Thursday, October 26, 2006

Do Beautiful Photographs Come From Beautiful Objects?

This question is of more than philosophical interest. If it's true that the best photographs come from photographing beautiful things then it has serious implications for where we go looking for things to photograph.

To start, let's think about some classic images. We can start with my favourite Pepper # 30 by Edward Weston. It's possible that holding the pepper someone might see beauty in it's curves and even see the sensuousness of it that so strongly comes across in the print.

There's a Paul Strand picture of a mud guard and spokes of a motor cycle wheel - it has beautiful curves and shadows and is a very nice photograph. The motor cycle might have been beautiful to some people but I doubt anyone would have thought the wheel itself was all that exciting, it's only in the way that the spokes, shadows and mud flap come together that makes an interesting photograph.

My picture of the underneath of a railway bridge is beautiful in my opinion. It had a bicycle path running under it and I'm sure thousands have gone under there and perhaps many have even looked up briefly. I doubt any of them saw anything beautiful there - it is in reality dark, dirty, and ordinary. With enough exposure and interestingly composed and emphasizing the wear patterns and light coming through the raiway ties, it makes an interesting picture.

Many of Michael Kenna's images have a simplicity which makes them beautiful but were you to look at the whole, I suspect most often you would not see beauty.

Some time ago The Online Photographer, Michael Johnson showed a photograph taken by a recently suicided European photographer of two forks touching - it was wonderful - they were very ordinary forks, there was nothing to lead you to think it would be a magic image, yet the photographer was creative enough to place them together, light them, select a background and print them in a way that was unquestionably beautful.

It's a little harder to pick examples of not needing beauty when we talk about the grand lansdscape, but think of your drive through the mountains on holiday. Sure they were pretty enough, but hardly the stuff of famous photographs. What makes the mountain pictures exceptional is the photographer selecting wonderful light or unusual weather conditions, a different time of year. Even here though, it's often how the elements are put together that 'makes' the image. Any other viewpoint would have been pretty but nothing more.

OK - so beauty isn't essential to photographs, even landscape photographs. It's probably true though that if you want to photograph the grand landscape you are going to have to go somewhere pretty and interesting, then find the beauty in it - if you can move in a bit, then you might not need inherently pretty scenery but you might need persistence or luck. If photographing a portrait, you'd want at least an interesting face if not a beautiful one. If doing figure studies, beauty helps if shooting the whole body but if concentrating on parts, you might well be able to work with all sorts and sizes of people.

Shooting industrial and still life, it's a matter of finding the beauty in ordinary things or outright making the beauty through careful juxtaposition, use of shadows, looking for interesting shapes and lines within something very ordinary.

Does it actually hurt to have something beautiful to photograph? Perhaps in one way it does - the more beautiful and dramatic the subject, the harder it is to create something that is better than being there. You risk the post card with 'whish you were here' on the back.

A scene can be so darn pretty that it's difficult to isolate something that will make an interesting composition. On our trip to Vancouver Island we stopped at a waterfall/boulder complex which was absolutely beautiful - but it was the whole experience that was beautiful and the whole couldn't be shown in a photograph. I really struggled to find something and no matter how interesting the parts were, they never did equal the whole experience.

Conclusion: Beauty helps in a subject, in some subjects more than others, it can be distracting and it doesn't come close to guaranteeing a meaning full or beautiful photograph. If cruisin' fer snaps, it pays to head to interesting subject matter, but the definitiion of interesting can be pretty wide and your definition is almost certain to be different from mine.


Anonymous said...

Firsly, I've been reading through your (substantial!) archives over the last few days after discovering one of your essays on TLL, and I'm really enjoying your point of view, and the thought provoking ideas you discuss.

There are quite a few posts that I'd love to leave some comments on, but for now this one seemed particularly apt - recently I visited a half ruined castle (it's half restored, I should say) and came home with a hundred or so pictures - but I couldn't show one of them to my work colleagues to show them what the castle looked like. Moreso, when I showed them what I had brought home, there were cries of "What on earth did you take a picture of that for?!" which a) made me question my motives along the same lines as this post, and b) made me resolve not to show my (artistic) pictures to my colleagues/non-photography-related friends/aunties.

If you don't mind I have a couple of examples to share:

'rainy days' On Black

'bone work' On Black

Obviously I'm technically lacking, but that aside, I hope I might have shown another example of what you were saying.

P.S. Looking forward to the next installment of 'Finding your Level'...

George Barr said...

absolutely - I really like the first image but as a record of a trip to a castle, you'd not get many kudos. On the other hand, it makes me feel like one of those really wet days, stuck inside, wishing I could go out photographing, a bit wistful, a little bit sad, it's the 10th time I've looked out the window hoping the weather would break...