One Image, One Opinion

Discussing photos with photographers pretty often becomes a discussion on the technical execution of the image. The composition, how elements work together (or clash), the use of colours, things like that. More a dissection of the image than a taking the image as a whole.

There is a lot of value in that, as such an analysis gives a lot of clues to learn and grow. But to me, it also misses a vital element. The gut reaction, the emotional response you have when you see the image.

Of course this is much more a personal reflection, and much more subject to taste. But also in those reactions, there is a lot to learn. It’s perfectly possible for an image (or any result of creative effort) to be perfectly done, according to rational analysis, and yet completely miss the mark as to how people react to it.

In discussion on photos, I’ve always prefered to go from my gut reaction, and then try to figure out why it evokes that reaction. What works for me, what doesn’t. What intention do I feel the image has, and how does the execution align with that? And most of all: does it move me? Does it evoke emotion, good or bad?

The greats

Like in most arts, discussions take a silly turn when talking about works of the greats. Suggesting Bach or Beethoven messed up, that a Beatles song is poorly constructed, that the lighting in a Caravaggio looks a bit off and fake, that the colours in a Van Gogh are a bit garrish – just not going to happen. They’re the greats, beyond reproach.

Yet, we all like one painter over the other, one type of music over the other. The second you say “Bach doesn’t move me”, you’re saying he messed up… for you. Somehow, his craft and creativeness resulted in something that doesn’t connect. On a personal level, then, they’re not beyond reproach? Or is it our own individual inability to value it correctly?

We cannot like everything we see, hear, experience and view. We should try to understand, but to like everything just because it’s regarded Art with a capital A, that’s a bit too much to ask. So, nobody should regarded beyond reproach, as long as we understand it’s a personal opinion. Not a fact, not the truth, but a valid individual view on things.

One image, one opinion

So, with that intro over: the idea is to make this a recurring exercise. I pick an image that provokes me one way or another, and just write about it as if I’d discuss it. Simple as that.

There is a comment section below, so feel free to disagree, agree or simply share your gut reaction.

The image

Sebastião Salgado, Gold Mine, Brazil from Workers

My initial reaction was most of all: “what?!”. On very first sight, it’s not very obvious what is happening, but it draws me in and make me have a closer look.

And then a two-stage rocket sets off. What. a. masterpiece.

It has rhythm, a pulse from bottom to top. Order and chaos. A sense of movement, and sense of timelessness. It is a pretty photo, aesthetically pleasing. Maybe not beautiful in the orthodox way, but it certainly has an beauty, to me.

And it’s shocking to realise what it shows – that’s the second stage. There is nothing pretty about what we see here, it is documenting something that should get far more attention – these working conditions are nowhere near human. This is the dark side of the world, and far from beautiful.

So in the end, viewing this photo (and re-viewing it) leaves me torn… is this beautiful, or terrible?

The rational mind taking over

With those doubts, the more analytical mind will take over, and start dissecting the image. Let’s run with that for a bit.

The composition looks simple, but it deceives. The order and chaos mentioned above is all down to clever composition. The more open spaces on the top, leaving the viewer the see the stairs, is what makes it interesting. Without those spots, it would have been too dense and even likely would have avoided that second look.

The black and white tones – I like the it, even if a bit heavy-handed and grim. This photo can take that, it’s not a fun scene so it’s suitable.

To me, there is no doubt that this strange clash between a deeply nasty subject and an image that does not attempt to rub that in (visually) is a very deliberate choice. And I can only applaud that: it’s relatively easy to choose for more contrast, grain and harshness to underline the harsh conditions but it would make less impact. And it’s not a light-hearted sort of black and white either, so it gets the point across just fine.

Back to the gut

Does it make me happy to see this image? No, because of the subject no. But it affects me, and quite profound. As a way to share the story, this image does so much right.

Yes, the quite heavy-handed black and white tonality of Salgado will not be everyone’s cup to tea. I tend to like it, because it suits his works well, it is consistent with the subject.

It’s a photo that on very first sight doesn’t reveal itself; it rewards you for taking time for it, and I love that. It’s got story-telling, and a story worth telling. It’s got a distinct style.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

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