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As we finish the semester and consider what we have learned and shared regarding photography, we want to finish up by examining what makes a photograph GOOD! Your final exam consists of writing a four to five-page (typed, double-spaced) critique of a well-known photograph. On the following pages is a list of 10 famous photographers. Your first objective is to do an internet search and find a photographer from this list that you find interesting or appealing. Next, you need to select one photo from this photographer to serve as the photo you will critique. You should print out a copy of the photo and attach it to your completed critique.
The word critique often carries a negative connotation. We often associate the word with negative analysis. But the critique you are assigned to perform is not to find what’s wrong with the photo as much as it is to determine in your analysis what makes the photo worthy of acclaim. It is possible that your analysis will include something about the photo that is negative. But don’t begin with the idea that you have to tear the photo apart to do a critique.
To assist you, I’ve provided a list of questions to guide your critique. The list is long and to answer every question would require much more than five pages. Instead, pick questions that you think fit well in analyzing the photo you have chosen. Write the critique in narrative form. It might help you to think about what you would write if you were assigned to write up a newspaper or magazine article about this photo.
Begin your critique by introducing the photographer and what is known about the photograph from a historical perspective. Provide a context for your discussion about the qualities of the photo itself. In discussing the context in your narrative, you will need to include a description of how this specific photograph fits within the artist’s body of work. Also, discuss the meaning of the specific work within that context. Provide citations for all references used in your analysis.
Included in your write-up should be a discussion of what makes the photo aesthetically pleasing. You need to remember all that we’ve talked about in the course and be sure to convey what makes this work a piece of art.
Ansel Adams (Links to an external site.)is probably the most easily recognized name of any photographer. His landscapes are stunning, and he achieves an unparalleled level of contrast using creative darkroom work. You can improve your own photos by reading Adams’ own thoughts as he grew older, when he wished that he had kept himself strong enough physically to continue his work.
Yousuf Karsh (Links to an external site.)has taken photographs that tell a story, and that are more easily understood than many others. Each of his portraits tells you all about the subject. He felt as though there was a secret hidden behind each woman and man. Whether he captures a gleaming eye or a gesture done totally unconsciously, these are times when humans temporarily lose their masks. Karsh’s portraits communicate with people.
Robert Capa (Links to an external site.)has taken many famous war-time photographs. He has covered five wars, even though the name “Robert Capa” was only the name placed to the photos that Endre Friedman took and that were marketed under the “Robert Capa” name. Friedman felt that if you were not close enough to the subject, then you wouldn’t get a good photograph. He was often in the trenches with soldiers when he took photographs, while most other war photographers took photographs from a safe distance.
Henri Cartier-Bresson (Links to an external site.)has a style that makes him a natural on any top ten photographer list. His style has undoubtedly influenced photography as much as anyone else’s. He was among the first to use 35mm film, and he usually shot in black and white. We are not graced by more of his work since he gave up the craft about 30 years before he passed away. It’s sad that there are fewer photographs by Cartier-Bresson to enjoy.
Dorothea Lange (Links to an external site.)took photographs during the Great Depression. She took one photo of a migrant mother that is also titled by that name, and is said to be one of the best-known photographs in history. In the 1940′s, she also photographed the Japanese internment camps, and these photographs show sad moments in American history.
Jerry Uelsman (Links to an external site.)created unique images with composite photographs. Being very talented in the darkroom, he used this skill in his composites. He never used digital cameras, since he felt that his creative process was more suited to the darkroom.
Annie Leibovitz (Links to an external site.)does fine photographic portraits and is most well known for her work with Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone magazine. Her photographs are intimate, and describe the subject. She is unafraid of falling in love with the people she photographs.
Brassai (Links to an external site.)is the pseudonym for Gyula Halasz, and he was well known for his photographs of ordinary people. He was proof that you don’t have to travel far to find interesting subjects. He used ordinary people for his subjects, and his photos are still captivating.
Brian Duffy (Links to an external site.)was a British photographer who shot fashion in the 60′s and 70′s. He lost his photographic interest at one time, and burned many negatives, but then began taking photos again a year before he died.
Jay Maisel (Links to an external site.)is a famous modern photographer. His photos are simple, and he doesn’t use complex lighting or fancy cameras. He often only takes one lens on photo outings, and he enjoys taking photos of shapes and lights that he finds interesting.
Source: Morris Pawtucket – (Links to an external site.)
Photo Critique
Composition—content – This is what the photograph is saying.
-What is the Center of Interest in the photograph?
-Where does your eye come to rest in viewing the photo? If there is more than one focus point does that add to the photographs interest or distract from it?
-Where was the Center of Interest placed within the frame of the photo?
-Did they use the rule of thirds?
-What other eye control elements are in the photo (leading lines, contrast, diagonal lines, etc).
-Do the elements lead you into or out of the picture?
-Do they create a circular flow into the center, do they form a triangle or other shape, i.e., what is the pattern of movement in and through the picture?
-Is the composition in “formal” or “informal” balance?
-What is the “focal point”? Is there more than one focal point?
Is there a visible foreground, middle ground and background?
-Does the design of the composition give a sense of visual tension, restfulness, energy, etc.? Can you discern why?
-Did the photographer get close enough to the subject to include only what is important? In other words, are there wasted parts of the frame that contain items not adding to the message of the photo?
-Is the image-oriented appropriately, i.e. if the subject is wide is the photo horizontal; if the subject is tall is the photo vertical
-Is the photograph visually satisfying, or static, or just plain inept?
-Is your eye led around the frame in an interesting way by use of layers, curving or intersecting shapes, diagonals, repeating themes, symmetry/asymmetry etc?
-Is there a discernible subject? (Does there need to be one for this shot – not always necessary for a “tone poem” type landscape for example?)
-Is there a good balance between the subject and the background? Beginners often chose a safe, middling approach by getting the subject more or less to fill the frame, where a more distant shot including context, or a close-up of a detail, would be more compelling.
-Have any important parts of the subject been lopped off at the edge for no reason?
-Are symmetrical objects truly symmetrical; i.e. are they the balanced equally on both sides or do they need adjusting?
-Conversely, would a better crop have eliminated unnecessary areas and improved the image? Beginners often present full frames regardless, and rarely think to turn the camera 90 degrees for a better result.
-Has the photographer missed some obvious problems with the subject: litter in a tree, a fence post sprouting out of a figure’s head, unwanted object in the foreground etc?
-Is the horizon level, for sea-, river-, and lake-scapes? And for architecture shots, is any perspective distortion considered, or accidental?
-Does the photo tell a story, show a scene, record an event, or in some way evoke a memory or feeling? Or does it make you imagine the photographer saying ‘Whoops, I just pressed the shutter button’?
Background- How did the photographer use the tools of selective focus or depth of field to deal with the background?
-Is the background simplified, included or a solid or is it nonexistent?
-How does the background add or distract from the message of the photo?
Camera Work—Technical – Exposure and focus begin in the camera.
– Is the subject sharp and clearly in focus?
– Are parts of the photo that need to be clearly focused out of focus?
-Is the depth of field appropriate?
-Is the subject contained within the depth of field or are parts of the subject fuzzy?
-Are there distracting elements in the background that are in focus which would have been blurred out by a wider aperture?
-Exposure is observed in the details of the shadow area. A properly exposed photo will have some texture in the shadows. –Is the photo exposed properly and give some evidence of what you see? Contrast in processing the film or the contrast of the photo paper affects the highlights in a photo. Is there detail visible in the brightest parts of the print?
-If there are areas of the print that lack detail is that good or bad?
Effort: Has the photographer made full use of the facilities at his disposal? Or, are there things that the photographer could have improved with a little more work? Does it look like the photographer made an extra effort to capture the best possible image under the circumstances, or did they just go with what was in front of them?
Color: Was the photographer’s choice to use or not use color sound?
-If the photographer used black and white, then is the subject of the photo something that is normally associated with color, like an apple?
-If the photographer used color, does the color add to or detract from the image?
-What is the “temperature”, i.e. cool, warm, neutral, etc.?
-Are the colors at the appropriate intensity for the subject; to strong or too weak?
-Does the overall value and temperature seem appropriate for the subject?
-Are the colors bright or dull
Spatial positioning and composition: Is the subject in the center of the frame?
-Usually a centered subject looks boring, but it works in some cases. Did it work this time?
-Does anything look squeezed up against the side of the frame?
-Are there big open spaces around the edges that could be cropped out?
-Is there a clear subject that occupies the majority of the frame, or is the subject unclear or small and surrounded by irrelevant material?
-Direction of attention: What do you see first in the photo? Is it the right thing?
-Do you have to hunt for the subject or does it stand out?
-Is your eye drawn to objects in the background, rather than the subject, or do you look to the edge of the frame, expecting to find something that isn’t there?
Exposure: Is the photo properly exposed?
-Are there details both in the highlights and in the shadows, or are there large “blown-out” highlight areas or “blocked-up” shadow areas?
-If the exposure is biased towards light (high key) or dark (low key), did the photographer make a good choice
Light: – Where is the source of light coming from, i.e. sun, artificial light, etc.?
-What direction is the light: from above, below, left, right, etc., and is this appropriate for the subject and mood you’re trying to convey?
-How strong is the light: is it soft and subtle, bold and dramatic, etc.?
-How does the light affect the subject and mood of the painting?
-What color does the light appear to be and how does this affect the color of the subject and it’s surroundings?
Technical Aspects: – Is it in focus where it needs to be (including appropriate use of depth of field)? For example, although landscapes are traditionally expected to be sharp, soft focus and a narrow depth of field are quite appropriate for certain subjects. And for macro shots, the part of the subject in focus is really critical.
-Is camera shake evident? (You cannot always tell the difference between shake and mis-focusing, but overall blur in a twilight shot is often subject to it.)
-Is the color balance right? (Unnatural color casts may indicate the wrong film or digital white balance was used.)
-Is the exposure right: can you see details from shadows to highlights, or are bright parts washed out for example? Is the overall impression very gloomy or too bright (taking the subject into account)?
-Was a good choice of lens used for the subject? (focal length: wide angle to telephoto; fisheye, macro…)
-Was a good choice of film / digital technique made: grainy monochrome, supersaturated color, infrared…) – or has the photographer used an inappropriate filter or special effect to beef up what would otherwise be a really boring shot?
-For JPEG images, are there any obvious artifacts, typically caused by oversharpening or excessive compression?
Craftmanship –
-Does the photo have stains, spots, dust and scratches?
-Is it nicely displayed in the frame or is it just slapped in?
-Does the photograph look like care was made in making it or is there evidence that the person just rushed it?
Your opinion of the photo –
-What do you like about the subject?
-Is it an emotional shot, a story, a statement, a humorous photo, or what?
-Is there anything about the photograph that you would do differently if you were the photographer and had the chance to do the same picture?
Submit a three- to four-page paper consisting of a critique of a photograph from a famous photographer.


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