Are your photos beautiful? Consequently, do they attract lots of likes online? If you are serious about your photography, then there are arguments to shun beauty and embrace less appealing aesthetics. But those arguments are flawed. Here's why.
Most of us set out to make our images look as beautiful as possible. Therefore, we apply all the compositional techniques we know to achieve that. We minimize what’s in the frame, remove distractions, apply the golden section, and look for colors that either stand out or blend with one another. We warm up landscapes, smoothen skin, and shoot when the sun is low on the horizon.
However, in striving for beauty, photography is out of step with most of the artistic establishment.
What Is Beauty?
Beauty is described slightly differently by various dictionaries: “The quality of being pleasing to the senses, or to the mind,” “a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight,” “the quality of being pleasing, especially to look at, or someone or something that gives great pleasure, especially when you look at it.”
Going back in time to Plato and Aristotle, through Descartes, Hume, and Kant, up to the philosophers of today, the nature of beauty was always debated. The arguments are fascinating and go beyond the scope of this short article. But I am going to drop on the side of seeing beauty as an intrinsic quality that most people agree on, and it doesn’t need proof to exist. For example, who wouldn’t agree that sunrises and sunsets are beautiful? We don’t need training in the arts to know that. Similarly, kittens, roses, the songs of most birds, and Audrey Hepburn are considered beautiful, and few people would disagree.
So, as photographers, we try to use our skills to capture that beauty. We make our images appealing, using all the techniques available to us to emphasize the beautiful aspects of the image.
Photography Is Out of Step With Mainstream Art
With a few exceptions, until the end of the 1800s, artists made their work beautiful. I am not just referring to paintings, but also music, dance, sculpture, pottery, and any other creative media.
In western art especially, it didn’t matter whether artworks depicted something horrific, works of art were invariably made attractive to the human eye. Take, for example, the paintings depicting the American War of Independence or the Napoleonic Wars. Or, come to that, the Christian artworks from the Renaissance of martyrdoms. Truly horrific, abhorrent acts that would turn our stomachs if we witnessed them first-hand, were painted beautifully.
Although war and death are featured more heavily in Europe and North America than many other cultures, that beautification of the horrific wasn’t limited to the west. Thirteenth Century scrolls from Japan depicted images of war. Aztec art showed human sacrifice, and Chinese and Indian art is not without portrayals of bloodshed.
The Arrival of Mainstream Ugliness
With the coming and subsequent progress of the twentieth century, Western art and design changed. Beauty in both art and design went out of vogue, replaced by something more severe. Fauvism, cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art, and dadaism, to name but a few, shunned beauty. Architecture and music underwent a similar change. Few buildings erected in the last hundred years have the same aesthetic appeal of those built before. Modern music, great and enjoyable though it is, can only rarely be called beautiful.
Yet, beauty remains at the forefront of photography. Landscape, fashion, still life, wedding, wildlife, macro, and especially the ubiquitous self-portrait photography, all try to show their subjects attractively. Photos are designed to appeal to the viewer. So, beauty rules in photography. There lies a big difference between photography and the rest of the arts.
Why Do Photos Remain Beautiful Against a Backdrop of Ugliness?
Most photographs are beautiful, while most art isn’t. Why is this? Firstly, commercial photography is there to sell products, and ugly doesn’t sell. Even the most utilitarian products are shot in a way that makes them appear attractive. Then there is vanity. People want to make themselves appear beautiful to the world. So, the skill of the portrait or wedding photographer is to transform people into visions of loveliness. Thirdly, humans are wired to be attracted to beauty.Additionally, photographers depict a view of the world that is closer to how the human eye sees it, so there are fewer opportunities for less realistic representations. Consequently, as the world is a beautiful place to behold, photos are beautiful too.
There are exceptions in both art and photography. There are still beautiful artistic creations, especially in outsider art. Plus, one wouldn’t describe the war photos of Robert Capa or Don McCullin as beautiful.
Is Photography a Lesser Art Form?
Does this leave us wondering whether most photography is out of step with, and therefore inferior to, mainstream art? Or is this trend towards ugliness in art a short-lived thing? Personally, and I know artists who will disagree with this, I think it is the latter. Photography is the main custodian of a tradition of beautiful art that stretches back thousands of years. The last century’s desire for ugliness in art is an aberration that, hopefully, will be swept away.
Why Our Photographs Should be Beautiful
A change away from ugliness back to beauty is more than just an aesthetic one.
Nature is beautiful, and at this moment, all our planet’s ecosystems are at risk from destruction. Every day, an estimated 150-200 species are lost to extinction. Pollution and higher levels of the wrong gases are changing the thin, blue layer of our atmosphere. Plastic waste spoils water supplies and oceans, poisoning our food chain. On top of all that, rare animals are taken from the wild and treated as if they don’t matter, and their viruses jump to humans, causing untold suffering. Photography that depicts the wonder of the natural world makes a statement in defense of our beautiful planet.
Meanwhile, mutilated animals in formaldehyde, grotesque representations of faces with discordant colors, poorly considered swipes of the brush that pseudo-intellectuals nod their heads at pretending to discern a deeper meaning, insipid mass-produced buildings with plastic and fast-dried pine furnishings; tuneless rhythms: this relentless trend of ugliness no longer shocks but makes people immune to all that is repulsive. Surely, this must be swept aside and the tradition of beauty reinstated into our culture.
Although there is an occasional need for art to shock with ugliness, it is overused; we are immune to it. Never before has there been more necessity for us to embrace and respect the beautiful. Then, if humanity appreciates beauty once more, maybe the young upstart in the art world, digital photography, will be the leading light in that change.
Interesting article. What you are really speaking about is the disappearance of classical skill-based art. This happened in the early 20th century. I talk about this heavily on my site the art of composition. However, this grand tradition is coming back in a massive force because of the atelier movement. What does this have to do with photography? Everything. A beautiful photograph is objectively traceable meaning it must incorporate the same skills and knowledge that the artist does on the canvas. Without these skills, and knowledge of design, beauty is lost.
Yes! First you master the craft, then the art. Below you see the panorama of my hometown Bern with the Alps (Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau) in the background. I visit this place several times a year and am always overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape. Next to it you see Pauline Bonaparte by Antonio Canova in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Both pictures were taken by me. There has been very little post-processing. The beauty is already there. I did not create it. Is photography art? It can be, but most of the time it is not. Like these two pictures shown here: beautiful, but not my art.
EDIT: photos deleted 22-01-15
Thanks for the replies. Yes, there is some resurgence of Classical Realism, let's hope that it becomes the dominant style of art in the 21st Century.
Immune to images of horrific situations? Not everyone. Not me.
Thanks for commenting Charles. Everyone is different and reacts in different ways, and I too have a big emotional response when I see horrendous events in photos. However, I believe that the depictions of horror, including movies and art--things that I usually avoid--do desensitize people.
I like the thought in this article, but I think you're maybe stretching your thesis a bit. You're comparing a small percentage of high end art (not mainstream art as you say) to the whole of photography. Mainstream art is what's being purchased. Look at art.com and similar sites, auctions, and even most galleries--they're full of beautiful art or, at minimum, art that attempts beauty.
Also, while there's clearly an argument to be made that the very high end art that ends up in modern art museums is not beautiful, I think it's a stretch to say that most of even that is ugly enough to desensitize us to something like a photo of a dead bird. At worst, most of it is just confusing to the viewer. It's true that Damien Hirst and his ilk exist, but they're the exceptions, not the rule.
Mi Marcus, thanks for the great comment. Something for me to mull over!
Certainly an interesting article. I'd agree with Marcus' point about high end art being quite different to mainstream art - as indeed high end art photography is different to mainstream or commercial photography. In the latter of both pairs, beauty still seems to me to be the dominant aesthetic.
Another caveat that might be worth mentioning is when comparing paintings from war/battles/Christian martyrdom with documentary (war) photography from Robert Capa (and Gerda Taro) onwards is that the market forces (nobody is [few people are] going to pay for something hideous) you mention in the article were in effect here. Those paintings were generally commissioned by Kings, nobility or the Church to celebrate victorious or great acts. The person or entity commissioning the painting wanted something glorious that would inspire those who looked at it to sympathise with their cause. Said paintings were also likely done from a safe distance of several (hundred) miles and perhaps also years by an artist who did not witness the events first hand, nor seek to document them as they occurred, merely present a fictional work glorifying the event.
Early war photography (even up to World War 1) played by similar rules. Photographers were not photographing live battles, but were generally touring behind the lines and often for propaganda purposes. Naturally, Capa (and later documentary or war photographers) photographs showing real life flesh and blood in almost real time are (or were) more shocking and less 'beautiful', but that is one genre of Photography that I don't think this general thesis can really be applied to. Photojournalism needs to show the good, the bad, and the ugly. *
(Capa and Taro's photographs of the Spanish Civil War do also capture a lot of the humanity and tender moments of everyday life for the Republican soldiers and militias they lived among - both were drawn to document the conflict by their anti-fascist views and the sympathy with the subjects is clear to see in many frames, with these subjects often captured quite beautifully when the moment allowed for it.)
* = To my mind, a similar comparison could be made between George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway in their writings on the Spanish Civil War. Orwell is Capa/Taro while Hemingway is the traditional painter. Orwell went to Spain, joined a militia with which he fought on the Aragonese front, was shot and wounded (Gerda Taro was killed in fighting outside of Madrid) before being imprisoned as a suspected Trotskyist. He wrote a first hand account of his experiences and political views on the evolution of the conflict. Hemingway was in Spain with the press corps, generally safely behind the lines rather than being part of them, and later wrote a novel (with an American hero set among a rag-tag gang of Spanish tropes most of whom are portrayed as either lazy, cowardly or untrustworthy) published after the conflict had finished from the safety of hotels in New York and Florida.
Apologies, I often end up writing long, rambling posts which somewhat lose sight of the initial point, which was that earlier paintings of horrific events - when compared to contemporary documentary or war photography - make those events seem beautiful partly because the artist was paid to, and partly because the artist was creating a dubiously realistic depiction of the event (often or generally) without first-hand knowledge perhaps several years later. Photojournalism plays by a very different set of rules, with very different intentions.
While I may not fully agree with the sentiments in your article, I appreciate you are one of the few on this site that actually produces thoughtful content versus the endless stream of links to awful YouTube videos. Your articles are always an interesting read and well written
Thank you, Matt. Many of my articles are just my opinion, and I don't necessarily expect everyone to agree with everything that I write. I do hope they provoke thought and conversation though.
I agree that such a short article is limited in scope and cannot begin to scratch the surface of centuries of debate on beauty, but painting this subject matter with such broad strokes is a bit problematic. Limiting beauty only to that which is pleasing to the eye in a very specific way is far too narrow. Ironically, of your examples, I find the most beauty in the photo of the dead bird. The idea of death can be horrible, but death and how we deal with it can be a very beautiful part of the life cycle. It's also possible to separate the elements of the photo from the idea and shock value of death. The tonality of the colors and their variations are beautiful. The composition and designs of the bones and feathers are tremendously beautiful. The experience of death can be traumatic but death and how we deal with it does not have to be ugly. Secondly, you ask the question, "who wouldn’t agree that sunrises and sunsets are beautiful?" A sunset and a photo of a sunset are two very different things. The beauty of a sunset is very much in the experience of the sunset which of course encompasses the visual experience. Capturing the sunset in a photograph is not the same. (I've seen thousands of sunset photos that are cliche but I've never experienced a sunset and thought it was cliche). Your example of sunset photos are nice and pretty at best and maybe a bit trite and cliche at worst, but not nearly as stunning as the bird photo (shock value aside).
Thanks for your thought-provoking comment, Justin. Philosophers still argue over the nature of beauty and beauty in photography. A subjective view that the image of the dead bird is more or less beautiful than the sunrise photos (not sunsets) is quantifiable in that I have sold plenty of those photos but none of the dead bird. Knowing how successful those images have been for me, I would counter argue that your judgement is subjective and far from a universal point of view.
As for them being clichés, as I have argued before, with the 1.4 trillion photos taken last year alone, it is difficult to produce images that are not repeated elsewhere. If you post some of your photos, I am sure that I will find some that are similar and would be able to make some comments about them. (I did look for some of your photography online, but was unable to find any,)
Saying that, I would argue with that, the Island I've depicted is not widely known or hugely photographed compared with other places, so as a subject, not a cliché. Also, the wonder of landscape (or seascape) photography is that every moment the natural world looks different. It is impossible to reproduce any of those seascapes, so they are unique. However, I could easily shoot very similar photos of dead birds.