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.