What Makes A Good Photograph?
What makes a good photograph? In my explorations of photography and art (mobile or otherwise), I have often thought over this question and the many answers it can generate by half-hearted searching. Is it the composition, the subject, or the lighting? These things have their place, though with any given element, I find myself thinking of images that were beautiful despite one or two of these qualities being fulfilled to any strong degree. There must be something beyond these. And to tell you the truth, I think I’ve found an answer, though I derive it from ideas and associations outside of photography altogether.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
I have PTSD. I’m not going to go into details in this setting, though I will admit that some friends and loved ones (mobile photographers included) may have at times experienced my firebrand temper and sharp tongue. I’m one of those individuals people on social networks have been known to call a troll. Unfortunate, I guess, but it does fit my emotional state at times. Working on it! (For some background into my PTSD, read here.)
Having this disorder (and it really is, or at least has been, disorderly) has caused me to look into various treatments of the condition. I recalled seeing a report on the news once that people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can get very effective treatment (that lasts), where the therapist waves a finger or two back and forth in front of the patient for their eyes to follow. The patient simultaneously discusses his or her traumatic events with the therapist. The treatment, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), I have since discovered, is now fairly well established and has been a successful therapy for victims of war, rape, abuse and other forms of trauma. As the name might suggest, the therapy desensitizes the individual to the traumatic events, and allows the patient to reprocess the information.
Although there is thus far a bit of uncertainty as to why the treatment works, one Harvard researcher presents the theory (which resonates with me) that it in some way has a relationship to Rapid Eye Movement (REM), and that the treatment simulates this function of dreaming, yet specifically around the traumatic event. By discussing those things in the mind while undergoing the eye movement therapy, the same sorting and sifting of human memory that it is theorized take place during REM also occur during therapy sessions.
The EMDR Institute states it best, that “clients begin to process the [traumatic] memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level … Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes. The net effect is that clients conclude EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them.”
The Eye Game
This news piece and therapy technique evolved for me into something called the “eye game.” Like any parent, I have struggled forever to get my kids to sleep. Samuel L. Jackson read it best.
It occurred to me that this knowledge of EMDR might be used at bedtime. No, I in my unqualified state do not use the therapy on my kids! The treatment, however, is in some ways similar to hypnotism, and that hypnotism itself is, of course, related to the REM of sleep. Well, to solve this problem of my son continuously refusing to shut his eyes at bedtime, the eye game was born. I simply tell him to lie down in bed, pull the covers up tight, and I make him follow my finger with his eyes back and forth. It takes 10 seconds, max, and he yawns and smiles (because it works every time and he enjoys it). He even now tries to avoid yawning, but it never fails. I do this a couple of times, he yawns again, he rolls on his side and closes his eyes and falls asleep.
A Good Photograph
It has since then occurred to me, as I have explored photography, that those photos that I enjoy most are those in which the composition, the pull of various elements, the lighting, the framing, the subject, etc, all play a part in making my eye wander around, but without flying off the page. No one elements does it. It is not the composition itself, nor the lighting, nor the subject. Each of these aspects, I have long considered, do have gravity. An image can be so self-centered as to pull the eye to one place and one place alone. Or it can be so lacking in gravity that the eye falls off the page and loses the viewer’s interest.
Ultimately, though, I think a good photograph (and I think this is true of works of art in general) really is something that is enjoyed because it touches a fundamental aspect of how our minds work. This is not to say that art doesn’t have other functions, such as satire, political criticism, or is presented to the eye to make it wince. But a great painting, an excellent photograph, a beautiful image, these make the eyes wander back and forth across light and shadow, color and contour, mood and shape. Back and forth, back and forth. Like falling to sleep reading a good book.
In a nutshell, a good photograph makes us dream.