Seeing past the subject

The discussion about Charlotte Proudman had me thinking. Not about how inappropriate the comment was, nor the misuse of LinkedIn, or sexism. I wondered whether it's even possible to separate a good photograph from a good subject. Not to say the images below are good or not, but to argue that the subject matter often has a bearing on it.

I have photos of John Sergeant and Arlene Phillips on my website. To be quite honest, I'm not sure if they're very particularly strong images, but they do suggest access, which can equate to experience or skill. Hence, portfolio.

Similarly, many sports photographers might have shots of Usain Bolt/Mo Farah/Jessica Ennis/Oscar Pistorius shot from the end of the race track, crossing the finish line and winning the final. Even though these photos are far from unique and possibly not very exciting*, their value is in their fame and recognisability (which comes from newsworthiness). They show how - like the athletes they depict - the photographer is at the very top of his or her profession.

As for newsworthiness, we have etched in our collective consciousness innumerable images depicting great tragedy or joy, and never really consider or care whether they're 'good' from any other viewpoint (technical, artistic, creative etc.), but only see them as records of historic fact, and therefore as powerful photographs.

So: photogenic subjects, famous subjects, newsworthy subjects. These kinds of people blur one's opinion seamlessly: "Is it a 'stunning' LinkedIn image, or is the subject 'stunning'?", "Is it a great portrait, or just a well-known face?", and "Is it a good photo, or just access to some incredible event?"

Most interesting of the three kinds of subjects above is the 'famous': interesting because our cultural, subjective, informed position affects (determines?) how we view images of famous people. And it's very much rooted in its time. That is, it makes all the difference if the viewer knows who the person is, and even their opinion of them. If they don't know them, or at least don't recognise them, their viewing is immediately and irrevocably altered once given this information**. So, back to the title: I dug out some images of (I hope) less-recognisable but nonetheless powerful ladies.

This is someone you would know but probably not recognise:

She's an author, and as for fame, her most well-known book is perhaps only second to Harry Potter. Her work has spawned shows, films, mugs, socks and school bags. Every young-ish parent in the country will own at least a few of her books, and many (myself included) know them off-by-heart. It's Julia Donaldson, author of the Gruffalo.

But is it a good picture? Well, as I've been saying, sometimes it's hard to see past the fame of a person and judge a photograph objectively. In the end - and despite there being only a couple of decent images of Julia online anywhere - she never made my portfolio because I don't think the image is strong enough. 

So much for fame. Next are three leading ladies who are (perhaps?) less-recognised still but nonetheless hugely influential, powerful and successful. We have President of International Markets for Mastercard, Ann Cairns; Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Pearson, Kate James; and Vice-President EMEA for Facebook, Nicola Mendelsohn. All these did make my portfolio - but not with these photos. Other images from the shoots were stronger (please take a look in my corporate and portrait galleries).

Let's assume you don't recognise them, and, unlike with Julia Donaldson, there's no immediate association going on even once named. Does their business or their high position affect your judgment? As it happens, two have appeared in national newspapers fairly recently, so will be recognisable to some. But does it matter? Does it make a difference how you view them?

It comes down to historicism - the extent and angle to which the background to an image influences our opinion. Perhaps we like to think we can be more objective, but there's much more going on here. We can't help but frame our view with external knowledge, a cultural climate, and our personal bias and taste.


*Not unique, since many other photographers are positioned in the same place. And not exciting with respect to a photographer's more creative and/or less newsworthy portfolios. To put it another way, if the images weren't of global sports superstars winning the Olympics, but instead showed (otherwise identical) shots from, say, the second-round heats at the U-21 Commonwealth games, they'd be unlikely to feature in a portfolio. 

**I should add that you can argue it's easier to read a portrait of a famous person. You have some idea who they are, and can judge to what extent the photograph captures and confirms that aspect of their personality. Or indeed, questions it. Success or failure in the portrait is surely tied to this in some respect.