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From ‘Meh’ to “WOW!” Making Uninteresting Things Look Interesting

Beauty Is In the Eye of the Beholder?
Turning a mundane documentary image of an object or person into a dramatic or powerful piece of art is hardly new. While boring the pants off your friends with snapshots of your vacation — including the obligatory beach sunrise or sunset photo — constitutes 99 percent or more of the images produced and shared, this need not be the case. Nor do you need to buy a beret and begin using black and white film exclusively to turn some of your photographs into “art,” whether the subject is powerhouse steam pumps or steel mills. Instead, follow some of the many successful historic and current examples produced by photographers as well as a plethora of excellent advice available online.


Image courtesy of Powerhouse Museum

Beauty Is in the Eye of the Composition?
The historic Works Project Administration (WPA) of the Great Depression, The US Office of War Information of the 1940s and O. Winston Link’s project on steam railroads in the 1950s inadvertently set the standards for “art photography” of industrial subjects traditionally ignored in favor of flowers and sunsets. Luckily for those of us who appreciate such distinctions, some modern companies continue to practice the art of industrial or commercial pieces as opposed to simple image documentation. Examples range from Volvo’s online image catalogue of wheel loaders and other construction equipment to Koleston’s hair color print ad. Both of these companies use composition, color, settings and image editing software to make their images vibrant, striking and powerful.

Making Ordinary Pictures Into Extraordinary Photography
Dawn Oosterhoff’s tutorial, Everyday Images: Making Ordinary Pictures into Extraordinary Photography, provides excellent reminders to those of us who yearn to create the extraordinary. Among her recommendations:

  • “Be observant”

Oosterhoff defines this quality as the ability “to see beyond the ordinary.” Examples of photographs where the photographer accomplished this goal are the opening of a new manufacturing plant and Walker Evan’s brilliant image, “Bethlehem Graveyard and Steel Mill.”

  • “Change your perspective”

Oosterhoff challenges us to use an angle outside of our usual front, eye level photograph. Volvo’s quirky behind-a-tire image of construction equipment oddly underscores the size and power of the machinery.

  • “Consider what to include and what to exclude”

Photographs don’t necessarily have to include the entire image within the frame, Oosterhoff reminds us. Indeed, what is left outside of the shot can strongly underscore what remains in the photograph. This technique used in Walker Evan’s 1937 piece, “Negroes in the Lineup for Food at Mealtime” and another Volvo industrial catalogue piece.

Punch and Panache
This piece hardly addresses the issue of techniques available to produce images with “punch” and panache. Oosterhoff’s article itself includes four or five additional techniques best explained in her prose and with her photographs. Further, her “techniques” have to do with changes in the photographer’s mental perspective and approaches to the work. Other means of elevating the mundane to the extraordinary can be accomplished via shutter speeds, using special lenses, in the darkroom, during the printing process or manipulating the image with software such as Photoshop. In fact, there are so many options available to produce extraordinary images that we have hardly an excuse for a regular old snapshot.

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