Category Archives: Practice

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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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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