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A weekly column by Mike Johnston

September 21, 2003

Taste, Part I: Schubert and Schoenberg

I don’t trust people who don’t have strong feelings when it comes to taste.

Amend that. I don’t trust creative people who don’t have strong feelings when it comes to taste.

Have you ever asked someone what kind of music they listen to, only to have them answer, “Oh, all kinds. I like everything”?

Makes you wanna slap ‘em. Oh, REALLY? You like Schubert and Schoenberg? Biker thrash rock and Benny Goodman? Drums’n’Bass and Bach’s solo violin sonatas?

Don’t have a preference between Sonny Rollins and Kenny G? Just love that nice, atmospheric new-age sonic wallpaper, but also Sonic Youth? Have a special place on your desert island for the Clash’s Sandinista, but couldn’t live without those nifty Nimbus reissues of historical opera performances? You love the Archies and bubblegum pop from the ‘60s, and gangsta rap? Bill Monroe and salsa? Accordion polkas and Weird Al Yankovic? Billy Joel and Giant Sand? No preference between Barry Manilow and Robert Plant? I wonder if there has ever been even one person who likes church organ and kazoo equally. Or Caruso and Christina Aguilera. Trip-hop and string quartets.

C’mon. Most people who really love music have strong tastes even within specific genres. They’ll adore Ashkenzy and dislike Michelangeli, or vice-versa. They’ll be into Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee but not have much use for Robert Cray. Or maybe they’ll like Sonny, Brownie, and Robert, but not care for John Mayall or early Yardbirds. They’ll like Medieval plainsong but not care for operatic warblings, choirs but not a capella singing.

Just listen, sometime, to hardcore opera fans arguing over who has a good voice. You’ll have your hand nervously on the old cell phone ready to dial 911.

In any event, they’ll be able to tell you. For instance, they might like Bach solo instrumental music but not his Cantatas so much (okay, so that’s me). They’ll be able to tell you which Beethoven symphonies are the best (3, 5, and 6). Real country fans know whether they prefer Conway Twitty or Travis Tritt. Real orchestra fans know exactly where they stand with regard to period instruments. Personally, I think the man with the horn is Clifford Brown more than Miles Davis, and yes, I’d argue that.

Somebody Stop Me

Obviously, this could go on. But I think I’ve made the point. Creative people, or people who really like any of the creative arts, have strong tastes. Usually, the more they care for the art form and the more involved with it they are, the stronger their tastes are.

With photographs, as with many things, if you want good strong tastes you’ve got to exercise ‘em. In the latest issue of The 37th Frame, I included an admittedly rather diabolical “Photo Culture Pop Quiz” with 50 tough questions about photography. Question number 47 is, “Who is your favorite photographer?” This is supposed to be the two points you get for free, like the ones you used to get in middle school for writing your name on the exam booklet.

Yet I sometimes wonder. Do people really care enough to make distinctions? “Exercising” your taste involves making aesthetic appraisals and, yes, discriminations, all the time. (We forget that ”discrimination” isn’t a bad word, except if it’s part of a compound term with “racial” or “hiring” or some such. In fact, it used to be a very good word, something that a civilized and educated person aspired to. Are you a person of discriminating tastes?) Thomas Hoving used to say that he could walk into any room in any museum and be able to tell you within three minutes what his favorite pieces in that room were. One nice way to “get your exercise” is to pretend you’re a collector. Ask yourself, if I could buy only one, which one would I buy? (Actually being a collector is even better, of course.)

Critiques and Artistes

For many years now, I’ve thought that it’s desirable — at least for a guy in my position — to make distinctions between what I do and what I’m open to. Being open to art, I think, entails not judging others in the context of your own taste, but in the the context of the way they’ve chosen to work. To be open, you’ve got to “get into their head,” so to speak, or try to figure out what they’re up to. Then, I think it’s a question of whether the art succeeds on its own terms — whether it convinces. Even if it’s something you don’t particularly get any “pleasure” out of looking at or isn’t remotely like anything you want to do yourself. The more you know about any artist’s work, the easier this tends to be.

There’s a lot of benefit in this approach. It makes museums more fun. I means you can learn from other artists and their work more readily. If you happen to be a critic, it makes it possible to write about things you wouldn’t make as an artist. It means you can eat lunch with someone whose art you despise.


Yet, when it comes down to it, we all have our own tastes. I love the mental picture of the aged Walker Evans, in his hospital bed, flipping quickly through a portfolio of landscape pictures and saying brusquely (to Ralph Steiner), “Nature bores me.” Evans was never one to mince words.

I think it’s difficult to be an artist and be a critic at the same time. The critic is the audience distilled. She’s supposed to be open to a broad variety of work, astutely able to distinguish the original from the derivative, the dynamic from the rote, the effective from the merely earnest.

An artist, on the other hand, has tastes — the stronger the better. Critics can’t afford tunnel vision. Artists can.

But even critics don’t “like everything.” They almost always have strong ideas about what they think works and what doesn’t, what’s important and what’s not. Their viewpoints are built up from responding and thinking and responding some more. When a critic reaches first principles — the “Descartes moment” — he or she might come down to something that you or I might think is total horse manure. One critic might respond to the glamorous, another to the grotesque; one might be grounded in modern painting, another in professional photography for paying clients. Ultimately, their approaches are going to vary widely and are likely to be as individual as anyone else’s.

And if you’re trying to build up your tastes, how hard is that, really? It just depends on asking yourself a bunch of questions and seeing if you can answer them. Do you like color or black-and-white better? In what form would you most rather see final results? Is there a style of photography you like best? If you have an inherent weakness for something, what is it? Where do you see pictures? What subjects are worth photographing? Should a picture grab you, or grow on you? What genre comes closest to addressing photography’s greatest usefulness? Who’s your favorite photographer?

But more than anything, it just means choosing. Pick one over another. Get into the habit of discriminating. Be able to pick your favorite picture off any wall, from any group, out of any book. Know what you like. And know what you hate — because nobody who really likes a medium really likes all of it.

So if you ever get ready to answer any question about taste by saying “I like all of it,” just think, ‘Mike would slap me if he were here!’ (Oh, okay, not really. But you know what I mean.)

— Mike Johnston

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Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame ( He has a B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe Cameron.

He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.

His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the English magazine Darkroom User.

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