Lauren Henkin

Lauren Henkin, Visual Artist

How to Evaluate Photographs

I'm teaching a class right now on how to build a portfolio and today was one of the more difficult sessions for my students... artist statement day. We have talked quite a bit about how to communicate about their own work as well as others', in both verbal and written forms, but I think they were all dreading the sharing of their written words. It's not easy... sharing how you feel about art. When expressing my own opinions, I’m usually thinking, Will I be the only one that feels this way? Am I wrong? Am I missing something obvious?. The more I do it though, the more I realize that there is no wrong answer. How I feel is how I feel. That's what's beautiful and freeing about art—you can react however you want to. Whether good or bad, how you interpret it is never wrong. We lose sight of this sometimes, lost in our own insecurities. In talking about the images presented in the class, I started to analyze my own process for evaluating images. I don't claim to be an expert in this, but for me, there are many factors that determine a final evaluation of a photograph. The more important ones include the following and I thought I would try, as best I can, to describe what I’m thinking about when looking as a way to measure what I value, how I come to a certain conclusion about the merit of a particular image, and offer some kind of formal process or check list to help others who might struggle with communicating or drawing their own conclusions.

I haven’t given too much thought about the order in which I’ve listed these. I suppose you could conclude that because this is the order I chose to write them in, that it is an indication of value or importance. I’m not certain of this, but it could be…

Beauty For me, the process of viewing begins with beauty. Beauty is the portal by which I can be allowed into a photograph, to delve, and eventually process what is presented. Recently, at many gallery shows, I feel like I’m seeing nothing but banal images. I’m not sure why the current trend in contemporary photography seems to be moving away from the standard of beauty, but I find without it, I have very little interest in the photograph. I don’t think that what I’m describing necessarily has to mean “traditional.” There are many examples of “untraditional” beauty. Like Robert Capa's photograph below, to me, is beautiful. The subject and message is difficult to digest, and painful. But because the photograph itself, without any context of what it means, still exudes beauty. It is an important component in accessing this scene. I wonder, in looking back generations from now, whether many of the images I see produced today, which are poorly crafted from capture to printing will be unable to communicate what the photographer intended, simply because they’re ugly. I sense there is a rejection of beauty as a rebellion against traditional ways of seeing. I agree, we should challenge ourselves to move forward, but the rejection of beauty will not help, simply because as a tool of communication, it reigns supreme.

© Robert Capa, American landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day

Composition When I’m looking at a photograph for the first time, I quickly ask myself: Does the image feel balanced? Is there movement happening within the frame or is it static (and which is appropriate)? Are there any elements that are unnecessary or confusing? Should the photographer have shifted the camera in any way? Does the image successfully reinterpret three dimensions into two? Should the image be cropped? Has the composition enhanced or hurt the mood of the image? Could it have been taken at any time or is there a sense that the photographer captured something fleeting, a moment that would be lost if it hadn’t been stolen?

Asking and answering these questions has become an intuitive process for me simply because I’ve committed to looking at an abundance of prints. But, there usually is some point I get hung up on. It is rare for me to see an image like this one, that I recently saw for the first time, by Leon Levinstein, of a handball game in New York. To me, this image has been perfectly composed. I wouldn’t change anything about it. The placement of the bodies creates a perfect balance within the frame. The movement perfectly conveys the meaning and subject of the photograph. And even the decapitated body in the foreground seems ok, something I don’t usually recommend. But here, it’s a rule expertly broken.

© Leon Levinstein, Handball Players, Lower East Side, NY

Subject One of the difficulties when planning a new portfolio is not actually coming up with ideas for work… it’s how to interpret those ideas. So, let’s say you wanted to do a body of images on greed. What does that mean exactly? Does it mean you photograph Wall Street investment bankers? Or wealthy shoppers on Rodeo Drive? Or simply the color green? This is the real challenge. What will be the subject chosen to communicate the story? And when I think about photographers who excel at this, I think of two in particular, Lauren Greenfield and Sally Mann.

In the case of Lauren Greenfield, I think about her Girl Culture series. In contrast to Thin or her latest works on the fashion world, this book's subject is broader, leaving endless possibilities for interpretation. What I loved most about it was the different ways she explored this topic, from girls going to prom, to contestants in the Fitness American competition, to a showgirl dressed in full garb walking up and down the aisles of an airplane. I think that most of us would have just chosen one of those segments, let’s just say girls going to proms, to focus on. And you know what? That still would have been good enough. But Greenfield took it 50 steps further than that. Her choices for subjects seemed brilliant to me.

© Lauren Greenfield, Alli, Annie, Hannah, and Berit, All 13, before the First Big Party of the Seventh Grade, Edina, Minnesota, 1998

In the case of Sally Mann, the work that comes to mind is What Remains. Again, what I found fascinating with this series what how far she decided to push it. This work started with her photographing the remains of one of her beloved dogs. Again, how many of us would have stopped with just that? Then, she went and photographed human corpses at a research facility. And then, on top of that, to end it, decided to come back home, full circle, and photograph extreme close-ups of her three adult kids. What I have learned from both of these incredible photographers is the power of interpreting an idea through different subjects.

© Sally Mann, Untitled #11, 2000, from What Remains

Mood How does the image make me feel? I think is one of the hardest questions people struggle with, but one of the most important.

The mood the photographer creates, with tools that include composition, equipment, printing style, and more, all work together to set the stage for how the viewer will experience an image.

What people find annoying about plastic cameras is that they clearly set a mood, but often the photographer relies too heavily on this gift and just gets sloppy, usually with composition, seduced by the aesthetic quality from the camera. It’s one of the difficulties of being taken seriously while shooting with them… convincing viewers that you’re not relying on the equipment, but merely using it as a tool to enhance the mood you’ve already set with the subject and composition.

Each of us, when presenting a show, or book, or body of work, should look at it as a novel, the most satisfying of which build slowly, over time, with the author carefully leading us down a path they want us to follow, all the while thinking we’re the ones in control.

Context I believe a lot of the questions that I ask in this category are really tied to how deeply you believe photographs are a depiction of reality.

For example, with Gregory Crewdson’s work… does it matter, in the evaluation of the photographs that these are all staged presentations? Does knowing the context in which these photographs were shot make them better or worse? If you see a beautiful print of a majestic landscape, would it matter to know that a utility pole has been removed in Photoshop? If I didn’t know that Ansel Adams had only a few seconds to calculate what aperture/shutter speed to create his famous Moonrise picture, would the picture, or my perception of him decline? I struggle with this… how much to reveal, how much to hide. It is really a reflection of whether the photographer understands their own work, what needs to be shared in order to understand the story, and what should be hidden to add mood or enhance the viewing experience.

© Gregory Crewdson, Untitled (Blind Reflection)

Execution As most of you probably know, I believe an image itself is not the end product in photography. The final deliverable is the print. I feel that the craft of printmaking is a necessary and vital component of making photographs. I have heard stories lately of gallery directors having conversations with photographers who have been accepted into group shows asking the director about how or where they should have their image printed, including what size to print at and whether Wal-Mart was acceptable. This is dangerous territory for me to write about because I feel so strongly about it, but let’s just say this, if you do not take the time, effort and energy to learn how to print images properly, all of the work that has gone into building your eye and developing a visual narrative becomes unnecessarily threatened.

I recently judged a plastic camera show at LightBox gallery in Astoria, OR. It was fascinating to me, to be able to see the prints that came in from the jpgs that I had seen on my monitor. In many cases, I was shocked by what some thought was an acceptable print. I’m talking about halos, posterization, off-colors, etc. It made me so angry that my fellow photographers would not take the care and responsibility for presenting high quality work, but also, and more importantly, that now having these prints on the walls, they were now the standard for what a “fine print” was.

I have a close friend who is currently obsessed with monitor calibration. She has spent a ton of time and money trying to figure out why what she sees on her monitor doesn’t look like what she sees in her prints. We’ve talked about all the possibilities for what could be the problem and like a doctor trying to diagnose mystery ailments, she is going through lots of tests to check off all the things that might be the cause.

She has told me a couple of times that when she asks fellow photographers about it, they respond with My prints always come out right! She has reached a point where the results are “close” to what she sees on her monitor, but she’s not satisfied with “close.” She wants to know that what she’s doing on the monitor, the adjustments she’s making, have value.

What we have concluded over many conversations is that there is a whole crop of photographers out there whose aspirations are merely to be good enough. I honestly can’t imagine a time when I’ve ever been satisfied with a print the first, second or even third time it came out of my printer. I wonder how many prints it took for George Tice to get this one right? He told me it took him 20 years to print one image correctly. Believe it or not, this problem runs in the opposite direction too. I've heard people comment, when looking at a masterfully printed image, That’s a beautiful print. They seem to do this unaware that the photographer might instead prefer to hear, That’s a beautiful photograph. I don’t think the viewer is ill-intentioned when this happens. It’s almost like the print is so beautiful that they can’t evaluate anything else, the beauty has blinded them, or made them suspicious.

© George Tice,  Country Road, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1961

I encourage you to challenge what I have proposed above. I have come to the conclusion, after having gone to countless shows and looking at an endless number of images, that I’m a tough customer. I rarely see work that I like. I think that while not all of these criteria have to be met in order for me to like an image, I believe that we should strive to come as close as we can to a point where most of them are.

My hope in reflecting on this is that we as a community can encourage each other to raise the bar for what we should expect from photographs and that I might help those of you who struggle with talking about images, gain more confidence… no matter how you feel about them, you are right!