by J. Ross Baughman
excerpted in part from Angle, his memoir published in 2014.
“I know it when I see it.”
In a slightly different context, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart couldn’t define with words very well what he was seeing, but he was sure of his brain’s response back in 1964.
Two studies, some 40 years apart, shed additional important light on what photos the public responds to most.
Back in 1976-77, the Associated Press Managing Editors commissioned a survey that would compare what newspapers felt the public should see, as opposed to what the public wanted to see.
Then flash forward to the high technology of 2016, and we have scientists armed with MRI brain scans and the wisdom of social media. They don’t even ask about the should-part any more.
Just shy of 40 years ago, AP’s 12-page report by Joseph M. Ungaro, chairman of the AP photo committee tested 19 photos from across the classic categories of photo journalism: Spot news, General news, features, sports, etc. Their survey matched what editors and publishers thought was most worthwhile with what the public preferred.
Needless to say, the editors and readers did not agree; and everybody failed to agree with themselves on the elusive difference between liking a photo and finding it worthy of publication.
Let’s throw in routine photos of white guys in ties, an actress involved in a sensational murder, a wedding on horseback, a crazy unicycle/lawnmower feature, a swimming teacher in her bikini along with a bunch of cute kids, and a baby kissing a Saint Bernard. Oh, and while we’re at it, throw in a recent Pulitzer Prize-winning public lynching in Bangkok by Neal Ulevich?
Any surprises? William Randolph Hearst could have saved us from asking so many questions. He understood his newspaper audience very well nearly a hundred years ago, and nothing much had changed.
A.P. found that the baby kissing the dog was the most interesting image out of the feature category, as well as their top choice over every other photo in the survey. Editors preferred the Pulitzer-winning execution.
So how often do people like what the other guy likes, even when they secretly disagree. There’s a big, infectious problem on Instagram and other social media on just this problem. And what makes a really popular picture? It’s turns out that it’s whatever your friends like first.
If you see that other people have rated a photo highly, you will be much more likely to give it a high rating, too. Strip away all the surrounding praise from the exact same picture? Our love for it will never heat up.
Forget about the intrinsic power of new, original, contradictory, strange, challenging photos. Instead, expect more of the self-fulfilling popularity of puppies and babies.
When people receive “likes,” the Nucleus Accumbens part of our brain (the spot in charge of all our rewards) will light up on an MRI scan. Researchers Lauren Sherman and Ashley Peyton from the University of California at Los Angeles monitored adolescent females as they assigned likes, favorites and retweets on Twitter and Instagram.
What we find inside these young brains is a world of photos without carefully considered choice, little discernment, more checked instinct, fewer curators or editors, more snap-polling.
How long will it be before these preferences flash back on the people who find and take pictures?
When I was honored to serve as a panelist judging the Pulitzer Prize back in 2004, the whole jury could agree that we wanted to single out and encourage a nice long list of virtues:
The winners should be proven by their work to be ambitious, courageous, original, unique, historic, enduring, emotional and coherent.
Not much in there about following the crowd.