What makes for a great photograph? I was struck by something I read recently:

‘A work of art must be designed to hold you while it can, and to make you return to it, even if only in memory’. 1

A picture that you can remember is as important as the one you can see.

I often wonder which photographs are my favourites and more particularly why. I look at many photographs each day, perhaps hundreds. Nearly all of them are glanced at and then forgotten. Some are consumed in a few seconds, most are ignored. You can do this with pictures, that is, ignore or forget them quickly.

Occasionally I will see a photograph that rises above the rest in some way. This one is more insistent, although not necessarily in a shouty way. It gets noticed and I spend a little time with it. I consciously ask questions of it in a kind of mental dialogue. Most of these get forgotten in a few minutes, replaced by others, or by life in general.

Very occasionally, a photograph keeps returning. In a way it becomes part of my life. There is something about it which holds me. There are about 50 or so photographs in this category, only one of which I have taken myself. I call this the ‘hallowed camp’. There is no favourite amongst them. There does not seem to be a common denominator between them. I would not be able to sequence them in some kind of order or tell myself a story for each which would justify inclusion into this camp. Afterall, it’s not a wholly rational thing.

I just know that for each there is always more and more that comes from them in a kind of virtuous infinite progress (the opposite of a vicious regress). It’s as if each part tells me something about the whole, but the whole tells me something about each part – in short, a hermeneutic visual circle. I won’t try to pin it down further.

Many of these photographs have had a slow build. If you had asked me at the time when I first encountered the picture whether it was interesting or whether I liked it, I probably would have said no! Only three photographers have more than one photograph in the category. Two of these are Atget and Walker-Evans. It has taken me quite a few years to recognise them as being truly extraordinary.  

I finish this post with just one of these photographs from the hallowed camp. I make no comment on it.

Walker Evans, ‘Houses and Billboards, Atlanta’. 1936
  1. Morris, M. 2020,. ‘Art and Metaphysics‘ ; The Aristotelian Supplementary Volume xciv p 7

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