What I Enjoy in Photographs

I enjoy a large variety of photographs, but I have often found it difficult to say what generally attracts me to a photograph. Believing that understanding this will help me enjoy photographs more and be a better photographer, and help give and receive critiques more easily, I decided to outline a basic set of themes – what I personally enjoy and look for in a photograph.

I started with two themes, and then refined the set through a series of positive tests. These tests involved looking through the works of my favorite photographers, and deciding if the themes pointed to the pictures I instinctively gravitated to, or if the themes needed to be changed. I ended up with four, having dropped one, and adding three new ones. I chose photographers working from the late 1800’s to the present (see list below*). I have not bothered with negative tests – of works that I do not enjoy – because I don’t believe that these will help me understand why I like the photographs that I do (and it would be boring to look at hundreds of photographs I do not enjoy).

The four themes I found most compelling were the following:

  • Visual structure
  • Narrative transcendence
  • Ambient presence
  • Surprise and mystery

I enjoy photographs that have strong visual structure. These photos bring alive their composition through light and shadow; viewpoint and perspective; texture and pattern; lines, surfaces and volumes; and color. This theme is dominant for me – it is the thing that draws me in and holds my attention, allowing me to then explore the other themes.

I enjoy photographs that transcend the subject matter to a narrative subject – where the photograph says something about what is being photographed and doesn’t just describe it. These evoke a back-story that may be a social or psychological narrative – e.g. what kind of social structures and values created the context for this photograph, both for the subject matter and for the photographer? What activities and feelings led to the situation that could be photographed? What social exchanges led to the creation of this photograph? How did this affect the lives of the people in the picture? I feel that this is also what brings me back to the same photographs over and over again.

I enjoy photographs that have ambient presence – the ones that make me feel as if I am there, that I can reach out and touch the subject matter, I can smell or otherwise sense it. They create the desire to walk into the picture and get to know the people and places that are in it. They are immersive. These photographs will make into reality a place and time that no longer exist (and perhaps never did), with a heighted sense of physicality. For me, this includes dreamlike physicality, the physical environment in a dream – like the photos of Susan Burnstine.

I enjoy photographs that surprise or create a sense of wonder or astonishment in me. This may come from a new viewpoint or perspective from which the photo is taken, or from a sense of humor, or from seeing something I had not focused on before. These photographs show us something we would not otherwise know or see.

Naturally this list of themes is not comprehensive – in the sense that there are photographs that I enjoy that do not match these themes and there are also photographs that I do not enjoy as much which can be argued to match one or more of these themes.

I am interested to see how this list will evolve for me.


*The photographers whose works I tested with are:

Eugène Atget, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï, Robert Capa, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Josef Koudelka, Robert Adams, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Susan Burnstine