-running guide, How to Make Good Pictures. These books implied that there was a simple set of rules, which, when followed scrupulously, would result in “good pictures.” But, when I started reading year after year of the how-to books, I discovered that the rules were in constant flux. What is “good” is always being reassessed. Pictures go quickly from cool and cutting-edge to played-out, when they are replaced by the next new thing. I used the word good in the title to underscore the fact that the 50 trends I cover in the book were all considered ideal in their time, even if today some of them look historic or cheesy.

That brings me to the second term: popular. I use it to point to photographic styles that are widely seen and, thus, have a large impact on the making of other images. How do we know what makes a good photograph? We measure our efforts against other pictures we have seen.

Sometimes these styles can be traced to individual artists, but just as often they’re common across large groups of photographers, whether professionals or amateurs. Making pictures in the style of pictures that you like is one way of participating in a social group, similar to the way we adapt to our friends linguistically by picking up their slang.

New Angles: Photographer Ralph Steiner, "Boy on Bike, 1921 (estate of Ralph Steiner and Cleveland Museum of Art).

I've read many amateurs' guides to making "good" photos. Tell us more about how the nature of what is "good" has changed over the period of the camera's existence.

The notion of a “good” photograph is always changing, like fashion. Sometimes trends return, but they often take on new meanings the second or third time around. For example, vignetting (the darkening of a photograph at its corners) was originally the accidental result of using a lens that was too small to cover the image area. By the mid-nineteenth century, the effect was being used intentionally to mimic the oval shape of hand-drawn portrait and landscape sketches. Now, when the vignette feature is applied to contemporary photographs, it suggests the romantic mystery of old-time photographs rather than original drawings.

Sometimes it seems that instructional literature has become increasingly accepting of techniques that break the rules, but perhaps this is only due to the fact that we now have 175 years of rules to reject! In truth, the practice of recycling has been with the medium since its invention. What one generation considers a “good” photograph was often described as an outright failure by previous generations.

Hollywood Glamour: George Hurrell, "Hollywood Goddess [Jean Harlow], 1933. (John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Wildlife Photography: Photographing ducks, glass plate negative, 1901.

I know how the portable or lightweight camera changed the essence of journalism, but how did it impact how people looked at and related to one another?

The most immediate and public impact seems to have been related to privacy. After the release of the first Kodak camera in 1889, critics decried the so-called “Kodak fiends” who swarmed the cities, beaches, and countryside, snapping pictures when subjects were unaware, then publishing those pictures for profit and without the subjects’ consent. The right to protect one’s image from these uses was not established legally in New York until 1903. In public, I think the hand-camera ushered in a sense of suspicion between photographers and their subjects, which was new to the 20th century.

Within the domestic sphere, the camera’s impact was more positive. Having a small, portable camera at home allowed a profusion of portraits, which were formerly constrained to the photographer’s studio. The hand-camera introduced a new step in the choreography of daily life. Special occasions now warranted a quick trip outdoors for a portrait, rather than an appointment downtown with a professional photographer. Eventually, as film speeds increased, photographing became part of the celebration: pausing to cut the cake or posing at the front door on the first day of school marked the moment as special.

Rembrandt Effect: Carte-de-visite, c. 1870.

You cover a number of categories (taxonomies). How does, say, "The Rembrandt Effect" differ in intent and outcome from, say, the "Candid"? And how do you then distinguish or define the quality of each? Can a grainy photo compare to a desaturated photo?

It’s true, sometimes these effects are layered on top of each other. Certainly the lighting style used in Rembrandt Effect portraits could be combined with hand-painting or the pictures could be printed in a vignette style. Again, I think the comparison to language is useful. These trends each carry shades of meaning. We can combine them, like adjectives, to add nuance to our visual communication. Pairing the desaturated effect with a grainy photo amplifies the sense of “gritty realism,” in the words of contemporary photo bloggers. But, if you mix a formal style of portraiture, like Rembrandt Effect, with the immediacy of a candid shot, then the resulting picture undermines the intended meaning of either individual style, like the use of a double-negative in speech.

Cross-Processing: Jon Nicholls, "Lubitel 2" 2014 (https://flic.kr/p/oz9Trs).

What else (aside from the iPhone revolution) has the photographic picture made possible in our popular culture?

I’m often reminded of Jane Austen’s suggestion in Northanger Abbey (written more than 30 years before the invention of photography) that one looks at the landscape “with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing.” For Austen and others of her time, the landscape itself was judged according to the compositional principles of drawing.

This isn’t so different from the way photography has impacted our appreciation of the world, even if we can improve those views later in the darkroom or Photoshop. As Susan Sontag wrote, “photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.” This argument encompasses both what is useful and hopeful about photography, as well as its more challenging aspects. Our attention is drawn to things that we think will look good when photographed—and those things are always changing. Yet, sometimes those ‘things’ are people, which calls to mind the early 20th century debate over photography and privacy as well as more recent questions about the objectifying power of the gaze.


Ruin Porn: Shane Gorski, "New Rising Sun. Michigan Central Station," 2000. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/.

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