What Makes a Good Picture?

About two years ago, a print by photographer Andreas Gursky, Rhein II, sold at auction for $4.3 million, making it the world’s most expensive photographic print. If I were reviewing the image I would say it was static, the subject (river) bland, it lacked depth, and the sky was uninteresting, without drama. I don’t like the picture.

On the other hand, Florence Waters of The Telegraph wrote: This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable – I should say unforgettable – contemporary twist on Germany’s famed genre and favourite theme: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature.

What gives? How can two human beings look at the same picture and have such different reactions to it? What gives?

The answer is simple, though not satisfying: I don’t know.

It is comforting, however, to know something else: nobody else knows either.

We all know what we like, but that’s as far as it goes.

But how about the experienced photography critic, such as Ms. Waters, who insists Gursky’s print is fabulous? Well, it is indeed fabulous…to her. In fact, whenever I read a review, in my mind I add the phrase “to me” after every conclusion, and it puts it all in proper context.

“The Rapid-Fire Stealth D1XYZ is the best DSLR camera on the market (to me)”.

A Zombie Christmas was the best holiday movie that came out last year (to me).”

“Donatella Linguini was simply sublime in last night’s opera (to me).”

“This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable (to me)”.

Someone else’s subjective opinions, however carefully considered and thoughtfully crafted, will have no effect on my own subjective opinion of an art piece or artistic performance (and vice versa, let’s be fair). If a respected art critic describes Gursky’s image in superlatives, it does not miraculously transform it into something pleasing to me. Maybe if I squint? No.

So what are lowly travel photographers to do? How do we know who will buy our pictures?

The answer is also simple, though again a little unsatisfying: find publications who license photographs that are similar to yours, and send them your work for review. That may take a little work, but with the help of the Internet and a few visits to the local newsstand, you will find the publications that already like your work. And what about the pictures you don’t like (and probably nobody else will like either)? My advice: keep them as fine art, just in case.

Now get out and shoot something