Feininger on Photogenicity

In Photographic Seeing (1973), Andreas Feininger lists and discusses what he considers “photogenic qualities” that distinguish subjects and scenes (or aspects thereof) that lend themselves to creating interesting images, and those that merely get in the way.

Feininger emphasizes that the combination, rather that the mere presence or absence of such qualities that lends photogenic potential to a prospective subject. I would go so far as to say that it is the interaction, or emphasis placed on these qualities by the photographer (through framing, focus, lighting, space, et cetera) that helps to build strong images.

Listed here, in the order discussed in the book:

  1. Simplicity, order, and clarity of the subject. The author considers these to be the most important qualities in a potential subject. Due to the mechanical objectivity of photographic capture, it is up to the photographer to properly define the subject or scene, and to remove, exclude, or de-emphasize distracting “clutter” in an image. “When in doubt, it is often better to take away than to add, to go closer than to back up, to show less … and generally to remember that … a part can make a stronger impression than the overall view…”
  2. Subjects characterized by bold and simple forms. Primal, recognizable shapes and outlines would represent an graphic extreme case and corollary to simplicity and clarity of subject. Feininger gives as his prime example the silhouette.
  3. Hard, sharp, concise outlines. This would seem to fly in the face of some established photographic styles and techniques, most obviously the technique of soft focus. The sole exception that Feininger admits is motion blur, when utilized to suggest speed in a subject.
  4. Surface texture and fine detail. Emphasis on the surface texture is said to assist in a subject’s definition and characterization, by communicating its material or structural composition. Feininger warns that: “If texture is an important characteristic of a subject (for example, the texture of hair and skin in portraiture) but is rendered in unrecognizable form, the picture is bound to be disappointing.”
  5. Coloration. Feininger notes that colour can be an ambivalent quality in a subject, depending on how important it is to the subject’s “characterization”. It goes without saying that scenes with a monochromatic or subdued palette are much more easily rendered in black-and-white, or that peafowl would be next to unrecognizable so captured. Even in colour photography, it is advantageous to the photographer to control and restrict the palette as much as possible. “A few large areas of color are preferable to many small and spotty ones; combinations of related, harmonious or complimentary colors are photogenic, whereas combinations of unrelated, disharmonious, and clashing colors are unphotogenic.”
  6. Animation and dynamism. “Live subjects and objects in motion are potentially more photogenic than inanimate subjects or objects at rest”. Feininger’s argument seems to be that such dynamic subjects make for endless and ever-shifting forms, aspects, positions and relationships within the scene, whereas static, inanimate objects necessitate the intervention of the photographer to create such variety.
  7. Spontaneity. Corollary to the dynamic quality, a natural, uncontrived subject injects a sense of immediacy in an image. Feininger expresses a low opinion of staged, posed subjects in contrived scenes. “The worst a photographer of people can do is to tell his subjects to ‘hold it’ or command his model to say ‘cheese’ in order to force a smile… Overdirecting … weakens spontaneity, and posing destroys it.”
  8. The unusual. Uncommon subjects, unfamiliar aspects, original approaches or odd juxtapositions invariably elicit more interest than the familiar. Feininger particularly warns against imitation without analysis, which he believes is a “dead-end road”. Perhaps more importantly, he also warns against seeking novelty for its own sake, seeing it as a source of meaningless and contrived images.
  9. Repetition of uniform shapes suggests structure and order, but can also be visually dynamic and exciting. I prefer the term “uniform” to Feininger’s “identical”, because it   better expresses the point that the inclusion subtile irregularities and breaks in a repetitive pattern creates a more believable and interesting image than a perfect pattern.
  10. Motion. It becomes clear that Feininger likes subject movement in general and motion blur in particular. See animation and dynamism, and spontaneity. In addition, he suggests motion as another means of adding an original spin to an otherwise familiar subject.
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