Bad pictures: Jason Fulford’s Photo No-Nos

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With entries from Roe Ethridge, Jim Goldberg, Rinko Kawauchi, and 200 others, Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph explores how not to make a good image

There are no rules in art. That being said, most photographers have a list of tropes, clichés, and well-worn narratives to avoid. Although some would argue that there is no such thing as a “bad” photograph, there are always weaker images — those that don’t quite hit the mark. It can take a photographer their entire career to define that fine line between “good” and “bad,” and, for those starting out, some pointers on what not to photograph may save a lot of time. 

Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph., is just this. Conceived by Jason Fulford and published by Aperture, the book compiles an encyclopedia of errors, archiving the usually unwritten rules of the trade. Over 200 contributors, including Aaron Schuman, Mariamah Attah, Lisa Barnard and Sara Cwynar share anecdotes, with each image-maker contributing comedic and pedagogical stories that exemplify what not to do and what not to shoot. Alongside this, a thorough list of more than a thousand taboo subjects is included, ranging from “aspect ratio obsession” to “Zoom screenshot.”

Here, we highlight some extracts from the new book.

Cristina de Middel- Roses 

I do not want to be seen as a fragile and romantic person/woman in my work, so I just cannot take pictures of roses. And that’s that. The funny thing is that I absolutely love the smell of roses and wear that perfume a lot, but I try not to take any photos of them. Roses are so loaded with meaning; a picture of a rose is never neutral. They symbolize love and romance, passion and luxury, in cliché ways, and have even come to represent cliché itself. Roses also encapsulate most of the stereotypes for femininity from a masculine point of view: the passive-aggressive energy in the visible beauty and the hidden spines, that idea of beauty that can hurt you, the trap of sensuality, the metaphor of blooming, the scent of a woman. A photo of a rose taken by a woman has a different meaning. I do have a picture of one that I like precisely because of the loaded meaning. It is a double exposure of a rose within the entrance of a hospital in the Congo, where Dr. Denis Mukwege –the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize–winning gynecologist– treats thousands of women who are victims of rape, used as a weapon of war. The rose was a visual shortcut that added complexity and layers to the narrative. I used the image at the beginning of the sequence to put things in context and leave no doubt about the topic. It might be the only picture of a rose I have ever taken.

Cristina de Middel, Untitled , 2018, from the series The Body as a Battlefield ; from Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph (Aperture, 2021). © Cristina de Middel/Magnum Photos.

William Wegman-  Dog in Hat & Sunglasses 

When I began to photograph my dog Man Ray in the early 70s, I was careful to steer clear of anything anthropomorphic or cute. I had an aversion to dogs dressed up to look like people. I dressed Man Ray to look like an elephant, a frog, and other kinds of dogs. That was okay. But working with my second dog, Fay Ray, and the vertically oriented 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera led me to abandon that manifesto. Still, I would never photograph my dog in a hat or sunglasses. Okay, maybe once or twice.

William Wegman, Mondo Bizarro , 2015; from Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph (Aperture, 2021). © William Wegman.

Alec Soth- Cemeteries 

Like many beginning photographers, I took some of my first pictures in cemeteries. But as my photography became more sophisticated, cemeteries joined railroad tracks, abandoned buildings, and sunsets on the list of forbidden clichés. Discussing this with my photographer friends Ed Panar and Melissa Catanese in Pittsburgh, Ed told me he still regularly photographs in cemeteries. “Ed is so not cynical,” Melissa said, “the idea that something is cliché just doesn’t occur to him. He doesn’t have a cynical gene in him.” Ed is the single happiest photographer I’ve ever met. Wanting a little bit of that to rub off on me, I asked him if he’d take me to a cemetery. It was nearly sunset, and helped me to a bluffside cemetery near his home. He pointed to a particular spot where he’s made a number of pictures. I couldn’t imagine photographing in the same spot. Everything was too spectacular. But after setting up my camera and looking through the ground glass, I realised why Ed was so happy.

Alec Soth, Ed Panar , Pittsburgh , 2019; from Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph (Aperture, 2021). © Alec Soth/Magnum Photos.

Alex Webb- Sunsets

Ever since I embraced working in intense, vibrant color in the late 1970s, I’ve had a deep ambivalence about photographing sunsets. While their otherworldly glow often seduces the eye, I find that another part of me viscerally resists their clichéd beauty. I remember showing Josef Koudelka an early color photograph of mine from Jamaica of a group of men in trees silhouetted against a brilliant orange sky at a Bob Marley concert.“Too sugar,” he said in his blunt Czech way. And he was right—but it wasn’t just that it was too sweet, it was too easy. But every once in a while, I discover something that qualifies and complicates the one-note refrain of the setting sun: a mercury vapor lamp casting its greenish hues across baseball spectators in Cuba with a burning red sky behind ,or the cold blue tones of a quay in Greece contrasting with the pinkish notes along the horizon. That’s when I leave anxieties behind, and give myself permission to photograph the complex music of certain sunsets.

Alex Webb, Sancti Spiritus , Cuba , 1993; from Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph (Aperture, 2021). © Alex Webb.

September Dawn Bottoms- Clouds

Big, colorful cotton balls or dark swaths of gray, forevershifting. The clouds always do a superb job of slapping me in the face and yelling at me to stop and look up. I admit that’s something I’m not so good at, stopping. Or looking up. I think it’s a bit of a photographic cheat to take pictures of something so majestic. Yet I never miss an opportunity to cheat. Every body of work I create includes images of clouds, and I use them as a backdrop for almost every portrait. For Something so high in the sky, when I look up, I feel grounded, secure, centred. It feels like a defiantly feminine act to photograph the clouds.

Solofa Halley of Jungle Boyz Exotics in Tulsa, Okla. Oct. 2019.

Jason Fulford’s Photo No-Nos: Meditations on What Not to Photograph is published by Aperture.

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Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.