When I look at a photographer’s work, trying to decide if I like them or not – I start with a broad view: do I like how this person sees things? For me, the first things i notice involve light. And composition. I want to appreciate the craftwork (not the same as “technique”). What is the photographer noticing? Not everything they shoot, not every picture I see, will be amazing, but I can at least judge if I generally like their pictures as a set. Do these photos remind me to look at the world in a different way? Am I sorta envious of their ability to see? Or am I only interested because of where they happened to have been?
At this point it’s not usually about any special image. (Although I’ll admit that it’s often one special image that interests me enough to start this process.)
Then I drill in deeper. I’m looking at individual images. As Sontag said, a beautiful photo isn’t necessarily a photo of a beautiful subject. Is it harmonious? And now the element of time is a critical factor. Did they catch something fleeting? Did they stop a moment that anyone else would have missed? Am I stopped dead in my tracks by the artful capturing of an inexplicable event? what Cartier-Bresson would have called a “decisive moment.”
Composition is controlled fully by the photographer; but capturing time—creating a composition from moving elements—takes more energy, more skill, and tends to stick with me when I see it.
Then I’m thinking about context: Does it make sense or hold interest when no one is explaining it to me? Is it only interesting because it’s OF something or someone interesting? Or does the context only improve an already compelling image?
Next, I’m trying to notice which pictures draw me in, make me want to look longer. Do I see something after 5 seconds that I didn’t see at first? What about after a minute? How long do I give it before I decide I’m bored? What could I look at all day? Or every month for years? What level of complexity is required to continuously be engaging? Pictures that are just beautiful very quickly become boring.
Does this make me pause? Smile? Laugh out loud? Feel a little twinge inside? An emotion welling up? What am I feeling and do I like that feeling? Am I compelled to some action? I try to quiet myself and pay attention what is happening internally as I look.
Finally, I sorta pull back again and wonder if I can feel the photographer when I see the pictures. Is there an identity here? Does the photographer have a unique vision, something that I haven’t seen much of? Could this photo have been taken by a hundred other people on a hundred other days? Is the photographer a person I’m now more curious about? What life produced this vision? What kind of person moves in these spaces and sees these things? I start to make up a story that fits the individual frames. Do I like this story? Do I want to be in this life, or maybe watch it from this safe distance?
Some pictures propel me to a place I’d like to go or am happy to remember. Some are simply beautiful, but in a way that never gets old. Some make me feel sad or angry, and it’s nice to be reminded of those emotions too, as I go through my days. There’s obviously no one thing, but rather an assortment of these attributes. In the end, I’m always re-assessing if I still like looking at this image. If I keep returning to an image, months and years later… it’s a keeper.