Good photography is a game of rules

There’s two kinds of photography, one that follows the rules and one that does not. When you follow the rules, you get good photography. When you break the rules, you might either get good art or waste the resources.

Ever since the 1950s (or perhaps even earlier?) there has been a great and growing divide between art and photography. There has been one photography for photographers, and another photography for artists and art critics, and both have been highly skeptical about each other. For example, artists such as Edward Ruscha, Dan Graham, and Robert Smithson in the 1960s parodied and subverted the pictorial traditions of fine art photography. Photographers, meanwhile, became ever more suspicious of advanced contemporary art and doubted the use of term “art” in relation to photography in general. Photographer David Vestal, author of the excellent photography manual, The Craft of Photography (1975), wrote:

Art. Undefinable word implying, among other things, ‘more than just skill,’ and ‘high-intensity communication.’ Is photography art? Yes and no: if you take care of the photography, art takes care of itself. (…) Art photography. Photography with delusions of grandeur: seldom coincides with art.
— David Vestal, The Craft of Photography (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 337.

Vestal’s book clearly sets out what we need to know about the rules of good photography. This is the photographers’ photography, not the artists’ photography that we’re talking about. I think now it’s time to pay attention to the craft side of photography – I came to this conclusion not while reading academic papers but while working on research projects on photography on Instagram such as Selfiecity, led by Lev Manovich. There is lots of good, likable and popular photography on Instagram, posted by people who are not professionals. How do people learn the rules of good photography?

Today, there’s an abundance of online tutorials about how to make your Instagram pictures better, like this Kyli Singh’s article, “29 Instagram Hacks from People Who Take Really Good Photos. Make your feed look like that of a professional photographer.” What interests me as a historian, is that those rules of good photography that these smart people put in their “how to” lists, often is very close to what was taught by books like David Vestal’s The Craft of Photography. For example, consider this:

What makes a picture “good”? If a picture is lively or pertinent, and worth seeing, that is what matters. Only weak pictures need perfection. Strong ones can survive considerable faults.
— Vestal, The Craft of Photography, 25.

Or, see how Vestal warns about the “filter trap” - although the filters he's talking about have nothing to do with Instagram filters, his advice sounds valid also for those:

People who have learned a few conventional filter effects often seem to rely on filters as substitutes for perceptive seeing. The normal result is a slick-looking disaster. More pictures are ruined by the self-conscious over-use of filters than by their absence; so unless you have a good reason to change the light-and-dark values in the picture — clarity or stronger expression — I suggest you forget filters and take a picture without them.
— Vestal, The Craft of Photography, 58.

Or, what do you think about Vestal’s thoughts on cropping?

Most cropping is the photographer’s attempt to outsmart his own vision instead of experiencing it fully. Clever disasters are the normal outcome.
— Vestal, The Craft of Photography, 135.

Selection of photo papers made in USSR and Hungary, c. 1965.

Of course, there are also significant differences. Black and white film photography was much more demanding in terms of skills, labor, time, and resources than smartphone photography today, and books like Vestal’s indicate that perfectly.

The first step toward good printing is to see something worth photographing. The next step is to shoot perceptively; next, make a technically printable negative; and, finally, transfer the image to photographic paper. All these steps are parts of a single process: photography.
— Vestal, The Craft of Photography, 136.

Further discussion about this will follow later, but for now, just another reason what makes Vestal’s book such a pleasure to read (very untypical for this genre)—even though there are rules, a textbook is not all you’ll need.

No one knows exactly what sharpness is, except that it’s the impression of great clarity of detail in a picture — especially clarity of edges. Impressions can be felt, but not measured. (...) The final judgment about a picture’s sharpness is personal and subjective. When it looks sharp enough, it is sharp enough, regardless of measurements. This has more to do with seeing and understanding than with focusing.
— Vestal, The Craft of Photography, 54, 56.

Vestal always finds subtle ways of reminding the reader to be a smart person, not just obediently follow the rules of good photography.

I think that much of the archival game is empty talk, just as most of the archival prints are mediocre photographs. The sooner those fade, the better.
— Vestal, The Craft of Photography, 149.

Selection of photo papers made in the USSR and Hungary, c. 1965.