A big question but one that I feel is given too little thought. It’s literally a big picture question, a wide-screen discussion that too often I believe gets drawn into the weeds of academic critical theory, technical considerations or historical importance. That’s fine but I think it misses the point of my question and offers too many rabbit holes to disappear inside.

What all of these methods of investigation exclude is emotion as a foundation for connection. In essence that is what a photograph needs to connect. We can admire technical ability, historical relevance and academic understanding but it is that emotional connection that takes us into an image at a physical level.

I heard the much derided and I think often misunderstood photographer Jeurgen Teller speak recently. He said that he had no interest in photographing a flower to make a nice picture but if someone gave him a flower he would photograph it as a record, a memory embued with the emotion of the moment. A record of giving and receiving. This resonated with me. Of course that is what makes an important photograph I realised. Not the photograph itself but the context in which it was made.

I instantly thought of Richard Avedon’s photographs of his terminally-ill father. Then, Annie Leibowitz’s images of the deceased Susan Sontag. Two photographers whose archives are filled with memorable and iconic images but these photographs are different. They were made for the photographer to remember and for no other reason.

I have images that mean everything to me but that have no great photographic quality. I’m sure you do also. We all do.

So, maybe the answer to such a large question is small and intimate. I saw a post on Facebook whilst I was writing this article by the photographer Graham Macindoe. He said this, “A couple of years ago when my dad was sick with cancer I took a set of pictures that I thought I’d backed up onto a drive but subsequently couldn’t find. Even though I’ve taken many pictures of him it pained me because I remembered the moment and the conversation I had with him and how the photos looked. Yesterday I found them in a folder on a backup drive labeled “miscellaneous stuff”. I’m over the moon to have them back along with some other photos.” Having read this it was clear that I had an answer to my question. I think you will too.

Perhaps too many photographers spend too much time worrying about what other people think of their photographs. An insecurity fed by social media likes, and in so doing start to create work for others rather than themselves? Chasing a ‘quick-fix’ validation, whilst losing the true meaning of the importance of creating work. If that is the case then you will never truely know what makes a photograph important to you. Importance cannot be judged through numbers it needs some empathy, emotion and connection to make the grade. As Avedon said of the images of his father “Whatever happened between us was important to us, but it is not important to the pictures.”

Image: ©Richard Avedon, 1971

Dr.Grant Scott
After fifteen years art directing photography books and magazines such as Elle and Tatler, Scott began to work as a photographer for a number of advertising and editorial clients in 2000. Alongside his photographic career Scott has art directed numerous advertising campaigns, worked as a creative director at Sotheby’s, art directed foto8 magazine, founded his own photographic gallery, edited Professional Photographer magazine and launched his own title for photographers and filmmakers Hungry Eye. He founded the United Nations of Photography in 2012, and is now a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, and a BBC Radio contributor. Scott is the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019), and What Does Photography Mean To You? (Bluecoat Press 2020). His photography has been published in At Home With The Makers of Style (Thames & Hudson 2006) and Crash Happy: A Night at The Bangers (Cafe Royal Books 2012). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was premiered in 2018.

Scott’s book Inside Vogue HouseOne building, seven magazines, sixty years of stories, Orphans Publishing, is now on sale.

© Grant Scott 2024

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Last Update: 06/05/2024