New Questions

Photo by Elmo Tide

Getting awesome feedback! Thank you all for reading these things and glad my random thoughts and ideas are resonating. If you have any questions that you think I should write about, leave them in the comments section or feel free to email me :

This came in from regular photo contributor Reuben Radding:

Here’s what I’m having a hard time with: new questions. When I started grad school I dedicated myself to finding new questions to replace the outmoded and fully answered ones like, “Is it documentary or fine art?” “Why black & white vs color? digital vs film?”, etc etc etc… And the idea was that if we accept these issues as a waste of thought, what is next? What are the next big questions?

I have spent two years busting ass, growing, learning, questioning, and I’m not sure I know what the questions are other than, “What is the specific energy or quality or whatever that makes a photograph really sing out when it obviously doesn’t depend on “correctness” or “important content”?

We all know this quality when we see it. And we all chase it. And different photos are strong for different reasons, but what is this elusive aliveness that no one can put in a lens review or a guide to composition? I’m only scratching the surface to find an answer for this yet, and I’m still looking for more questions that aren’t “Canon vs Nikon” or “Wide angle vs Normal.” Maybe, “How can I put everything I am into a frame?” or “Who the hell is Elmo Tide?”

Thanks Reuben. Firstly, I think this might be the impossible question. Let’s try it. I have mentioned story telling in other posts. I say if you can tell a good story then your photos are “good”. But that involves multiple frames and editing much like making a feature film. And I think you’re saying, “What makes 1 particular frame really good?” To me that’s almost like saying, “What is art?” Let’s look it up.


1. the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
“the art of the Renaissance”
synonyms: fine art, artwork
“he studied art”

2. the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance.

Ok we have some clues. Look at the first definition. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We know about beauty so let’s scratch that one off. “Emotional power”. That’s the nectar right there. You touched on it when you said “aliveness”. The viewer is feeling something looking at the photo. Maybe a “good” photo steers them in a particular emotional direction.

This is a list from Wikipedia :

Robert Plutchik’s theory says that the 8 basic emotions are:

  • Fear – Feeling of being afraid, frightened, scared.
  • Anger – Feeling angry. A stronger word for anger is rage.
  • Sadness – Feeling sad. Other words are sorrow, grief.
  • Joy – Feeling happy. Other words are happiness, gladness.
  • Disgust – Feeling something is wrong or nasty.
  • Surprise – Being unprepared for something.
  • Trust – A positive emotion; admiration is stronger; acceptance is weaker.
  • Anticipation – In the sense of looking forward positively to something which is going to happen. Expectation is more neutral.

Looking at this list it is no wonder why joy is favored as such a premium and why bad news dominates every tv channel. People need to get charged up emotionally in either direction.

This makes me think of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. While 100s or 1000s of photographers have traveled across the country and made books about it, his became one of the most celebrated photo books of all time. And it’s because it had a darkness to it. A sadness. And in the 1950’s that kind of emotional exploration was new and sophisticated.

I don’t know if this is theee answer, but it’s an answer. Emotional content. Maybe if you can shoot something in a strong emotional state, and somehow that emotion transfers over to the viewer, then maybe you have just made a “good” photo.

Second. I don’t know who is Elmo Tide. But what a great example of no social media, no website, just Flickr and epic photos. I feel lucky that he somehow found Hamburger Eyes and decided to submit photos, a few rounds of photos actually. If you are reading this Elmo, we are huge fans and can’t wait to see more.

10 responses to “New Questions”

  1. SB Avatar

    So good Ray. I’ve been trying to comment VIA safari on my iphone but the comment never posts…not sure if there’s an issue with safari on iphone or not? Anyways these articles are really sticking with me. The 8 emotions you posted are really what we’re out on the streets capturing. We all want to feel something in the photographs we take. I think we as humans are always looking for some kind of feeling and if you can put that feeling into a photograph it’s a winner as you had said above. I’ve always wondered who elmo tide is too…

  2. Reuben Radding Avatar

    Super cool, man. Thanks. This to me, is the kind of exchange I don’t see enough of.

    I like that you engaged with the question the way you did, focusing on the emotional part of pictures, and breaking down what some of THAT content is.
    I guess what makes the question impossible is…well, a few things:

    even with strong emotional content there are so many ways to go wrong

    today’s mediocre photo could be tomorrow’s wondrous classic, because the nature of a changing world

    today’s awesome photo could be only mediocre tomorrow for the same reason

    sometimes the emotional resonance of a picture is too overt to be enjoyable

    and more..!

    This is the shit I think about all day. I go to a lot of photo-related talks in NYC. They’re free and rarely crowded, and I’m always hoping stuff will go to places like this, but instead it’s usually all surface issues, or bonehead process stuff, or careerism. Good to take it somewhere else.

  3. RZZ Avatar

    Thanks gang! This is a great discussion.

    Reuben, you are right. How can a photo resonate in time forwards and backwards? Culturally? Maybe context is a part of it. And I kinda of shrugged off “beauty” in this article. Maybe there is a lot more to say about it.

    Also, you are right about that emotional content could be too strong to relate to. Photojournalism can be brutal at times, but still be good photography.

    Not sure there is a check box formula for a “perfect” photo but we are getting closer.

    Let’s make the pursuit for this hypothesis our collective purpose.

    I will attempt to write about “context” and “beauty” in future articles. You guys fuel me!

  4. RZZ Avatar

    SB and others, sometimes the comments go into a moderation mode where i have to approve your comments. So that’s what that is. I don’t think the system tells you if or if not your comment went into moderation. I will try to fix that! Thanks for your thoughts though!

  5. Chris Leskovsek Avatar
    Chris Leskovsek

    shit, I had written this long comment, and for some reason it didnt publish and lost it completely. I will try to re write it again.

    I think this is a very interesting topic Ray / Reuben.

    I just wanted to add on the art definition part of the question. We all know is a can of worms, and humanity trying to explain it, specially snobs, have been going for decades. However, as a spanish speaking person myself, most of spanish words are Latin based and there’s this entity called RAE (Real Academia de la Lengua EspaƱola – The Real Academy of Spanish Languages) which essentially they are kinda the ‘gatekeepers’ or the ‘last say’ when it comes to creating word dictionaries and define each word for the world spanish languages.

    I usually go to dictionaries to find the etimology of words and get to the very origin of the definition of words, so, one of the definitions according to RAE about ‘Art’ (‘Arte’in spanish) is: ‘set of rules and principles to do well something’, and what I find fascinating about that definition, is the fact that ‘something’ is not really specificied onto what, therefore we can infer that ‘anything’ when ‘done right’ might well be considered ‘art’ in the strict meaning of the word.

    Also, the word ‘Art’ comes from the latin ‘Aris’ for which ‘ar’ means ‘adjust, to make, to place, technic’ – hence: artisan, artist, architect, artifact, artificial, etc

    Much like going to the essence of words to find meaning and understanding, for me, photography, is about deducting than adding onto the frame. Is what you leave out of the frame that makes what’s inside interesting and make the viewer a participant and not just a mere spectator.

    Also, I believe in photography in a more literary way, just like writing, is the act of ‘taking notes’ on the go (you react more emotionally onto what to click and what not), rather than creating a ‘painting’ (whole story in a single frame). The problem with the taking notes route, is that most of the time, the photographs don’t make much sense (as they are little bits n pieces) until they are edited into a book/exhibition/zine and becomes this ‘bigger picture’ that makes better sense.

    Oh well, im rambling now… but fuck, I’d love to get a beer wit you guys one day and endlessly discuss this and more…

  6. RZZ Avatar

    Amazing Chris. Thanks for your comment! (I think I just now fixed the comments by the way) (And for future reference, if anyone here is registered to the forums and logged in, your comments on these articles should post immediately. Otherwise, your comment might go into a holding cell, waiting for moderation, without saying so. )

    I like your break down of the “action” part of making “art”. Photography is note taking for me as well and thus my whole thing about editing and “storytelling”. But how do you do it in 1 frame?

    Can a photo have a lifetime of setup, conflict, and resolution all in one? I don’t think so. But maybe 1 photo can represent a great mystery and hopefully entice the viewer to seek more from you and find out more about your story.

    “Mystery” mixed with “emotional content” and “beauty”. Are we are getting closer?!

  7. Danny Arenas Avatar

    hello to all, I appreciate this conversation as nowadays we are swamped with gear talk which can be so cold. The act of making pictures to see what life looks like when your away from that moment is exhilarating and calming. Late at night ( for me that’s 10:30pm) my chest gets warm from desire to see how life can be created/seen/captured in pictures. I wonder what photos are waiting.

    Mystery,emotional content, beauty, yes, yes, and yes I also think of a subject that I identify with which makes the photo make sense to me in a personal, emotional and intellectual level, sometimes it takes time for the photo to click, others are immediate..what the hell am i saying…

  8. RZZ Avatar

    Haha you are right Danny. Subject matter and the context of viewing it are definitely a big part of it too.

    I was thinking maybe I will make a poll type thing and we can see a pie chart of the most important aspects of a single masterpiece level photo.

  9. NICK Avatar


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