Feininger on Photogenicity, Part 2: You’re Doing It Wrong

Having dealt in my last post with common qualities of photogenic subjects, I would like to return to Andreas Feininger’s Photographic Seeing. This post will discuss the common pitfalls, “unphotogenic subject qualities” as the author labels them: those properties of a subject or scene that weaken an image. I am of the opinion that no photographer ought to arbitrarily avoid subjects, much less disregard something that has already caught their interest, but I believe that without understanding how an image can fail before they attempt it, they will always be disappointed with their efforts.

  1. Insipidity and lack of subject interest can be most easily described as the absence of any and all of the photogenic qualities previously discussed. I’d have thought that the lack of anything to catch the eye and recommend a potential subject would lead it to be overlooked. Unfortunately, there are more than enough examples to the contrary.
  2. Overabundance of subject matter would reasonably be considered as the antithesis of the photogenic quality of simplicity. Feininger warns that a propensity to “cram as much of their surroundings into a single view as possible” is a common and grievous habit of beginners who “labor under the illusion that what impressed the roving eye in reality should be equally effective in picture form…”
  3. An unphotogenic background. Having found a promising subject, many photographers become so intensely focussed upon it, to the exclusion of all else, that they become oblivious to whatever else they may include in the frame. The go-to example is a portrait in which a tree appears to be growing out of the top of the subject’s head.  The broader classes that Feininger lists are distracting, obtrusive, “busy” backgrounds, gaudy backgrounds used with subdued subjects, and conversely backgrounds that contrast so little with the subject that they disappear into it.
  4. An unphotogenic foreground, particularly, an empty one. Feininger uses the example of an empty foreground in outdoor portraiture, but a lack of foreground interest is an even more grievous sin in landscape photography.
  5. Subject contrast, in hue or brightness, when either too high or too low. Excessive contrast in a subject or scene can force a photographer to choose whether he must sacrifice detail his highlights or shadows. Weak contrast can cause a dull “muddy” image. Feininger acknowledges that there are valid exceptions to this rule, he implies that they require exceptional imagination and virtuosity to execute.
  6. Shadows that are wrongly placed or too harsh. In studio photography, this often manifests as multiple shadows at unnatural, divergent angles. Also common in this category are distracting shadows, such as those cast by objects outside the image (including the photographer), and shadows cast upon the subject, or by the subject over the scene.
  7. “Posing and faking”, as mentioned in the previous post destroy any sense of immediacy, spontaneity or natural flow in an image. Feininger sees such photographic perfidy as the hallmark of cheesy, confected, commercial images or excessively contrived portraiture. I certainly agree that there is such a thing as a stiff pose and poor direction, Feininger’s condemnation of “fake” photos reads like a blanket reproach against commercial photography in general.

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