Question: What is your main goal when making pictures? Do you think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal? Why or why not?
It is difficult to know if there is a single main goal when I make pictures. For example my goal in taking portraits is to make a likeness of the person that may reveal something of themselves as an individual (see for example image 1 Gallery 1).
When taking still life images my main goal is different, less easily articulated but aesthetics or beauty is nearer the fore (see for example image 2 Gallery 1).
These two examples are from the distinct genres of portraiture and still life, and another is ‘street photography’ a third type of photography I practice along also with documentary photography (see for example image 3 Gallery 1). In this latter genre the aesthetics/beauty are perhaps at a point furthest remove from the still life photographs. In this scheme then the aesthetic/beauty quotient increases in a progression from ‘Documentary’ to ‘Street’ to ‘Portraiture’ to ‘Still Life’.
Perhaps there is something that encompasses all the above categories and analysis, and that is, simply, that a deciding factor when making a picture is the light – ‘good’ light (however that may be defined at the time) will induce me to try and take a picture, regardless of the genre any resulting photograph might fall into. It’s safe to say that in photography, light creatively used or captured (or abstracted in black and white photography) may be equated with beauty. The reason why making beauty my main goal is that it results in visually rich photographs even if the subject shown is an ugly one – a visually rich well executed photograph is almost by definition aesthetically pleasing and beautiful.
A more direct answer to the question “Do you think there’s anything wrong with making beauty your main goal?” is no, and the reason why is that, crucially, what is considered beautiful is not a constant over historical time. For example towards the end of the 19th century there was ‘a concerted effort to establish photography as a creative art, which coalesced into the international movement known as Pictorialism’ (Edwards, 2006: 44). This movement answered in the affirmative the question asked by the critic Jabez Hughes in 1861who noted that photography was generally used as a document: ‘may it [photography] not aspire to delineate beauty too?’ (Bull, 2010: 124). However:
Hughes’ use of the term ‘beauty’ suggests the types of paintings then prevalent in the official ‘Academy’ exhibitions: attractive landscapes, idealised nudes, dramatically staged fictional, religious and historical tableau, and flattering portraits (Bull, 2010: 124)
The photograph ‘Fading Away’ (see fig. 1.) is exemplar of Pictorialism, a picture printed from five different negatives.
Pictoralist photographs ceased to be considered as adequate to that task of rendering the world. Ansel Adams (b. 1902) wrote of it in 1935:
Pictorialism discards the pure photographic technique and view-point in favour of superficial imitations of other graphic mediums. While a shallow imitation of the other art-forms was often obtained, their aesthetic substance was never achieved by the Camera, and Photography was thereupon vulnerable, and properly so, to depreciatory criticism and the frank denial of a position among the fine arts (Bate, 2009: 97).
The reinterpretation of the photography aesthetics has continued with movements such as the New Objectivity (Bate, 2009: 122) and the New Topographics. In relation to the latter it is worth noting that at the influential ‘New Topographics’ exhibition in 1975 viewers ‘saw the photographs as shockingly stark and ugly’ (Soutter, 2013: 34). Yet 35 years later an essay on the subject is titled “New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal” (O’Hagan, 2010). To paraphrase the adage: ‘beauty’ is in the eye of the photographer and maybe eventually in that of the beholder.
It might be thought that making beauty the goal would insulate the photographer from adverse criticism and condemnation (what, after all can be wrong with the pursuit of beauty?), but it is not so straightforward. A good example that illustrates the pitfalls of pursuing beauty as a goal in photography is that of documentary photographer Sabastiao Salgado. One critic quoted by Parvati Nair makes the point:
Salgado is far too busy with the compositional aspects of his pictures – with finding ‘grace’ and ‘beauty’ in the twisted forms of his anguished subjects. And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To anesthetize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not action (Nair, 2011: 135).
The other side to this argument is that it is the beauty of the ‘visually rich well executed photograph’ (see above) that brings people to the galleries so that there is at least a possibility that they may make a compassionate response to the ‘anguished subjects’; without the photographs being made it’s possible that there would be no such possibility.
In conclusion beauty may always be a goal in photography because a photograph made with no aesthetic sense or style, even if the subject of the image is beautiful, is ugly.
Bate, David (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. New York: Berg
Bull, Stephen (2010) Photography. London: Routledge
Edwards, Steve (2006) Photography. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Nair, Parvati (2011) A Different Light. The Photography of Sebastiao Salgado. London: Duke University Press
O’Hagan, Sean (2010) ‘New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal’ In: The Guardian [online] At: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/feb/08/new-topographics-photographs-american-landscapes (Accessed on: 01.05.15)
Soutter, Lucy (2013) Why art photography? London: Routledge
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Robertson, Henry Peach (1858) Fading Away At: http://media-3.web.britannica.com/eb-media/69/59969-004-F0287A4E.jpg (Accessed on: 01.05.15)