Join Chris Orwig for an in-depth discussion in this video What makes a photograph good?, part of Narrative Portraiture: On Location in New York with Rodney Smith.
Chris Orwig: What makes a photograph good, or successful? Rodney Smith: I think, and I have talked about this also on occasion, that one of the great difficulties about being a photographer is you're dealing with a three-dimensional world with all kinds of smells and sights and an ambience and an experience and the weather and all of that, which the viewer has no relationship to, nor necessarily any regard for. And you've got to take this experience, qualify it down--because the contrast is probably far more than the film or the print can handle--qualify it down, put it on a two-dimensional piece of paper, and say to somebody, "look at this picture and like this picture." Well, that's quite a task just in itself, particularly in an era when we are bombarded with millions of images, to say, you know, "this is a really worthwhile picture, and you weren't even there when I took it, nor do you care about me and nor do you care about the person the picture is about." So if you're able to do that, that's a really strong step in the right direction.
I also think and I think--I don't remember who--once somebody who told me this, but, I think you are very lucky if in your life you can make twenty great pictures. I think you are always working on it. Like my ex-father-in-law who was playwright, always said, "You are always weaving, but you never know when you are weaving in gold," and I think that's right. You are always trying to make great pictures. I think I don't go out there, ever, without the intention of making great pictures.
Well, what constitutes those pictures that have this longevity about them is very hard to say. And I think most photographers, irregardless of who they are, from Kertesz to Cartier-Bresson, to Stieglitz, to Steichen, you know, or anybody, has an opus of about twenty, twenty-five pictures that that people continually go back to, year after year after year. I think that's what people will do. But how you get that great picture out of the thousands of pictures you make in a lifetime is very hard to describe. And I think when I'm taking, "oh, this will be a really good picture, you know, this will be really great. People will like this picture," and nobody shows the slightest bit of interest in it.
And then other pictures I have taken, people really, really like, and I would never have guessed that would have been a picture that somebody would have ever liked. Even A.J. on Ladder, which is not so much anymore, but it was, probably the most popular picture I ever shot. It's not anymore, but I shot that picture without even a moment's thought that that would be the most popular picture I ever shot. You know, we were sitting down, having lunch, yeah, we are shooting again for Neiman Marcus at this estate up in New York called the Harriman Estate, which is a place I really like to shoot, and we were just sitting down.
I mean, I just shot a picture of him in an overcoat in the field. And it was cold, so he had the coat on, and we were sitting down, and we were just starting to have lunch and this workman works by with his ladder. And so I think, you know, I said to the workman, "Do you mind just sticking the ladder up against the wall for a second, would you?" I said, "Hey, A.J. just do me a favor. I am sorry to interrupt Do me a favor. Just go up the ladder a few feet and look over the top of the wall." So he goes to the top of the wall. I take maybe two, three frames, he comes down, the workman takes the ladder, go off, and we go back to the lunch.
I haven't thought twice about that picture. You know, it was just another picture. The whole thing took two minutes to take it, and that was this picture that everybody related to for so long. So in answer to that general question, I don't know what makes a great picture. I think you just always are doing the best you can, and sometimes, for some reason, something happens and that people really, really like it.
Like even the picture, another picture is very popular is this guy jumping over the hay bale. And we were shooting in Monkton Maryland in this garden I had found that I really liked, and it was actually a very large shoot. There was a lot of people in that shoot. I don't remember exactly why, but there were bus loads of people, and we were driving early in the morning. I just see this field, and I don't know exactly if I dissected it. I can't tell you what it was about it, but there was something appealing about it, and I just stopped the vans, and I say one of the assistants to please run in to the farmhouse and see if the farmer was in, so he would allow us to shoot in the fields, and so we did it.
And he just sort of jumped and spread his legs and that was it. And also, I liked it. And if you have said to me when I first looked at it on my own, just as a contact sheet, is this picture going to be really, really big selling or is this going to be a picture that somebody is really interested in, I would have said no.
The course begins with a wide-ranging conversation between Chris and Rodney, during which they discuss Rodney's work, his approach to photography and models, his love of film and of black and white, and the importance of creating photographs that both ask questions and tell stories. Next, Chris tours Rodney Smith's studio, including the darkroom, to get more familiar with Rodney before photographing him.
Chris then takes a series of portraits of Rodney. Along the way, he reviews his gear choices and the compositional decisions he makes, and discusses the importance of committing photographs to paper, particularly in today's digital age. Finally, Chris reviews the images and shares some insights from his conversation with Rodney.