Aesthetics beyond the image

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Opening questions: What is beauty? What is elegance? What is ugliness? What is refinement? What’s the difference between functionality and art? What do we prefer one object over another, given choice, and identical function/ consumption of resources? These are not easy questions to answer: they require us to address fundamental challenges of not just personal preference, but also identity. We like something because we choose it over something else; we find that beautiful but that preference is a consequence of personal biases, needs, requirements and ultimately – experiences which make our personality and preferences the way they are. Yet our instinctive responses to things are often both immediate and quite strong: the like or dislike is established within moments of contact, and whilst prolonged exposure might breed some latitude born of understanding and tolerance, it’s unlikely to change love into hate. I want to address a very difficult set of questions today: what is the aesthetic sense? How can it be developed? Does it matter for photography, and if so, how does it make us better (or worse)?

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I’ve always thought of a sense of aesthetics much the same as a sense of smell or taste or sight; unlike those physically-based properties, the aesthetic sense is not quantitatively measurable. You either taste something or you don’t; you can either read the letters on the sixth line or you can’t. But the ability to discern beauty is perhaps graded only by degrees. I think it boils down to one’s calibration of balance; it ties in to the ability to assign visual weight to elements and judge if they are harmonious or not. It requires an ability to see beyond the physicality of the subject or element or thing – and an innate spatial sense to assess homogeneity, density and distribution of information. For example, whether a curve looks ‘right’ or not can also be thought of in those terms – is the distribution of information (i.e. curvature) progressive in a way that keeps the viewer entertained? Or is it jarring and conflicting with one’s expectations? Note: visual non-sequiturs can be good if they don’t continually throw the audience off balance and result in visual discomfort.

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Or perhaps it’s the ability to compare the immediate object, subject or presentation with a large mental database of other similar objects – and assess similarities and how they fared the test of time. This of course falls down when presented with a completely new class of object or something that does not fit existing expectations for an object – the first iPhone was a good example of this. It was widely acclaimed as a masterpiece of design, even though there was no precedent for a telephone of this type (or any other other object, for that matter). Assessment of the success of a design is much easier than that of aesthetics: if the object comfortably and simply fulfils its function reliably, then the design can be said to be successful. If it happens to be pleasing to the eye, then that’s a bonus – I can think of many tools that are great pieces of design but will never win any beauty contests. But why is this? Surely there must be some merit in form following function.

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Let’s take cameras, for example: I can think of several designs that are widely considered ‘classics’, ‘beautiful’, and certainly ‘lustworthy’. Do they all fulfil the function, part, however? No. The Leica M is a good example of this: undoubtedly a design that has been refined through decades, unfortunately just not for the current digital function paradigm. Yet I’ll be the first to admit that it’s rather sexy – even it proves to be less than optimal in practice. At the opposite end of the scale, we have the Pentax 645Z: it honestly is something only an engineer or myopic mother could love aesthetically, yet it has one of the most sensible and easy to use user interfaces of any camera. It carries no lust factor whatsoever, except if you care solely about the sensor and price-performance ratio. The first example is of a design whose aesthetics landed up compromising function – and the latter of one where the function compromised aesthetics (or did perhaps aesthetics were not considered at all).

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The same is true of art and photographs. Art that survives the test of time tends to be classifiable into one of two camps: extremely beautiful, or extremely ugly. Both are opposite ends of the same emotion, much the same as love or hate; there is little very famous historical art that raises a response of indifference from the majority of its audience. These two things go hand in hand: you’ve got to feel strongly about something to remember it, and something has to be remembered to survive the test of time. Oddly, the same is not quite true of photographs: a lot of early work of ‘historical merit’ is of questionable aesthetic value; those images often remind me of the old adage that a talking horse is of more interest because its mouth is moving in an intelligible manner rather than because of what it might be saying. They are significant because they were the first of of their kind and because there’s an image at all. Today’s bar is much higher: there’s so much very good and excellent work out there bombarding us from every single direction that an image that has any hope of being remembered for more than a couple of months – even by its creator – must really go above and beyond. And this is why we photographers need to train our sense of aesthetics.

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I do believe it can be learned* – perhaps not necessarily taught, as there’s a good deal of personal bias involved, too. And I also believe that a honed sense of aesthetics and balance can improve our image making (at very least, our curation) because it enables us to decide what ‘works’ and what doesn’t in a much more decisive way, initially after capture, and eventually, also prior to it. We need to know what we like and why we like it before we can go out and find it, and in turn incorporate it into an image. The only real solution to this is of course exposure: we need to mindfully see a wide variety of images, objects, scenes, subjects and lighting situations and ask ourselves ‘yes or no?’ and more importantly, why – or why not. Hopefully, at this point we are also storing that assessment in our memories – so in future if we happen to encounter a certain direction and quality of light we like, then we should probably get the camera out. Even if we only do it vicariously in the form of assessing the images of others, it’s better than nothing. At least until we develop a strong style and preferences of our own.

*My wife will disagree. She claims she has been the sole redeeming influence on my own attire since we’ve met, which she finds inexplicable since my photographs and selections of other objects aren’t too bad.

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Even if we do have strong stylistic preferences, I would still encourage looking at as wide a variety of work as possible – for the simple reason that you may well discover elements or techniques you hadn’t previously considered that you may be able to use to take your own style further; a good example of this would be postprocessing techniques, or compositional layout and spatial positioning of the various elements in the scene. I’ve chosen the illustrating images for the post deliberately: they’re all photographed in a fairly similar style, and ostensibly are all of the same class of subject, yet I’d be surprised if you liked every single image. The reason for this boils down to the specific subject itself: whilst the presentation style may be aesthetically pleasing, it’s independent of the actual subject itself. Not all of these buildings are beautiful; if anything, some are downright ugly – with clear purpose, but still ugly. (It’s also quite likely we have different taste in buildings, too.) There are others that are beautiful but functionally rather poor; we can also throw out the argument of functional beauty.

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We as photographers can only control our subjects to the extent of inclusion or exclusion, quality of light and angle/perspective – the ability to change the physical form is beyond us (unlike, say, for a painter or sculptor). We are constrained by what exists – photoshop notwithstanding, and even then, there are limits before we cross the line into illustration. Yet we do not have to be constrained by the aesthetics of that particular specific subject: we still have enough control to be able to create beauty even out of the most mundane or ordinary or ugly physical object if we can train ourselves to a) identify preference and what trigger them, and b) condition ourselves to look at objects as pure form – light, shape, and color. Photography is often defined as the traditional Greek-derived ‘writing with light’ – yet I really think it’s the ability to reproduce a vision; the more open the vision, the more interesting the results. And with that, I leave you with some rather mundane – but I believe, beautiful – corrosion… MT

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  1. Ming, I’ve been meaning to comment on this post. I am a bit ashamed that it took me so long.

    It seems to me as a viewer, that the good aesthetics has to do with the emotional response that it elicits and the longevity of that response. This would be like an implicit way to measure the aesthetics. The lowest on the scale would be you look, and shrug, and you just go on. The highest on the scale is something that makes you feel strongly, and then you remember that emotion for very long time. This would be totally subjective, but if great many people have similar emotional response, then it could be a really good photograph.

    This idea does erode on the spot, because in the age of all things social, the little “like”/”+1” click is oftentimes as meaningless as the image to which the click was given.

    For some strange reason, that last photograph reminds me of the default lock screen image of my Samsung Galaxy Note 3. I changed it since, but it is not to say that your photograph is not beautiful. It is, in a strange almost mathematical way.

    • No shame necessary. Of course we always aim for the great emotion of many, but I think that’s actually not possible most of the time since we each have our individual emotional triggers. Popular/great/famous (choose your adjective) works of art only tend to be so because they’ve gotten mass affirmation, and a lot of people may well feel indifferent in isolation. I don’t expect it to be any different with photography. You see this in the like button: the more an image has, the more it gets. People do not want to feel left out or different or isolated…

  2. Bill Walter says:

    Love these architecture shots! Excellent framing and balance as always.

  3. Hi Ming,
    First time writer. Long time stalker.
    This is the article that tipped me over into the land of actually congratulating you on your essays rather than just enjoying.

  4. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    The sense of the aesthetic – is it innate? – is it the product of environmental/cultural factors? – can it be “developed” or enhanced? I think the real answer to that is simply “yes”, Ming. Just exactly what that means will vary from individual to individual – but then individuals vary anyway, so that’s no surprise.
    Example – Michelangelo’s sense of the aesthetic was seemingly spontaneous and/or self taught – which, frankly, I think is much the same thing. Of course it developed, as he grew up and was exposed to other people’s work – so partly it became what – at the outset – it wasn’t; the product of – or at least enhanced by – his environment.
    Other great artists, like Monet and Picasso – whatever started them, their development was a personal journey, and both battled strong headwinds while winning acceptance for their art.
    Many great musicians were the children of musical parents – that kind of background clearly launches a lot of talent.
    That said – there are examples of two children from the same family, being educated at different institutions – and one developing while the other didn’t.
    For what it’s worth, I believe that one’s aesthetic development is heavily influenced by the way we are educated. And I don’t just mean “taught at school” – education comes from all sorts of stimuli – it comes from our total life experience – and from what we personally get out of that experience, which will differ from one person to another. Some suck more out of their experiences than others!

    • “For what it’s worth, I believe that one’s aesthetic development is heavily influenced by the way we are educated. And I don’t just mean “taught at school” – education comes from all sorts of stimuli – it comes from our total life experience”
      Well put. Sadly it seems that the disconnect between what is actually taught at schools and what is useful for the purpose of being a well-rounded human keeps increasing…

  5. Hi Ming
    I think you have underplayed the importance of shared and common cultural influences in particular patronage. Our access to aesthetic influences is dependent on someone or an institution promoting or curating certain styles, movements or agenda. I would argue that most people are influenced to like one aesthetic over another more than they make independent choices of preference.

    For example the fifth photo with wavy balconies is not very successful for me because it is not an exceptional example of the building design technique used (IMHO obviously). I previously worked in the construction industry and have been seen several much better examples of producing fluid and moving facades on regular construction grid buildings including wavy balconies, prior to seeing your photo. If this was the first I had seen it would have a much greater and a more positive impact on me. I respect that this is a reflection of my reaction to the subject rather than your photographic choices, in this case (for me at least) the subject is a cheaper/derivative version and therefor aesthetically weaker, though not disliked, and definitely not memorably disliked.

    Then again I could just be me over thinking it ;).


    • No, I think it’s a good example. However – in that particular case, given the client’s brief, I couldn’t really have shot another building… 🙂

  6. I love that closing image. I believe that Ernst Haas would approve.


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