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I Asked a Pulitzer Prize-Winning War Photographer to Critique My Instagram

·National Correspondent, Technology
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David Hume Kennerly in Venice. (David Hume Kennerly)

By age 30, photojournalist David Hume Kennerly had already documented tragedies in the Vietnam War, visited East Pakistani refugees near Calcutta, and won a Pulitzer Prize in photography. He’s since enjoyed a rich career, with stints at Time and Newsweek and as a White House photographer for Gerald Ford.

This month he published David Hume Kennerly On the iPhone, a photography book that catalogs a year’s worth of pictures taken with the iPhone, as well as anecdotes and tips for budding i-photographers. 

His goal, he told me, was to help everyone improve her skills — something he says is even more needed given the simultaneous boom of social media and digital photography.

I get annoyed when people post 10 pictures of their cat when one would’ve been enough,” he said. “I’m talking about if you log on to Facebook and you’ve got cat after cat after dog after dog after kid after kid. If my book helps people be better, then I’ve succeeded. They’ll enjoy their pictures more, and so will their friends.”

Related: 26 Stunning iPhone Photos Taken by a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographer

With that in mind, I asked Kennerly to evaluate my own digital photo collection. He graciously agreed and asked that I send him a few select shots from my 528-photo feed. The next day, I called him to discuss my choices, but he’d been unimpressed with most of them. He refused to comment on a photo of my cat I’d been quite proud of and said my photo of the Santa Monica Pier was boring (which is fair).

Instead, he said, “I just started scrolling through to see what caught my eye.” His commentary is below.

“If it was a perfect picture, the guy underneath the hooves wouldn’t have been there, but that’s just the way it goes. It has nothing to do with the way you shot it or anything, it’s just that there’s a person on both sides of the horse’s hooves, but then there’s one that’s right below it. If that person wasn’t there, it would just really make it a better picture. you wouldn’t have been so distracted. What I like about it is the movement up and down. This is kind of reminiscent of a [Henri] Cartier-Bresson picture, where you have all these people but they’re separated out. I do think this horse would’ve been better black and white. The color is not that important in this photo.”

"This is a great shot to a degree. Your eye neatly goes to it. It’s a desolate photo that tells about the aftermath of the concert; all that trash is a view that people don’t see. The lighting’s not great, but the lighting is what it is. You could maybe convert it to a black-and-white photo for more contrast. I like the guy on the right-hand side of the frame. But the guy on the left really interferes with the picture. I’m always recommending as a tip that you should wait and see if it cleared up a little bit. If it had been me shooting that, I would’ve worked it and spent five or 10 minutes wherever I was, especially because you have a good angle on it."

“The composition here is fantastic. You’ve got a lot of elements there: a line right up from the right-hand side of the ceiling. I like the way the plant and the Exit sign work together within those lines. The color is pretty good. It’s not a great picture, but it’s a picture you stop and look at twice. And it’s important to ask: Does that picture grab you when you’re scrolling through and see it small? Because if it does, that’s a good sign you’ll want to see it bigger.” 

“I thought this was trying to be a good picture, but it wasn’t quite making it. The idea was good, but the color is sort of this blah blue. The little branches don’t do it for me. It’s just not strong. And the filters you use won’t make up for a bad picture necessarily. Apps or filters are not going to make a good picture great. They might make a mediocre picture better.”

“I like this. If it’d been me shooting it, I’d have done it head-on, lower angle. I love it because it’s such a weird event, which I’ve also covered. The people are insane, and you definitely caught some of that. The guy on the right is like the Vanna White of the Westminster Dog Show. Their choice of color makes it look like a dog funeral parlor. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were playing organ music in the background. The ideal picture there is you’d have the ivy-covered pillars framing those weird people. It’s a good picture, but it could’ve been great if all those circumstances would’ve fallen into place. I could see greatness there, an almost Diane Arbus flare to it. But that’s not complementing the people necessarily.”

“This photo cries for black-and-white. The picture isn’t bad, it’s just a situation where you really should have worked it more. I like the white hat in the foreground, that’s great. The balloons, too. It seemed like a different era, almost a Great Gatsby thing. Part of my suggestion to you would be to shoot more pictures, because you’re on to something in the first place. You should’ve tried angles lower or higher, or focus on the quality. When you shoot at a crowd, it’s hard with the iPhone. You always need to look for a point of interest—a face in the crowd, something that’s not related to what’s going on. That makes the picture more interesting.” 

This is one of your best pictures. It’s funny, it’s dramatic. you can see it from a mile away. The cat looks crazed, as cats do. It’s a real moment with the cat. It’s not just another cute picture. The cat is displaying its personality. Everything about it works. If I had to [pick one], this is the one I like best.”

“This is really nice. Obviously, it’s thanks to the artist [James Turrell], but your interpretation of it is very nice. The concentric lines coming out and the vividness of the color that just pops out at you. This is one where you can take it in Photoshop and boost the contrast a little bit. In my book I talk about shooting in museums. You’re interpreting other people’s art, or your interpreting other people’s interpretations of art. And I like to shoot people relating to the art, which is another wait-for-it kind of thing.”

This is a show-stopping photograph. It pops up even if it’s really small. It reads well no matter how big it is. The composition here is great, the color is terrific, and the caption, ‘my worst nightmare,’ is funny. The way the stairs and the color leads you up to that little weird thing at the top of the stairs is good. If it’d been me shooting that, and I saw that security guard back there, I would’ve come down a tad, so I could’ve seen his eyes looking out, which would’ve complemented the photo.”

“I thought this was terrific. You have to look twice at it and wonder if that’s a miniature display of thread. I’ve never seen anything like it. The composition of it is good, too: the fence in the foreground, the shadow coming through to complement the photo as it divides up the blank space on the left. It’s a provocative photo, almost Liliputian. It’s a visual conundrum, and it makes people think.”

“Is that a selfie? I guess that’s fine. I like the composition of this: half of you cut off and the other person only slightly in there.”

“Nothing to criticize there. I’ve seen a lot worse.”

You can purchase David Hume Kennerly On the iPhone: Secrets and Tips from a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographer here.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her.