Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography, ed. Kim Beil

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Stanford University Press (here). Perfect bound paperback, 7.59 inches, 336 pages, with 198 black and white and color illustrations. Includes essays by Kim Beil. Designed by Kevin Barrett Kane. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Many years ago, during my first and only photography course, the instructor posed a befuddling assignment: “Take a bad photograph.” The task seemed easy at first. I shot bad photos routinely, and I believed I had a firm handle on the problem. Like any child of the image-drenched seventies, I’d seen enough magazines, postcards, and calendars to form a rough mental map of good photography. So an intentionally bad photo would simply steer the opposite direction, or so I thought.

But making a bad photograph on purpose proved harder than I’d expected. Despite my recent track record of terrible novice exposures, I couldn’t seem to mess one up in just the wrong way when it counted. I interjected various mistakes into my process, shooting pictures out of focus, tilted, poorly composed and exposed, badly printed, and with no obvious subject or idea. But, in a perverse irony, all these effects only made my photographs more interesting and, well, better. 

I no longer recall which bad photo I turned in for the class, but the lesson stayed with me. That week was the first time I had seriously considered why certain photos seemed bad or good, and what was behind that judgment. Twenty-seven years later, I’m only slightly closer answering the question. If it remains largely unresolved for me, I suspect I’m in broad company. Definitions of good and bad have come and gone over the years, as have techniques for achieving these qualities. In fact, at their extremes the two traits share some crossover. Spend any time leafing through Shashin yo sayonara, or listening to Electric Eels, or watching Trashhumpers, or just scrolling mindlessly through Instagram, and aesthetic convictions begin to soften. 

Nevertheless, since its inception photography has been codified into dos and don’ts. In the early years of hand mixed chemicals and long exposures, certain poses were deemed good or bad, as were lighting styles, printing papers, retouching, and so on. Vignetting, blended negatives, stereoscopes, and crayons came in and out of style, amid an endless crush of photo fashions. By the time Kodak’s simple box cameras finally unleashed photography to the masses in the early 20th century, the field was rather busy. So the consumer floodgates came flagged with a series of guidebooks promising How To Make Good Pictures. This was the title of an ongoing series published regularly by Kodak between 1912 and 1995. They provided a rough roadmap to for shutterbugs, yet some still strayed from orthodoxy. Kodak guides proved no help, for example, to masters like Robert Doisneau, whose judicious adage described the aesthetic straits: “If I knew how to take a good photograph I’d do it every time.”

The Kodak guides have not aged very well, their earnest advocacy of new mechanisms a poor fit with rapid technological advance. But one person’s antiquation is another’s gold mine. For Stanford art history professor Kim Beil, the booklets sparked a multi-year study of shifting aesthetics. Her recent book Good Pictures: A History Of Popular Photography takes its title directly from the old Kodak series (an original facsimile cover appears just behind the title page). Taking a step back from their instructional imperative, Beil’s book is a historical survey of the field which takes a healthy stab at the fundamentals. Why have some techniques been considered good, why were some bad, and how have those judgments shifted over time? 

Good Pictures traces fifty photographic trends as they came in and out of style from 1839 to the present. Subjects are listed chronologically, roughly in order of historic development, and divided into 6 broad time periods. Within these periods, individual chapters cover a wide gamut, ranging from The Rembrandt Effect to New Angles to Contact Sheets to Fish Eye lenses, and all points between. Beil writes in a clear, professorial tone, devoting a handful of pages to each topic, her words supplemented with plenty of illustrated examples. With well cited information compiled into the reader-friendly layout of a pop-culture primer, this might fit just as easily on a coffee table as in a college course syllabus. 

The pace is brisk and spiced with interesting anecdotes. Who knew, for example, that Golden Hour photography is a relatively recent phenomenon? Or that square format frames were originally intended to be cropped? Or that making a photo scrapbook of TV scenes was once a common American pastime? Pros and hobbyists alike will find plenty to chew on here. The material flows quickly, and might be digested in one or two sittings. But long before the conclusion, readers will have a general sense of the outcome, which slots comfortably into the contemporary post-truth zeitgeist. “The statement ‘how to make good pictures’,” concludes Beil, “is actually a question, one that has no fixed answer.” 

As a tool-dependent art form, photography’s history is closely aligned with scientific innovation, and many of the trends identified in Good Pictures have been driven by gadgetry as much as aesthetics. Inventions such as the solar camera, tintypes, photomicrography, and magnesium flash may have circumscribed the tastes of 19th century photography, but their appeal relied to an extent on novelty. Shutterbugs tend to be early adopters. Newly fashioned tools opened the way for new techniques, accompanied by neoteric considerations of what might be “good”. Beil traces these developments through the 20th century to the present, examining the roles of, for example, panchromatic film, hand-held “spy” cameras, color, instant film, cross-processing, and iPhone filters. Each new invention set off a flurry of activity and energy before it was eclipsed or incorporated by the next contraption. Through these and several other examples, Beil describes “the blueprint for how the photographic community would receive trends: initial celebration and emulation, followed by derision when the style saturated the market. After the fervor died down, the aesthetic was often removed.” In this way photography followed the course of pop fads in music, clothing, and food, a self-reflective ephemerality keenly observed by Beil: “The evanescence of the medium was perfectly matched to the transience of taste.”

Technology played a large role, but perhaps just as important was photography’s sense of itself as a potential art form. Where did photography fall in relation to painting, drawing, or sculpture? Was it even an art form at all, or merely a scientific application? Or a commercial one? In fact photographers have always suffered a sense of identity crisis. It’s part of what makes them the neurotic black sheep of the art world. Aesthetic judgments are difficult enough in a well established field. But as the new kid on the block, the art of photography has always carried the added baggage of distinguishing itself from base applications. Amateurs, commercial shooters, reporters, and scientists clamored at the walls of fine art, and photographers continually took pains to keep them at bay, to clarify which practices might be deemed good and bad. 

Perhaps no one exemplified this better than Alfred Stieglitz, who viewed accessibility as photography’s “fatal facility”, dragging “the picture making medium into disrepute in so many quarters”. Beil’s chapter on Painterly Photographs offers an overview of Stieglitz prejudices, and his subsequent flirtation with Pictorialism. But trigger-happy sharpshooters weren’t the only threats. Working pros were too. Processes like gum bichromate helped to bolster “the distinction…between objective, commercial photography and the individual, artistic print.” Alas, scientists also required boundaries. Beil’s essay on Night Photography explores the ever present tension between “pictures made for aesthetic appreciation versus those intended to display technical virtuosity.” Even the seemingly benign—and now arcane—act of intensifying a negative was considered “a very dangerous evil”, to be avoided lest it implode the discipline.

The ironic effect of these attempts at putting up barriers was merely to broaden photography’s pie. Just as blue jeans and lobster inevitably scrapped their way from vernacular to haute couture, each and every style documented by Beil was eventually subsumed into photography’s growing tool quiver. Amateur habits such as hand-held candids made their way into fine art. And inaccessible tools filtered to the hoi polloi. So, although the book’s nominal focus is “popular photography”, other manifestations are inevitably drawn into the mix. The same factors affecting Uncle Jimmie’s birthday snaps come to bear in some measure on fine art, commercial, and scientific applications. By 2020, the boundaries have become thoroughly muddied. 

As examples pile up in Good Pictures, with ever thinning logic, the reader begins to sense all aesthetic stances as arbitrary. This feeling is reinforced by the realization that “rule-breaking” itself is often a rule. Everything in a photo must be sharp, except when unfocused by narrow depth of field, unless the proper boke is unimproved…or something like that. Shooting into the sun is bad…until it becomes fashionable. The same reversal happens with odd lens angles, motion blur, distracting color, etc. The cognitive dissonance crystallizes in Beil’s sharply observed chapter on Close-Cropped Portraits, in which guidebooks break one rule even as they prescribe another. By this point we’ve entered Animal Farm territory—“All animals are equal except that some are more equal than others”—with internal contradictions laid bare. As the book concludes, rules have settled around the contemporary #nofilter movement, a hashtag celebrating the absence of rules, and hinting at the perennial staying power of straight stalwarts like Atget, Evans, and Robert Adams.

Is your head spinning yet? If so, you may begin to sense how I felt during my “bad” photo assignment, and Beil’s approach might provide a loose framework for how pictures have been assessed. Beil credits social cues as a major factor in judgement, at least as important as physical processes. “Whether making pictures in accordance with or defiance of the rules, photographers’s formal choices signal their participation in a particular visual culture, whether high brow or mainstream.” 

Aesthetic judgments have long been a fat target for artists, and Beil is hardly to document their inconsistencies. Photographers including John Baldessari, Duane Michaels, and Ivars Gravlejs have lampooned art-making rules with satirical bylaws. In a sense they have created “good” art from “bad”, and perhaps stake out an aesthetic style to be adopted and abandoned. If Beil’s book is less humorous, it’s also less self-indulgent. This is the thorough, scholarly survey which until now had been missing, and for the most part it fills that role dutifully. 

Where Good Pictures runs into some difficulty is in distinguishing tools from beauty. The majority of trends identified by Beil are process-based. The study of such things can provide a general overview of historic patterns, but the notion of “good” photography is less tangible. As anyone can attest who has taken a great photo by accident, or had a potentially great image fall flat, good photographs tend to defy rules, tools, and all expectations. To be fair, their ineffable quality is probably beyond the reach of any book, so I don’t mean to single out Beil’s effort. But trying to tease out good photographs through an overview of innovation is akin to studying good songs through a history of musical instruments. What makes one melody memorable, and another forgettable? Not only is the answer unclear now. It was unclear 400 years ago. 

The chapter on Graininess provides an example. Initially viewed as an undesirable trait, grain gradually came to be accepted as an artistic effect. Beil cites Robert Capa’s famous D-Day photo at Normandy as a “case in point”. While it’s true that film grain enhances the photo, it’s not the primary ingredient for “goodness”. Capa’s picture operates as a shaky bundle of nerves. Its sketchy form captures not only a specific moment, but also the raw emotional essence of lived emergency. These too are factors in its quality. But the artfulness of this picture operate at a still higher level, somewhere beyond grain, blur, overdevelopment, or any technique. Capa could not have planned this photo, not could he easily explain why it works. In fact it might fit the brief for a “bad photo” assignment at Omaha Beach.

If the qualities of good and bad lie beyond mere tools, that may be an instructive situation for photographers moving forward. Not only have cameras become accessible to virtually everyone, they typically come packaged with a plethora of apps and effects. Virtually every bygone style in Beil’s book is now available at the touch of a button. In some sense, the barriers to process have finally been eliminated, and every photographer faces the same tabula rasa. How do they go about making good photographs? Beil’s book notwithstanding, that remains an open question, just as it always has been.

Collector’s POV: N/A

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