Friendly Reminder: Photography Is Subjective

Friendly Reminder: Photography Is Subjective

While it is tempting to constantly compare ourselves to other photographers, it’s important to remind ourselves of what we already know: the quality of art cannot be measured in numbers.

This time of year is always one of my favorites in Los Angeles, not just because hearing that other parts of the country are still covered in snow, which causes me to look out my window at the perfect 70-degree day. Not because it’s Coachella season and hoards of people are living it up just a couple hours away. I’m far too old and not nearly cool enough for all that. But rather, I’m excited because this is the time of year that the Lucie Foundation puts on the annual Month of Photography Los Angeles.

A curated collection of photo exhibitions, portfolio reviews, and panel discussions descend on the city for a thirty-day, stretch taking over exquisite gallery walls and makeshift gallery walls alike. Even in a city of four million, the photo community is relatively small and tight knit, so the events also tend to serve as a month-long family reunion: a great chance to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and see the work that everyone has been producing.

Of course, in the age of social media and instant gratification, there’s a good chance that we already have a least some idea of what our peers have been up to. But nothing beats a traditional print framed against a white wall — photography in its purest sense. There are few activities I enjoy more than strolling slowly but steadily along a line of photographs, arms clasped neatly behind my back, my decidedly less than 20/20 vision leading to an easily detectable squint as I tip-toe in for a closer look when one image stands out among the others.

It’s one way or another with me. Either an image captures my attention or it doesn’t. Either it speaks to me or it doesn’t. There’s nothing about that reaction that makes me special. We are all hardwired with our own preferences. The ability to quickly discern our own level of interest is as human as opposable thumbs.

Naturally, there is the other set of reactions. You know what I mean. While a casual observer may look at a picture and mentally swipe right or swipe left, as photographers, there is often an involuntary impulse to judge an image based on another spectrum. How does this work compare to my own?

Not that I consider myself to be an overly competitive person. I’m not a zero sum guy. I believe a rising tide lifts all boats and am generally happy to see others succeed, even if they are, by business standards, my competition. So, my responses don’t tend to be based on a sense of wishing it were me up there on the wall.

Instead, I tend to react to a really great photograph in same way I react to a great film, using my inside voice to gently exclaim: “Wow, how in the heck did they do that?” I find myself completely blown away by a concept or an execution and stand in awe of the mind(s) that generated it. I wonder, if given the same concept, how would I have handled a given subject. What would be my final image? Would it compare favorably to this one I see hanging on the wall?

Of course, that’s a ridiculous question. You can’t objectively compare art. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to objectively prove one artist’s expression superior to another. Certainly, we all have our opinions. And our opinions are valid. But they are, at the end of the day, subjective.

Never is that more proven to me than when I take a reluctant step away from staring at the photographic masterpiece to view the next image in line. Whereas the previous shot filled my eyes green with photographic envy, the next image is just kind of, well, blah. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se. It’s just that I know I have a hundred images just like it sitting in my reject folder back at home. Many of those rejects, in my mind, are far better than this one. Yet, to my subjective taste, I didn’t think any of them good enough to even show in my portfolio, nor would I have expected them to be selected for an exhibition.

That’s not to say that my work is simply so awesome that even my bad shots are amazing. That would be far from the truth. In fact, my gut reaction that my version of this image is better than the one hanging on the wall is itself subjective and completely devoid of any scientific merit. At the end of the day, it’s only my opinion. I’m not wrong. But neither is the curator who thinks otherwise.

And therein lies the moral of the story: beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

I remember when I was in college, I was dating/trying to date a woman who, in my estimation, was quite simply the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Everything about her just brought me to life. Her physical beauty. Her inner beauty. Her intelligence. Her talent. It was like living in one of those Hollywood romantic comedies where theme music plays every time she enters the room and scenes that don’t include her always seem a bit dull as you patiently await her return to the screen. If it’s not clear yet, I was gaga in that wonderful way that you only seem to experience in your teens and twenties and will likely only make the rarest of appearances in the decades to come.

At the same time I was courting her, my roommate at the time was nursing his own crush on a girl who would one day become his wife. Knowing about my relationship with my dream girl, he said to me, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I responded, having just walked into the room and still coming down from the romantic high of an afternoon spent with the girl. “Why her,” he posited. “What do you mean?” “I mean, why Jane (not her real name)? I mean, she’s cool and all, but she’s not really all that attractive.”

Now, I’m positive that at the time, he used a different time-period appropriate term instead of “attractive.” Hot. Tight. Dime-piece. I can’t really remember. And we’ll put aside for a moment the objectification implied in the words of a teenage boy. But, all that aside, his words took me by surprise. It simply never occurred to me that anyone else in the world could ever look at the girl and see anything less than the most beautiful woman on Earth. And while it certainly didn’t change the way I felt about Jane, it did help to illustrate a point that would play itself out several times in the years to come.

In my mind, Jane was the most perfect being on Earth. In his mind, the woman he was dating was the most perfect being on Earth. We were both right.

Evaluating art is much like evaluating a romantic partner. Everyone has their taste. Everyone is entitled to their taste. Just because your version of a woman in a red dress standing in front of a brick wall isn’t chosen over another photographer’s image of a woman in a red dress standing in front of a brick wall doesn’t make your image inferior. A thousand and one decisions go into determining what work is recognized and what isn’t.

Technical specs are nice. There is such a thing as a shot being technically bad, like being (unintentionally) out of focus or some other camera misfire. But even technical mistakes can be beautiful in the hands of the right artist. In mean, really, are you going to tell me that Robert Capa’s imagery of soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy is anything less than awesome because they suffer from a bit of camera shake? Of course not.

Artists bring to their work an entire lifetime of their own experiences, influences, and perceptions of beauty. Likewise, a curator makes their selections based on a lifetime of experiences, influences, and perceptions of beauty. And then, in the end, we evaluate the final product based on our own experiences, influences, and perceptions of beauty.

It’s not math, it’s philosophy. There’s nothing objective about it. So, next time you find yourself in a gallery, either publicly extolling the virtues of a particular print or privately trolling the artist on the wall for not producing an image you deem to be worthy, keep in mind that we all see the world differently. We all value art differently. Stay focused on appreciating the beauty in the world that surrounds you and offering your own version of beauty to help make the world such a diverse and wonderful place.

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This really is one of the best pieces I have seen on photography in a while. Love the perspective. Thanks for this.

Julian Ray's picture

Yes! An actual article on photography and art at long last. Thank you. Thank you.

stir photos's picture

it's probably just my upbringing, but i usually refer to "Coachella season" as "music festival season", albeit coachella being one of them... haha... ;)

Studio 403's picture

Well said Sir. At 71, perspective and subjectivism keep moving faster than my age. Good Post FS

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks, Will. You are absolutely correct. The me of 21 thought he knew more than he did. Hopefully the me of 71 will know even more.

Kai Hornung's picture

Thank you for this fine article. I am absolutely with you!

Vincent Alongi's picture

Great perspective, and given that I'm in a bit of a funk right now it's a good read to help re-center myself. Well done.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thank you, Vincent. Always great to come back to center, then go back out and keep moving forward.

Anonymous's picture

Homerun article, Christopher; well needed for many of us. I'd recommend Robert Adam's collection of essays, "Beauty in Photography" as a longer review of the concept. I think you'd enjoy it.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thanks, Allen. I'll check it out.

Paulo Juarez's picture

Thanks for this article. It is well-written, and you make some interesting points. Still, I’d like to offer a few dissenting remarks. (Warning, philosophical ramble ahead.)

The core of this article is a defense of the contention that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, that is, that beauty is purely subjective, mind-dependent, not grounded in any objective feature(s) of the world. This is a fairly common view in the philosophy of aesthetics today, but it is certainly not the only one. I think we need to be careful when making sweeping statements to the effect that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, that there is ‘nothing objective’ about beauty and art, or even that you can’t ‘objectively compare art’. It is of course true that “we all see the world differently, and that we “all value art differently”. But it doesn’t follow from this that we all see the world *truly* or value art *rightly*. Think of two people, one who sees the world as being the product of a transcendent reality that is loving and personal, and another who sees the world as just being the outcome of impersonal, fortuitous circumstances. Surely both cannot be right, and so they cannot both see the world truly. And while it is true that we all value art differently – that is, we all have different conceptions of the beautiful that are shaped by our environment, our worldviews, etc. – there are few people who would even consider putting Manzoni’s “Merda d'artista” and any work by Rembrandt on a par. Same for classical architecture vs. brutalist architecture. And so on. Even (presumably) the Lucie Foundation has certain standards by which they consider some works ‘worthy’ of exhibition, some not. Sure, beauty in this case remains ‘subjective’ insofar as the *art community* determines what is aesthetically pleasing and what is not. But this is still a far cry from the absolute subjectivism behind the adage that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

You mentioned that one reason why it is not possible to determine whether one image is aesthetically 'better' than another is because such comparison would be “completely devoid of any scientific merit.” But I don’t know of anyone who would consider matters of beauty and aesthetics to be a branch of quantitative, hard, empirical science. I take the point, though: you wonder how there could possibly be a criteria by which to judge some works of art as ‘art’, as ‘beautiful’, as ‘aesthetically pleasing’, beyond your mental impressions. But such criteria has been, and continues to be, defended by philosophers who hold to some type of ‘objectivist’ theory of beauty, without denying that there is a subjective dimension in terms of the apprehension of the object in question (a photograph, a painting, etc.)

Towards the end you made a sweeping (and somewhat dismissive) remark about there being “nothing objective” about philosophy. Perhaps you have a background in philosophy, but this is precisely the kind of thing I expect to hear from people who don’t. The idea seems to be that no progress can be made in philosophy, or that there has never been a philosophical problem that has not been conclusively settled. But this is false on both counts (see Gettier’s work on knowledge, the falsity of logical positivism and scientism, etc.)

Again, there is much here that I agree with – I certainly think there is a greater level of subjectivity in photography than there is in other works of art. But we have to be very careful when we say things like ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, not just because of the contempt it breeds towards anyone who would *dare* to cast aesthetic judgement on certain works of art – which you seem to suggest is just impossible, or impolite, or whatever – but also because the adage is false, or at least true only after a thousand qualifications. We can certainly agree that the comparison game is not healthy, and not worth it.

Douglas Turney's picture

A great article and a great reply. So refreshing to read, as it made me think about how I look at other's work and my own. It also made me think of where I stand on the quantitative-subjective scale of art.

Paulo Juarez's picture

Thanks, Douglas. There's a great little book by Charles Taliaferro titled "Aesthetics: A Beginner's Guide" that I wholeheartedly recommend to you, if you're interested. There's an audiobook version as well.

tripbeetle's picture

Very true, Paulo! Some people's subjective judgments are worth more than other people's. However, we're in an age where everyone petulantly insists that their take on things be given absolute endorsement, respect, or, at least, tolerance, simply because it's their own, special, unique, precious personal take. That leads to ignorance taking over the world. Beauty is, like anything else, something you become an expert in by looking at it and for it, thinking about it, reading about it, talking about it, and trying to create it. Judges, whether of beauty or justice or anything else, are the people whose opinions matter because they have dedicated themselves to understanding and appreciating the niceties of what they're passing judgment on. (So when judges agree on something, it makes sense to learn from their decision. And when they disagree over something, there's something even more seminal to be learned.)

Dusty Wooddell's picture

Great points and a solid reminder!

I definitely agree with the title of this article. Recently, I ran into a situation where originally the client had loved the photos I shot but after a week they called and asked for a re-shoot. It's not easy being a professional photographer this day and age. Many clients think the job is easy and that they can do it themselves. Not to mention the next guy hovering over your shoulder anxiously waiting for the chance to undercut you to take your client. Check out my article about this story if this sounds familiar.

Tom Reichner's picture

I was glad to see an article about the art of photography. There is all too little such content and discussion of these matters on forums and social media.

I am a firm believer in the adage, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." I do not see fault with that statement nor with the philosophy that it sums up.

I approach my own photography in an "eye of the beholder" kind of way. When I am out observing nature, I am, of course, keeping an eye out for something that I find strikingly beautiful. Then, when I see such a thing, I ask myself, "what is it about that thing that I find to be so beautiful?" What physical attribute does this subject have that I find so striking? Or, is it something in the (wildlife) subject's motion or behavior that I find to be beautiful?

Once I can identify and articulate what it is that I find to be so beautiful about something, then I ask myself, "how can I photograph this subject in a way that showcases the thing about it that I find to be most beautiful?" And then I figure out how to do just that.

For examples:

When photographing Red-winged Blackbirds, I figured out that the thing about them that was most beautiful to me was their red shoulder patches, especially when shown against a blue sky background. So then I asked myself, "how can I compose images and capture behavior that specifically showcases those red shoulder patches?" And then my goal is to photograph them in such a way as to accomplish this specific objective.

When photographing Whitetail Deer, I came across a buck that was dominant over the other bucks. He was physically superior, and the other bucks all deferred to him, refusing to fight him when confrontations would develop. The thing that impressed me most about this buck was his superiority, manifest in his hulking physical presence. That was beautiful to me. So I then ask myself, "how can I photograph this buck in a way that shows the viewer that he is brutally powerful?" And then I study his intimidating behavior and the different poses that he strikes to see what will best represent his physical dominance.

And so on and so forth for each and every kind of bird or animal that I photograph. What is it about the subject that I find beautiful? How can I compose images that specifically showcase this trait? That is my method of photography. My modus operandi. And it is entirely based on the beauty being in the eye of myself, the beholder.

Hence, my photography is completely subjective, because I am only trying to please myself and to capture on my sensor what I see with my eyes and hold dear in my heart. I couldn't care less about pleasing anyone else or about getting my work to meet some "standard" of what other people like or consider to be art.

For anyone who contests that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I wonder, if you are creating images yourself, are you not trying to create images that please you? And at the creation stage, are you not the sole "beholder" of your work? So, if when you are creating images, you are the beholder, and you are trying to create images that you find pleasing, then by your actions you are admitting that you actually DO believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You may argue that this is not the case, but your actions say otherwise.