Stuart Franklin on What Makes a Memorable Photograph

From Moments of Depth in Aeon, writer and philosopher Nigel Warburton in conversation with London-based photographer Stuart Franklin, a member and past president of Magnum Photos:

Q: Is the point of photography, serious photography, to find or create memorable images?

That’s a very good question. Some photographers, for example Josef Koudelka, are completely in tune with the larger picture of their life’s work, of what they’re doing, and they understand where they’re trying to get to every time they go out with a camera. Other photographers get close to that ‘state of grace’, as Sergio Larrain called it, only occasionally. When Larrain was working on his book Valparaiso (1963), and photographed that memorable image of two girls going down some steps, mirrored, with their short hair, he wrote that he’d reached this kind of ‘state of grace’. It’s a special kind of knowing, feeling that you have what you’re looking for without really understanding what it is that you’re looking for.

To answer your question more precisely, it’s about being in tune with a much larger picture of a life or a life’s work, and that’s what made, say, Van Gogh as a painter so great – his career lasted only 10 years, 11 at the most, but for every moment of that period he was utterly in tune with what he was saying with paint. It’s very hard to manage that as a photographer, though perhaps the discussion about managing it hasn’t been had. People aren’t sure when they hit or miss, or why they hit or miss.

I had a discussion about this recently with [US photographer Alec] Soth who compared it to pop. There’s lots of music being produced, numerous good songs, even by the same artists, but why does everybody go back to, for example, Joan Armatrading’s Love and Affection (1976)? Why does everyone go back to particular pieces of music, even particular lines in a song? There’s a certain sort of transcendence that good art, good literature, has – a capacity to go beyond the ordinary and to become somehow extraordinary, and float meaningfully in the mind. There’s an upwelling of emotion that goes into the creation of good art and good photography, and it’s really the way that upwelling translates onto the flat, two-dimensional space of the picture that people pick up on and feel. It might be a very, very quiet moment, an unprepossessing sort of a photograph; and yet, for that reason, it’s even more forceful.


Franklin’s latest book is The Documentary Impulse published this year by Phaidon [Amazon][Publisher].