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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Distrust of Beauty

by Paul Butzi
I happened across the entry for Regeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow, a book that the publisher describes as focusing on what young photographers are up to at the start of the 21st century. It looks like an interesting book, and I have a copy on the way. What caught my eye, though, was a single sentence in the Publishers Weekly review, which reads “A number of distinct trends are visible: the use of digital technologies is widespread, social comment is ironic and oblique, a distrust of beauty and landscape is omnipresent….” The phrase "distrust of beauty" caught my eye, because some time ago I heard an excellent lecture by playwright Stephen Dietz, about what he called "The Four Seductions"—the four big things that seduce artists away from making the best art they can. Three of the four are disparagement of craft, criticism, and blaming the audience; number one on Dietz’s hit parade is distrust of beauty.

What Dietz was saying is that it’s seductive to advance our work by making it "edgy." There’s a consensus that "beauty" has been done to death, and that if a work is beautiful, then it must be passé. There’s a sense that since beauty is a quality that’s awfully hard to pin down, it must therefore be unimportant, and that striving for beauty is a fool’s errand. It’s a whole heck of a lot easier to arouse an emotional response by doing art that’s gratuitously offensive than it is to make beautiful art that arouses a passionate response.

Tomoko Uemura in her Bath, Mike’s recent selection for the T.O.P Ten, is a case in point. Smith didn’t just happen to make a beautiful photograph—he deliberately contrived to make the photograph beautiful. The lighting, the posing, the way shadow and darkness are used to simplify the composition, even the facial expressions—Smith did that on purpose. By constructing the photograph this way, Smith connected the photograph directly to every viewer who has ever watched a mother cradle a child in her arms and thought "that’s a good thing." Had Smith stuck with a simple, straightforward depiction of Tomoko Eumura’s disfigurement, would the photograph be anywhere near as compelling? Making a beautiful photograph of a horribly disfigured child wasn’t easy, but it’s what makes this photograph transcendent.

So I read the words "distrust of beauty and landscape" in that review with a great deal of trepidation. Is this where photography (and the art world in general) have ended up—where young photographers are unanimous that art shouldn’t be beautiful, and that we shouldn’t trust the very real landscape around us? I’m not at all in favor of a photographic world in which we’re all compelled to mindlessly repeat "Pepper #30" and "Tenaya Lake." But I’m very much afraid of an art world that insists that we must never risk making a beautiful photograph because beauty is old-fashioned.

Posted by PAUL BUTZI


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Using an argument by someone you agree with to support your own inclinations isn't particularly convincing, although it's common.

Nor is the implication that shooting cliche images like sunsets is beautiful and therefore somehow compelling or transcendent. No, it's a fricking sunset.

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So should he use an argument by someone he disagrees with to support his inclinations? I don't get it. This must be "edgy" logic.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Matthew Robertson said...

This is an interesting aspect of a few of the recent themes dealing with 'What Is Art', and the idea that "I take photographs to see what things look like when photographed."

Reading about the distrust of beauty sent me to my bookshelf and Susan Sontag's essay, "The Heroism of Vision". It begins, "Nobody ever discovered ugliness through photographs. But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. ... Nobody exclaims, 'Isn't that ugly! I must take a picture of it.' Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is: 'I find that ugly thing beautiful.'"

If taste and art are accepted as subjective values, rather than a cultural absolute, then it is the expression that informs the work rather than the content. A photograph of beautiful scene that expresses nothing is not to be admired; I do not aspire to create pleasant images for an office wall. As artists, we should strive for meaning, in whatever subject we find it.

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a good topic for thought, Paul, although best suited to a setting where a group of us could sit around a table.

At the end of a Washington Post review of a 2002 Andre Kertesz exhibition critic Andy Grundberg jotted a rather related remark that raised a bit of a welt under my skin, too.

"Today's photographers by and large are more interested in images about images than in finding fresh ways to frame marvelous material in the everyday world. The age of the romantic sensibility in photography may be over, replaced by an age of irony."

Personally, I think that both observations ("distrust of beauty" and "images about images") are symptoms of a bigger social issue; cynicism. We're fed a steady diet of fear and anger in our news and entertainment media. Visual beauty, at least in the classical or sentimental sense, has come to be seen as a potential deception. Young photographers are merely mimicking the putrid, anti-beauty image styles that have been used in the past few years to sell young people clothing, hygiene products, music,

We're very much a style-driven society in the West. Beauty is not dead. It's just out of style, and not for the first time in history.

10:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess I'm passe' but I kinda agree with Keats:

"Truth is beauty, beauty truth.
That is all ye know on earth,
and all ye need to know."

10:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave Jenkins' quote from Keats leads quite naturally to the admonition associated with Eugene Smith to "Let truth be the prejudice" and thence to the terrible beauty of "Tomoko Uemura in her Bath".

12:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>>As artists, we should strive for meaning, in whatever subject we find it.<<<

Not only meaning but also truth, as the the quote from Keats states. Why aren't sentimental pictures "art": because they are not true.

Also, for something to be art it needs some originality; and trite sunset, cat, pigeom, etc. (ad nausem), pictures just od not have any originality.


1:08 AM  
Blogger Gary Nylander said...

For myself, the whole reason I make photographs is because of beauty.....oh well even if only myself and few friends appreciate my work that's okay.

1:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The perception of beauty is a moral test.
Henry David Thoreau

4:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why do we have to choose one over another?

I'll put on and listen to a recording of Mozart for the skill and depth, a well-written choral work with a deep "meaning" another time, and yet...

I'll put on a fun "cliche" rock or pop song that may just have a pleasant hook another time.

My point? I can appreciate a photograph that has social implications, turn a page, a enjoy a photograph of a beautiful sunset and derive joy from viewing it. Both have value for me.


7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i really have to check out this Regeneration book, since i have read so much (mostly critcism) about it on various sites.

i think beauty, is truly, in the eye of the beholder. people like what they like. they see how they see. thankfully everyone doesn't see beauty in the same things and in the same ways.

i usually don't find the subject matter (like sunsets, portraits, perfectly lighted studio stuff, etc) of the conventional pretty picture to be very interesting. while i can often appreciate the technical quality of these images, i think it's sad that i'm even thinking about that element of the photograph. these kind of beautiful pictures often leave me cold.

however i do like and have always related to beautiful pictures. i am really attracted to pretty pictures of what some might consider regular everyday subjects not even worth photographing, i think these images can be incredibly beautiful (like stuff from eggleston, shore, ghirri, christenberry, ryan mcginley, christian patterson etc).


7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I deeply appreciate meaningful, edgy, and original work, but I take umbrage in the sense of elitism I sometimes here from those opposed to beauty. If I create an image that ends up on a few office walls because it's pretty, and it brings people joy, where precisely is the crime? As I'd be sad to miss the "edgey" images of the world, similairly would I be sad to be denied the Rowells, Lantings, and Burketts of the world.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Several people have complained about "trite" subjects like sunsets. But no subject is trite in and of itself. It is only certain treatments of subjects that are trite. Any subject can be treated in a trite way, or an artistic way.

Even the art world's love affair with edginess often results in work that is trite and simplistic. Witness the growing ubiquity of what I call "depressing photos of depressed people". I seems that nearly every photo magazine and competition trumps some variation on the same image: a mopey person slouched in a decrepit room. Edgy? Sure. Original? Hardly.

9:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure we should confuse Stephen Dietz' off-broadway "success" with actual useful knowledge and wisdom...

10:03 AM  
Blogger said...

Have you read "In Defense of Beauty" by Robert Adams? This is well covered territory. It's a really good little book. If it's out of print, let us know and I'll loan you mine.

Kirk Tuck

3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The world is all the richer for having different people see and photograph beauty in different things that surround us.

The reference to style vs. fashion is what comes to mind whenever one hears about "trends" such as the one under consideration here where photographers want to deliberately go out of their way to avoid what could be a "classically" beautiful photograph - a style - and instead capture something that they consider edgy today - a fashion.

In the long run, the best elements of what constitutes pleasing photographs from the collective will become part of the slowly-but-steadily-expanding "style" database, and the rest will either fade away or become a niche category that would appear to have also been done to death in due time.

Experimentation is the name of the game, and different points of view are to be encouraged. I fear the day when we all set out on a trek in Yosemite to find the tripod marks of Ansel Adams to plant our tripods in the same spot.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Daniel Sroka on this one. I don't do sunsets these days. But only because I did lots of them when I was much younger and got tired of my results. Sunsets haven't changed, but I have. They became trite *for me*, but my limited skill at capturing them doesn't make them trite for anybody else.

That said, I'm still striving for beauty in my photos. Whatever it is that *I* see as "beautiful". And notice I didn't say "I never do sunsets"? Never say never!

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel that classic 'pictorialist' beauty has been fully hijacked and exploited by commercial forces, like stock and ad agencies. In my opinion it is only logical that young photographers try to create meaning out of the vernacular or plain.

It's just a matter of artistic thesis and antithesis, which I don't think should be confused for for elitism.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Dave New said...

Anonymous: "I fear the day when we all set out on a trek in Yosemite to find the tripod marks of Ansel Adams to plant our tripods in the same spot."

It's already been done, in effect. Witness the 'Kodak picture spot' signs springing up all over. They provide the opportunity for you to take a nearly exact duplicate picture of the item of interest as all the other family vacation snapshooters that have come before you. The only saving throw would be to put your family (and yourself, if you have a tripod and timer) in the shot. That way, at least, the photo would have a more personal connection.

And, in the limit, that is what makes or breaks someone's appreciation for a photo -- a personal response or connection.

Alain Briot ( lives in the American Southwest and photographs all the familar vistas that thousands of visitors see each year (as well as some that very few get to see, because they are on private lands). By his own account, he does well, selling his photographs on the porch of the visitors' center on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (and on the web), to the very folks that have come there to be wowed by the real vistas just outside. I remember many years ago, purchasing duplicate slides in the gift shop, rather than attempting to take my own pictures, because I felt that my meager camera at the time just simply couldn't do it justice. I still have those slides, and viewing them evokes a 'being there' response even though I didn't take them.

The point is, even if it's just another sunset picture of the Canyon, it makes a real connection or evokes a response in the person viewing that shot, making them want to own that print and take it home.

So, what's the beef? At that point, I don't believe that there should be a debate about hackneyed sunset photographs. For Alain, who is praticing his art, and the buyer, who is appreciating it enough to want to own it, 'beautiful' is exactly what each was looking for, and the transaction is satisfying to each.

If only more folks like Alain were more forthcoming about their appreciation of beauty, and wanting to share it with a willing buying public.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Great post, Paul.
I've been opposed for it, but one of the definitions I give of Art on my site is "Communication with beauty".

6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just received the reGeneration book mentioned in the original post, and flipped through it briefly. Don't let the publisher's blurb fool you - many of these photographers are trying to make a beautiful picture, and some of them have succeeded.

10:05 PM  

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