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Saturday, June 03, 2006

And Speaking of Definitions....

...Which I was a moment ago, I wanted to mention that Paul's "Beauty" post is not something I have much sympathy with. I find it almost bizarre that people can talk about "beauty" in any specific way, as if we all know what we're talking about.

One of the great epiphanic moments in my critical thinking about photography came when Owen Edwards, the great columnist for the old American Photographer magazine, attempted, for his final column, to summarize the essence of photography in grand Cartesian fashion—and came up with the word "glamor." The reason it was an epiphany for me is that glamor didn't then, doesn't now, and probably never will have anything at all to do with what I see as essential to photography.

And neither does "beauty," whatever that means. Certainly if it means sunsets and flower pictures, and scenics. (And cats. I'm a dog guy.) What matters in a photograph to me is honesty, and to a lesser, and secondary degree, grace, or gracefulness. And also I think I value a certain singularity, the property that makes one photograph mystifyingly great and another one almost exactly like it nothing.

Even humor ranks above beauty, for me.

True...but not beautiful.

It's a good thing to know—about myself. No reason for anybody to agree or disagree, any more than they might if I said, "I'm tall" or "I get tired easily."

But you wouldn't believe how many comments I've had to reject in that thread. I have no idea what "beauty" means, but boy, if you haven't got it, there are some people out there who don't approve of you, brother.



Blogger Martin B. said...

I like where these posts are going. They bring up fundamental questions. The kind of question that doesn't have any clear cut anwser.

Here's some food for thought on the subject.

- Does beauty necessarilly equal prettyness ?

- What's the relationship between truth and beauty. Is there any ?

- The writer Kundera once wrote that Kitch is the radical rejection of "shit" in the world. Was he right ? What does that mean in relashionship to what's pretty and what's beautifull ?

5:23 PM  
Blogger David said...

OK, we mihgt not all agree what "beauty" is, but part of the reason we see so much pure garbage that that is passed off as "fine art" is that, today, we have no standards whatsoever.

The world of art has gone through many periods like the one we are in now. On the other hand, when there is "structure" (e.g. well understood and respected "rules" for what constitutes respected art) great works of art tend to result. Today we may find it wholly unacceptable that a structure from on high is imposed, in the past this structure has actually allowed growth within a series of commonly understood "beauty." Hence, while it may have been overly restrictive to have gothic art be almost universally about certain approved religious subjects, no one can question that great art resulted. Ditto for the Rennasance period when art was almost unviversally about "humanism." This not only applied to the graphic arts, but had similar influences, for instance on music.

Following the Rennaisance period there was a a period known as "Mannerism" when almost anything an artist wished to do was acceptable. Instead of a period of great growth and and art being pushed into producitve new areas, much junk was produced. Yes, there were isolated examples of great masters producing what we agree today was great art, but nothing, for instance, on the order of magnitude of the more ordered periods of time.

We currently seem to be in such a period. There is no commonly understood acceptance of what constitutes "good" art (beauty?). Hence everyone's concept of what is "good" is as valuable as anyone else's. Are there remarkable examples of good fine art photography being produced? Of course there is. But there are, INHO, also enormous amount of pure, unadulterated trash being generated, partly because there is no structure a common understanding concerning what constitutes good "fine art" during our time. Out of order comes great creativity. Out of chaos comes little.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

I just disagree with you 100%. The very last thing we need IMHO is "Standards" and "structure" in art, even if such a thing were possible. I also don't agree at all that we're in any sort of period similar to the Mannerists.

Atomism, maybe!


10:44 PM  
Blogger NIMBY said...


I read and agree with your statements on this topic whole heartedly.

I am a relative newbie to photography, only having 5 years under my belt of conscious shooting, and I guess I have travelled the much trodden path of aping others work - to only discover that it was in no way satisfying me. I think the problem was that I always felt I was shooting someone else's photographs.

Not coming from an art educated background, most of my initial experiences of photography were the popular "attractive" scenes etc. and I guess that is what pulled me to it in the first place. I discovered that with a little travel planning and technique I could shoot just about any typical "attractive" scene I wished - but by and large they left me cold.

I guess the reaction to this is to go the other way, like Paul's post indicated, and focus on shooting the non-attractive.

For now, I just shoot what I want to shoot and that which makes me enjoy my photography and stirs some of my OWN emotion when I look at the prints. But then I do not need to think about a market.

No doubt my feelings will develop as my experience does.

2:13 AM  
Blogger Paul Butzi said...

Well, I'm writing this from JFK airport, after next to no sleep for several days. So it might not be the most articulate thing I've ever written, and I might be so tired I'm just not tracking properly.

But I'm confused about what you disagree with, Mike. Nowhere in my post do I try to pin down what beauty is, nor do I advance an argument that photographs must be beautiful to be successful. (Nick Ut's photograph of Kim Phuc fleeing the napalm bombing does not strike me as a beautiful photograph, but it is both compelling and successful).

All I'm arguing is that there are some photographs generally regarded as fine examples of the art form (I'd put Pepper #30 in that category) which ARE beautiful, and that if we as artists let distrust of beauty dictate our photography, we're likely walking away from some great photographs. And that if the 50 brightest hopes for the future of photography all share this distrust of beauty, that might not augur well for the future of photography.

6:59 AM  
Blogger Dan Mitchell said...

I don't think that your views are necessarily incompatible.

The "distrust of beauty" is definitely an issue for those - often, but not always, young artists - who assume that _because_ something is beautiful (leaving aside the issue of defining "beauty" for the moment) that it must also be "old," "trite," or "banal."

On the other hand, there are those who find it difficult to accept art that is unpleasant or difficult. "If it ain't pretty, it ain't art."

In truth, there is more than one kind of art. Appreciating one approach does not mean that one cannot appreciate - or even create - another.


9:05 AM  
Anonymous billwheeler said...

When I read Mike Johnston's comment about valuing honesty over beauty, poet John Keats' lines in his Ode on a Grecian Urn came to mind: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Beauty: Truth: Honesty. Yes.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Ade said...

My theory about most scenic photographs is that they're like karaoke - much more appealing for the participant than the audience. You hike out to some wild and desolate place at dawn to catch the breathtaking view of the first sun over the mountains and my god, it's a wonderous moment to be alive just then; taking a photo is simply the excuse for being there when everyone else is at home in bed. Generally it doesn't capture the entire experience, which is perhaps why it can never mean as much to the viewer later.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

A good theory.


3:18 PM  

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