Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: the relativity of aesthetics, and a (partial) reconciliation with hipstagram-things

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A slight inclination for coffee. This image goes against so many of my personal rules – the horizons are slanted, the main subject is out of focus, and very out of focus, and the light is so-so – but I like it. The important question here is, why?

This is an old carrot: it’s been used to lead the same set of donkeys around the garden path so many times that the donkey himself doesn’t even believe it he’s ever going to get to eat it anymore, at least not deep down in its heart of hearts. But I think it’s still a topic worth discussing because relativity affects people in many more ways than they are conscious of; and being conscious of what works for you and what doesn’t is of course a very, very important part of making strong images, and moreover, ensuring those images are in a style that’s consistent and reflective of the personality of the photographer. (And of course the latter exploration and understanding of one’s personal style is important because following what comes naturally to you makes it much easier to develop and evolve as a photographer.)

Of course, what we’re really talking about here is relativity: everybody has a different point of reference. If you’ve never left Saharan Africa, then the concept of a suit would seem rather foreign to you; but if you came from an upper-class English family, you’ve probably owned one since you could walk. Hence the roots of relativity: an observers’ – let’s leave photography out of this for now, because it introduces some additional complications – personal taste is defined much by the familiar, be that good or bad. For the most part, people are naturally curious to varying degrees. Add that to the mix, and preferences can start to vary wildly: just because it’s not familiar doesn’t mean that it isn’t good or favorable, and just because it is doesn’t mean that it isn’t extremely distasteful – think of teenage rebellion, for instance. (I’m told by a psychologist that a good portion of teenage rebels grow out of that stage fairly quickly and land up turning into their parents in middle age; it’s the silent, too-good types we have to worry about.)

The attractiveness of a piece of art is of course purely a function of personal taste; art is inherently controversial simply because of the sheer number of potential forms it can take. By definition, almost anything can be art – be it completely familiar, or completely not. To a limited extent, the same goes for photography. However, because of the nature of the medium, there are more constrained limits the artist has to operate within – you’re (mostly) stuck in two dimensions, cannot use moving imagery, have finished work that is (today) viewed at many reproduction sizes, and (again, today) is affected by the quality of the viewing device. Making it worse, is the fact that it’s perhaps the medium with the highest diminishing returns; it takes no skill to take a photograph, and not much more to luck out and produce a good one if you take enough of them. Yet to do so consistently and in a way that’s fully controlled is incredibly difficult because of the sheer number of variables that one has to deal with, often in a very short space of time.

Perhaps it’s this medium-induced limitation that has meant photography in the early days took some time to be taken seriously as proper art form in its own right; imitation of reality was always the intention, but until relatively recently, the results were but a poor facsimile. The same of course cannot be said for art, because nobody expects a painting or sculpture to be a copy of the original subject, but an interpretation of the subject as seen and translated by the artist. In reality, what this means is that the photographer’s primary tool of control is subject and composition, and to some extent the reproduction method – this includes format, color and output. The difference between a fairly good photographer and a truly oustanding one can be subtle, and I’m of the opinion you can’t really tell if you only see one image: it’s simply too easy to get lucky. Repeatability and demonstrable control is not to be underestimated.

And here we run into a bit of a dilemma: what if a lack of control is the desired output? What if some degree of uncontrolled randomness is a signature of the artist? (I personally don’t find it appealing, but I suppose this is one of the reasons Lomos and Holgas have become popular in recent times, along with the digital-fake hipstagram-alikes.) This of course is personal taste too: taking off my photographer hat and putting on one belonging to an objective commentator, it’s important to recognize that whilst I might not personally like putting artificial light leaks and scratches onto my cameraphone images to disguise poor composition and hand shake, there are a lot of people who find it appealing – hence the success of such products.

But is there anything inherently wrong with it? A recent – let’s say heated – discussion with my wife over her use of instagram has lead me to seriously consider this question. Whilst deep down it offends my artistic sensibilities greatly to even consider using such things, I admit that I cannot think of a single objective reason against it. But why am I against it? My full (and definitely not-objective) thoughts can be found in this article, but the gist is that basically you’re outsourcing a large chunk of the creative decision making to the preferences of a third party; worse still, all of your images will have the same style and look as everybody else who uses the same program. By nature, it’s designed to make images look like something they’re not. It’s the integrity of the thing – or specifically, the lack of it – that really irks me. The fact that some of those looks were products of a certain workflow or method that was developed, learned over time and refined; earned, if you will. Yet now they’re being adopted and trivialized by a bunch of hipsters who have no clue that Tri-X is a film, or Rodinal comes in bottles.

Let’s back up a minute, and be objective again. The two core points in that argument are really hokum: firstly, that one is in total creative control of the photographic process from end to end; secondly, that one has to earn the right to use a method or technique through understanding and practice. By that flawed logic, I shouldn’t have the right to use a camera unless I grind my own lenses made out of glass I fused myself from sand I collected off a beach somewhere, with optical formulae I derived myself, coupled to a camera I made myself, with either film whose emulsion I concocted out of household chemicals, or a sensor whose chip pattern I photolithographed from a hand-drawn mask and a projector. And I can’t use Photoshop unless I wrote the program myself, either. Clearly, this is utter crap.

I can prefer to take over some elements of the process because they give me more creative control over elements that matter to me; postprocessing or developing, for instance. But whilst I might prefer a Distagon design to a Sonnar, there’s no way I’m going to go out and make myself one. I think the cutoff in this process is generally the point where you can no longer do a better job than the third party – be it in processing, or lens design. But preferences change this: whist we may get better results if we sent our film off to a pro lab, or avoided mucking around with retina-searing HDR and just using our camera’s expanded dynamic range JPEGs, we might prefer to do it for whatever reason – personal accomplishment or satisfaction, learning, or perhaps something else. I suppose it’s just like how most drivers would be faster with a double-clutch gearbox or a modern automatic, but might still prefer a stick for the feel and experience.

This preference – subjectivity – extends of course to equipment, images, compositions and subjects, too. We use certain types of cameras because we prefer to, either because of the way they make us feel, or because somebody we respect says they’re the best, or because we simply want to. Cameras that seem masochistic, ugly and antiquated to some – meterless Hasselblads come to mind – might be really quite enjoyable to others (me, for instance).

It’s of some critical importance to a photographer to understand both what they like, but also why it appeals. This exploration upfront saves a lot of time both in avoiding exploring creative avenues that might later prove to be dead ends, but also helps hone artistic development by focusing on the elements or subjects that feel inherently natural and instinctive to the creator. There’s no point in forcing yourself to try and replicate somebody else’s style if it doesn’t come naturally to you, or shooting with a wideangle lens if you natively see normal or telephoto compositions. It might be worth trying it as an experiment, but why bother if you simply know you don’t like the way the images look? Now, if you knew that it was because you didn’t like the diminished background or lack of depth of field separation or the keystone distortion when you point the camera in any orientation away from the horizon, then you could avoid buying that lens and wasting three months shooting with it in mild dissatisfaction instead of just enjoying that 85/1.4 and making cinematic.

Bottom line: look at lots of images in a wide variety of styles; it’s likely that you’ll find some you like the look of, but it’s also likely that none of them will be a perfect fit for your own personal preferences. You’ll just have to understand which elements about them you do like, as much as which you don’t; the next step is to translate this into a technical how – if it’s not obvious, then find yourself a mentor or friend. (My Email School of Photography is designed precisely to help with this.) This will in turn help focus your own work on honing the skills you need to make the images you want, or if you’ve already got those skills, then on the elements and subjects that you prefer. Quite often, it’s not the how that needs the kick: it’s exposure that’s required – of course, how the balance lies is down to where you stand in the creative stages of evolution as a photographer.. I find it too easy to get shuttered down one’s own creative alley – even if you have a good idea of what works for you – which in turn closes off potential ideas and developments.

Closing with a full circle, I want to talk about why I like the opening image: it’s because from the viewer’s point of view, it throws you a bit off balance, and draws you into the details of the scene to understand and give context to the image as a whole. Did it have a caption originally? No, none of my images ever do, but this one seemed somewhat appropriate. It was made with unfamilar equipment in an unfamiliar location – a mall at night, with a Hasselblad 501C and CFV-39 digital back at high ISO – not exactly my first choice for this kind of work. Yet I’m reasonably pleased with the outcome, despite it disagreeing with most of my cherished tenets. Metaphorically, look around a little: force yourself to see the different, either vicariously or by putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation. It might just yield some unexpected results, but you’ll never know if you don’t stick your neck out in the first place. MT

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Enter the January 2012 black and white challenge – win a multispectral Sony NEX-5 B&W machine modified by yours truly!

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