On ugliness, beauty, and photography

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“Ugly boring boring boring. Such boring images despite having good equipment.” “Talentless.” “Mediocre”. Just a few of the choice statements this image brought out on Facebook for some odd reason; I have no idea why that kind of response only happened with one particular photograph; perhaps the commenters woke up on the wrong side of the bed, had an argument with their spouses or were served inferior coffee. In any case, it’s difficult to take such things seriously if there’s no body of work or any sort of artistic conviction displayed by the critic. But it did make me think about something else: what determines beautiful and ugly? What is the purpose of a photograph, if not to be a record of a unique point of view? Ideally, that point of view should trigger some sort of emotion – good or bad, because surely if there’s no emotion elicited in the audience, then the image has no impact at all – and thus won’t be remembered? Taking one step further, does it matter if the emotion is positive or negative?

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This may seem like an odd question to ask, but it seems the majority of images are tipped towards the positive – though this may of course be a recent side effect of social media. Cats, boobs, flowers, food, rainbows etc. are safe and don’t drive controversy, plus they make the photographer feel popular and affirmed. Dig a bit deeper, though, and we soon remember that war, poverty, disaster, crime and the other grotesque parts of humanity sell newspapers; they elicit emotion and reaction of a very different kind. In a strange way, the photographer is no less affirmed: there’s a sort of odd heroism to photojournalism and photojournalists which in a way may be encouraging the practitioner to bias; the worse something seems, the more of a hero they are for enduring it so we might see.

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For something to trigger emotion in us, it must touch our minds at an irrational level: I think this is really the core of beauty or ugliness. It is impossible to describe why the proportions of one object might be beautiful, but another similar one grotesque; you cannot describe a set of rules to quantify when an unexpected asymmetry or design flourish results in the one imbalance that creates profoundness – or when it simply looks out of place. If anything, both beauty and ugliness are the opposite ends of the same thing: an exception to the ordinary. One triggers positive emotions, the other, negative. What qualifies as an exception is of course different to different people, and a product of their own experiences, biases and resultant preferences.

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The second profound thought is that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are independent of ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’. Let that sit for a minute: why does ‘beautiful’ have to be ‘good’, and ‘ugly’, ‘bad’? What if the intention of the image is to raise pity or sympathy in awareness of something, which in turn spurs the audience to action? Surely then a ‘good’ outcome requires use of the ugly; if anything, the uglier, the better. A conventionally beautiful subject may well be the wrong thing to use in that case. Similarly, if one is attempting to portray an unachievable ideal – then ugliness is probably not the right thing to use, unless the intended ‘good’ outcome is one of irony. There is a very odd conflicting feeling caused by a beautiful image of a very ugly object – almost akin to a guilty pleasure. Bottom line: be pleased if there’s any emotion from your audience at all; the stronger, the better. Be very concerned if there’s no reaction at all, because it means the image does not work – beautiful or otherwise.

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In practical terms, I think it requires us as photographers to decouple the actual nature or function of the subject from the intention of the image. We cannot view a tree as a tree and the inherent emotional biases that go along with it; this in turn influences our compositions, secondary subject use and the final outcome – potentially to the opposite of the desired effect. So many images fall flat because they do not move beyond this trap: the physical nature and actual identity of subject dominates beyond the idea that motivated the image in the first place. The image can therefore never hope to live up to the idea, and the photograph becomes nothing more than a literal interpretation of the subject – with no capability to influence the thinking of its audience beyond that bestowed upon it by the object it represents. The following pair of images is a demonstration of that: same structure, same overall texture, similar mood despite a change in color, but very different subjects. Which do you prefer? Objectively, why?

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On the other hand, if we are able to conceive of an idea at the same time as or before viewing the physical constituent elements of the image, then it’s much easier to arrange – compose – the physical constituent elements in the scene around the intended idea. There are no concessions made for or distractions by the the subject itself; the background may still be secondary, but at least on initial inspection it’s harmonious, and on further inspection, it provides useful context and adds another layer to the story. What this means is that to make an image with impact, we must be able to move beyond the emotion associated with a given subject and see it from both the perspective of the audience – what emotions will it evoke in them? – and an objective, purely artistic/photographic one. A subject becomes nothing more than form, light and color, to be integrated into a greater composition as a harmonious element to produce an effect that’s visually and aesthetically pleasing – even if that subject in isolation is ugly and uninteresting. It is also probably why there is an odd notion of romance attached to combat photojournalism: the images that are preserved and reproduced are ones that have impact both for the story, the subject, and simultaneously manage to maintain an aesthetic attractiveness that’s visible only once one can view the image as tone and color. The beauty on an idea can transcend that of the subject – if we’re willing to give it a fighting chance.

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My work has often been described as cold, precise, soulless, boring, unemotional – and at first I resented that, but the more I think about it, I should be pleased. This is precisely the emotion I want to create: order and logic out of a chaotic world; if you can put aside the fact that the photograph is nothing more than ugly concrete, or old pipes, or whatever else – there is beauty and balance in the spatial arrangement of colors and shapes; even if the necessary process of getting there seems indiscriminate and heartless. Perhaps that elusive concept of ‘soul’ in an image is precisely this: one in which objective, aesthetic and subject work together in a way that produces/evokes the desired emotion in the audience – even if that emotion is one they might not necessarily want. MT


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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  1. Great essay. Your photography would be classified as realism and perhaps even modernism (a pessimistic realist). The romantic style is, by far, the most popular one on social media (pastoral, lone tree, rukenfigur, dramatic sky, food still life) There is a modest amount of debate whether the obsession with romantic images is a sign of yearning for real connection when the virtual one can not satisfy.

  2. There’s some very interesting points made above. For me I can’t really say why I like something when I go out with my camera, I just “do”. It catches my eye for whatever reason. Maybe I should work on working out what it is!
    My favourite above is the tree branches vs the red soil. I think it’s the way nature looks like it’s trying to break out of the frame that grabs me.

    • Helps to understand (individually) why we shoot and what appeals to us so we can make more/better images of course…positive reinforcement and all that. 🙂

  3. Jorge Balarin says:

    From this article I like the buildings photo and the one of the airplane”. The first one shows, with very good resolution, a reality that is like a nightmare for me. Massification, loss of individuality, rutinary life, distance from nature, etc. The second one makes me imagine a misterious flying phamtom airplane. I think the tendence in photography now – at least in internet – is to produce fast consuming images, overprocessed, with saturated colors and spectacular subject. The problem with those images is that they become boring very fast, perhaps because their “message” is too much obvious.

    • Yet the ones that aren’t are paradoxically diminished because they don’t have the immediate ‘punch’ required to divert audience attention from everything else out there that’s clamouring to be seen – I’m sure there’s a way to have both power and subtlety, but it isn’t immediately obvious 🙂

  4. ““Ugly boring boring boring. Such boring images despite having good equipment.” “Talentless.” “Mediocre”. Just a few of the choice statements this image brought out on Facebook”

    This image has both technical and artistic merits. I one isn’t able to instantly recognise these, one should reflect upon who really is the mediocre photographer here. Enough said.

    • …But it would be negligent of us not to understand our audiences and see what got lost in translation. Photography is a visual language; the more vocabulary we have, the easier it is to convey complex ideas…

      • You’ve got a point, Ming.

        However, just as one person is able to use various sociolects according to different social situations, a photographer can produce and show different pictures which will cater to different crowds or stories.

        Thus, I don’t think anything got lost in translation with the “controversial” image you posted – at least not for the intended audience(s). The gibberish you got came from people who simply aren’t in the position to criticise something they have no understanding of. They are akin to someone dissing complex equations or linguistic jargon because “2 hard 2 undastand lol wtf u tryna tellin me ?! u suck bro”.

        • Good point. At the same time, communication/ language/ visual language and its evolution and development are very much driven by popular and mass use, not so much the thinkers: that might be residual if proven popular enough. So we still need to consider how the image will be interpreted by a wider audience than perhaps intended simply because even our intended audience will eventually be influenced. It leads to all sorts of interesting questions around the psychology of communication, culture and understanding that far too many people write off as being intellectual nonsense (I suppose the same kind who are susceptible to advertising.)

  5. I’ve a theory that internet people become a little fixated by the cachet of the photographer that took the shot

    For some, if it’s by a ‘somebody’ then it HAS to be considered good

    But for others, if it’s by a ‘somebody’ then by criticising it, maybe just maybe… some of that cachet can be transferred to the commenter like a baton in a relay race, and they can jump up a rung or two on the “I’m interesting” ladder, without really having to do anything.

    Which of course is nonsense, but that’s what it seems like… see also the GAS epidemic and that favoured old chestnut; are you a true pro tog

    All things that shouldn’t affect ones ability to critique a photograph, yet somehow seem to be held dear by many!

    Re critique of your work Ming (!!!!) I’m always impressed with the amount of things you can get in the frame and still keep it looking good…. whether your look is ‘sterile’ ‘cold’ (or hot, tepid or infected!!!) is not relevant and clearly within your control.

    People can usually respect a good voice singing a song that they don’t personally like, shame that’s not a carry over mindset to images

    • “For some, if it’s by a ‘somebody’ then it HAS to be considered good”
      Seen plenty of this – and there are shades of the emperor’s new clothes at work here. I think it’s because audiences are conditioned to think, and because there really is a higher chance of the work of a historically ‘good’ photographer being ‘good’ – though who defines ‘good’ and what that means exactly is something else. Every photographer whose work has impressed me has also been the first to say that they’re never 100% happy, and there’s always something to be improved – I agree, because if not, then you might as well give up because your best images have already been made 🙂

      I keep thinking actually that if we all liked the same things, then there’d be no point to art at all…

      • Yup… Photographers are like little Lewis Hamilton’s – one “”championship”” isn’t enough… or else we’d all be like little Nico Rosberg’s

        Obtuse commenters can quit after the first go though 😉

        Random analogy moment…

        On BBC a few years back they had a series about ‘behind the most seminal albums of all time’, you know? Absolute classic, rolling stone top 100 albums of all time, and they’d interview the (often surviving few) musicians and nearly always they’d make comments along the lines of “I played like crap on that record, I wish we could re-record it now, instead of when I was just a kid”

        Yet the albums are set in stone for eternity.

        I guess you never stop (nor should you) wanting it to be better

        Cheers – belated merry Christmas and early happy new year!

  6. We are talking about two different things here: literal subject matter, which is easier to judge, and abstract qualities of an image. Yes, they intertwine, but, they are just two of the layers of the many an image can have. To be able to comprehend and appreciate an art form to its fullest, one has to be educated in it. So, people that are not (and I’m not saying their opinion shouldn’t count), are not able to realize them all, and then only judge by what the literal subject of the image is: sunsets, flowers, an act of violence, buildings, whatever… however, someone who is educated in design (and I mention design because this is what really unites all kinds of arts; the creative process being very similar in all of them) can separate the layers and have a better of what’s really going on. Any painting, piece of music and literature, architecture, photograph, sculpture, dance, etc, has a different medium BUT the principles of design are the same, and they dwell in the abstract: its composition depends on the principles of geometry, rhythm, hierarchy, scale, repetition, form and others. So, a painting, a tune, a novel and so on is never only about the obvious subject matter. Music is the most abstract form of art but still depends on these principles and unless one learns about music appreciation one will never understand the full potential of say, a symphony (why is it constructed in three movements? Why is this specific part of the melody keeps appearing on different passages? Why do these instruments suddenly become louder?). In a novel, the writer has to chose words not only for its meaning, but also to convey a sense of rhythm when a person reads it, while telling even a simple story. But, a person who knows about literature can find these resources the writer used and thus find the text much more enjoyable. The same with a painting: a Caravaggio may show, say, a child angel, but that’s not the only theme of the painting. It might be the eroticism of the figure, the play of light and dark areas, the saturation of certain colors. So… in Photography there are many things happening at the same time too, but to fully judge a photo, one has to be aware of them. And, the more educated one is in these kinds of things, the more one can understand the creative process of the photographer and appreciate more his sense of design and thought process. One might not LIKE a picture, but at the same time, one can learn to APPRECIATE it. And even more so if one also knows about art (or literature, or music, or architecture) history, because usually there are precedents and allusions, and these are also used to communicate with the people who know them.

  7. Most of the photography talk on the internet is really camera geek talk, I suspect, and these fellows are often about as close to an engaged and informed appreciation of photography as hardcore Linux geeks are to the average computer user. A lot of the time, what they really seem to want is a pointless argument. Any time is time for a futile gesture. I tend to hurry on by, quietly giving thanks that I don’t have to live in a head like that. Take the images you want! We love them anyway.

    • Well, some of us try to talk about the whys of making images in the hopes that we may understand ourselves and our audiences better (and in turn, express ourselves more clearly by making better images) – though this sobering stat really reflects the ‘internet reality of photography’: only 5% of articles on my site are about gear, but they get 95% of the traffic. 🙂

  8. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    This is comic! Several hours after posting my original comment on your article, Ming, someone has been through the comments made some 5 months ago on an article on “Digital Photography School” relating to composition in photography, and added scathing remarks on one comment after another. The author of the article scored a comment suggestion that the central theme of his article “is almost never OK”. My comment on the article scored “Shut up”, which is too ignorant to even bother about.
    This epitomises what you mention at the start of your article, Ming – and your assessment that it is difficult to take such comments seriously.
    Never mind – I chased the rabbit down the burrow and found he has posted a “bio” of himself on his own website – it starts by saying by saying that after being a model student for the first 7 years of his schooling, he then proceeded to fail the next year 3 years in a row, as a result of a sudden antipathy for the school system. And proceeds to describe a chaotic career path stretching over four different countries in 3 different continents, during the following 30 years. With what appears to have been a part-time interest in photography in the background. I could keep going, but it didn’t get any better.

    • There’s an interesting social experiment in the wings here, I feel: what sort of ‘art’ does such a tortured soul create? And if art (should) say something about the creator…what does it say here? 🙂

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Oh, if only I could show you !!! I tracked one of his photo pages, and I thought it was seriously awful. Absolutely no meta data, which is odd for a “serious photographer” (which he claims to be)
        As to the shots he displayed, even after post processing, they were “under-exposed”. The colors were off (a lot of them have strange green or yellow or brown tints in them – maybe his idea of post processing is one of those systems that relies on “pre-sets” – after all, it’s not hard to get rid of an unwanted color cast). Focus was pretty hit or miss. Composition in many of them was flaky and uninteresting. And if they’d been mine, around half of them would have been in “trash”, long ago.
        He did take some good photos, I will admit – but if I was putting a portfolio of mine on the web, I’d have been a lot more choosy than he seems to be,
        Conclusion – empty vessels make the most noise.
        Ming, the simple answer is what the kids call “trolls” – they prowl the net, and there’s something wrong with the way their brains are wired – they simply don’t know how to do anything except “nasty”.

  9. Bill Walter says:

    A few thoughts…. One of your strengths has always been to ability to frame a shot. Many of these exhibit perfect framing, especially the last one. Then when you say “My work has often been described as cold, precise, soulless, boring, unemotional.” I only agree with cold, precise and (at times) unemotional. Boring it’s not and it certainly isn’t soulless. Some of your best work is your cold, precise and very stark black and whites. A non artist could never have the imagination to create these. And finally, I like the way compression is used in several of these photos. #4 has it, but especially #1. The flattening of the buildings makes #1 an urban statement.

    • Perhaps one of the underlying questions here is ‘why does cold/precise always equal emotionless?’ One still has to feel something (arguably better than nothing at all) in those situations, which means there is still emotion. Love and hate being opposites, etc…

  10. I see a strong analogy in poetry. First, consider pop lyrics. Then consider great poetry. Which gets consumed (even paid for) at a higher rate? Second, one of the hardest things to sit through is a poetry night at a pub or café. People put thought, emotion, and ego into short and long poems that are, for many, torture to read or hear. Many people would rather hear a silly pop song sung badly during karaoke.

    Bringing It back to photography, what one photographer may see as the illusion of presenting order in a chaotic world, another photographer or viewer might find trite, inane, and meaningless. Even aggravating.

    So, before coming down too hard on the unwashed critics, imagine sitting through poetry night. The biggest difference between the pub and social media is distant anonymity.

    Finally, when I started college, I knew that I should like Shakespeare, that there must be something worthwhile in Keats, Tennyson, Yeats…But I didn’t have the education to appreciate what I was reading. But with good teachers, the music became more and more beautiful.

    • Good analogy! That said, I’m not criticising the ‘great unwashed’ here: I’m just saying, you have your karaoke, we have our poetry, and we don’t pass judgement nor do we prevent you from enjoying yours – everybody has their preferences 🙂

  11. I have problems with that first image and reading this article has made me stop and try to work out why. My eye finds it incoherent and doesn’t know where or how to look. The block of pink colour, and the presumably intended structure of the various tower blocks seems to me to be undermined, or overlaid, or obscured, by the over-busyness of all the windows. Somehow, the zoom-out to get the big picture hasn’t reduced the windows to a texture; they’re still just lots of windows causing – for me – a great deal visual noise. In front of such a scene I would have taken a very different picture, and perhaps this is what the whole thing is about – how we each see what we choose to see. I would have taken a landscape image, a zoom-in to a row of balconies and their hanging accoutrements, an entirely different framing and story.

    • But that was precisely the point: the confusion and disharmony is precisely why that first shot was framed that way. The frame you describe instead is more coherent but loses that effect.

      • So that takes us back to why we take photographs and thus the images we choose to make. I can see confusion, chaos and incoherence around me IRL all the time. I have no wish to add to that by making images of it. And I don’t really want to look at pictures of it either. There’s more than enough of it enters my visual field already. And it seems to me that merely to document it doesn’t make any comment on it, doesn’t take it anywhere, just says: look – chaos and incoherence. Well, yes, but so what? I have similar responses to modern art that merely documents alienation. Why bother? I suspect that this is partly (though by no means wholly) a difference of approach to life between a young man and an ageing woman.

        • Absolutely: individual motivations and emotional drivers matter. But even if we personally don’t like the images (which I can say is true for a lot of work I see) – I’ll still stop to ask ‘what motivated the creator’? If art isn’t about getting inside the head of somebody else as much as personal enjoyment of the view, I’m not sure what else is 🙂

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      We are taught “rules of composition” and then find they are not really “rules” – just guidelines, suggestions, ideas. But we have been conditioned to expect certain outcomes, so when we look at another photo, whether we like it or not, our subconscious minds are driving us to find those outcomes.
      You lopked – and couldn’t find them, Pam. And Ming tells us both “that is precisely the point”. Isn’t this like Picasso or Dali, breaking with tradition or convention and seeking to create something new? Is it appropriate to say “I would have done something different with this subject”? Or is it more appropriate to accept that it was NOT done differently and – instead – to seek to appreciate the image we are viewing, rather than some other interpretation of the subject matter?

    • What the critical (pun intended) take away for me from Pam’s comment is that she provided a thoughtful critique of how the image worked or didn’t work for her. To me that is legitimate. Saying a photo (yours or anyone else’s) is ugly or beautiful is essentially meaningless without the commentator providing his/her reasons (logical or emotional) supporting that view.

      As always, I enjoyed the thoughtful way you presented this issue.

      • Agreed: and Pam’s reasons were perfectly valid and understandable, and reflecting her individual point of view. Flipping it around: if you were a photographer and lived somewhere say in the country, then the sensory overload of a place like Hong Kong would certainly leave an impression which you’d what to record somehow – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was far from poetic. No doubt similar reasons are behind the motivations nature and landscapes appeal so much to most urbanites (myself included): it’s something different to ‘our usual’. 🙂

  12. Difficult to say. Everybody has it own definition for interesting or boring. In the case of your examples, personally I find picture nr. 4 from top much more interesting then, say the first one. But that`s just me.
    By the way, where nr.4, the one with stairs and rails. was taken if I may ask?

    • Hong Kong. I don’t particularly like it personally; it was an illustrative choice rather than an emotional one…

      • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

        Surprise, surprise, I guessed it somewhere in Europe. Add a little human element in the bottom of stair entangled in this Eshersk mesh of rails and stair and you get a classical H,C.B. shot.
        If I may play a curator with first pict let me guess why it attracted perhaps not so favorable comments. It`s bland, kind of standart compressed shot of urban conglomeration. What is expected to stand out in such case is a contrast or strong single point of interest. In the first case, that would be f.ex. an old house intact or being demolished in front of encroaching waive of modern highrise. Or another one, a pristine landscape or part of it with overwhelming dehumanized construction.
        Second case would be as it is, but with something attracting an attention in all this maze. A single human standing on one of otherwise empty balconies, a red communist flag in the center of frame , hanging from a window or balcony, ( preferably this famous one with Mao on it and writting tóngzhì ( 同志 ) or a ray of hopeful sun hitting one of flat. Of course all this is not written in lecturing vein but a bit humorous one. You are proliferent and accomplished photographer and I enjoy your gifted writing too.

        • “…that would be f.ex. an old house intact or being demolished in front of encroaching waive of modern highrise. Or another one, a pristine landscape or part of it with overwhelming dehumanized construction.” [etc]
          Wouldn’t those all be expected cliches, though? And in turn you wouldn’t get the impact you want from the audience because they’d just swipe right or down and on to the next HDR’d landscape.

          Now if there was a cat, on the other hand… 😉

  13. Samuel Jessop says:

    Closed minds have fought to defend the orthodoxy for generations, and have failed miserably. I think this kind of criticism is a fine reflection on one’s artistic direction.

    • Or lack of, or personal preferences, or which side of the bed you got up on that morning 🙂

      On a more serious note, I actually can’t think of any art that didn’t challenge the orthodoxy in its day – recognition only came later with more widespread understanding, or simple sitting time and observation. The former is helped today by proliferation of and access to information and education; the latter is stymied by the sheer quantity of material demanding our attention on a daily basis.

  14. I believe your images make people uncomfortable. Our modern, mechanical, pre-calculated, media inspired and ostrich with it’s head in the sand world makes us desperate to avoid the mirror. I truly believe that your images ooze soul, it is just the soul we all wish didnt exist.

    • I have to say that’s the first time I’ve heard that interpretation – uncomfortable because they’re lacking in humanity (and portraying a world that lacks it), or because they’re showing something people don’t want to see – or perhaps worse, aren’t even aware of despite existing in the middle of it? (It could also be because I’m lacking any cats or weddings or brick walls 😉 )

  15. Dear Ming,

    To the above photographs I can only make one comment: You are just an excellent photographer. Period.


    • Thank you, though I’d contend it’s impossible to make an absolute judgement because there are simply too many possible different interpretations of any one scene – others may hit us (and of course including myself) at a deeper emotional level, though we may just not have seen their work yet 🙂

  16. I totally agree with your views, “of emotion – good or bad, because surely if there’s no emotion elicited in the audience, then the image has no impact at all”…

    It’s the ability of find something at an even obscure place, time and object, is what makes someone a standout photographer, right?

    Thank you so much for sharing this thought provoking post and wish you a very happy and peaceful New Year 🙂

    • “It’s the ability of find something at an even obscure place, time and object, is what makes someone a standout photographer, right?”
      An excellent question: I think it’s the ability to find something that stands out to them, and subsequently communicate it in a way that the intended audience can appreciate that makes the difference. We all notice things and have strong opinions, but they’re not really given any weight unless we can express them to somebody else.

      • You said it 🙂

        I am really thankful to all the amazing guys in this forum who appreciated my work and inspired me to be a better photographer …

        Thank you so much for being an inspiration and Wish you a Very Happy and Peaceful New Year 🙂

  17. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    🙂 Where to start, with this one?

    OK – this one: “This is precisely the [?????] I want to create” because if I read between the lines, I think you will substitute another word in there from time to time. Ignoring that aspect – the thrust of the sentence is the key to the questions you raise. It’s all about what YOU want to create.

    Crticis? The “critics” just don’t get it – that’s why they mouth off with their inane observations. The only “good” critic is the one who offers constructive comment. The critics who wallow in negative (and more often than I care for, “vituperative”) remarks really add nothing to the discussion. Oh – and as you rightly ask – where’s THEIR work?

    More specifically – what within the framework of their tortured minds is the “connect” between a photo like your first one and beauty? Why do their fried brains seek beauty in a scene of that nature, rather than in a child’s smile, or a perfect flower? And do they imagine their world is devoid of anything else? – that they have the right to censure, censor or exclude anything that isn’t of interest to them? – to close what little is left of their minds, to shut out everything else?

    I think it is appalling when people with so little to offer try to make up for their deficiencies by being rude about other people’s work. But as the Pokemons tell us, Ming, there is too much stupid out there, so it isn’t going to go away. You simply ignore it and continue with your life. If you feel charitable, just feel sorry for them, as you move on past them and their comments.

    Your photographs? – I have been backwards and forwards through this post a number of times – I would describe them as intriguing, if I had to select just one word – all of them are stimulating in one way or another, and encourage the viewer (me, for the purposes of this statement) to pause and examine the image with care – none of them warrant the superficial and dismissive comments you quote at the start of your article, and I suggest you treat such people with the contempt they deserve.

    • “More specifically – what within the framework of their tortured minds is the “connect” between a photo like your first one and beauty? Why do their fried brains seek beauty in a scene of that nature, rather than in a child’s smile, or a perfect flower?”
      I think there’s no clearer demonstration of the variety of human psychology and thus the lack of universality of response to any image: the potential range of audience is just too huge. That said, there are the ‘critics’ who are just full of piss and vinegar, and those who genuinely don’t see the same way we do: separating the two can be difficult, but regardless – there’s probably something we can learn from their dissenting viewpoint – even if it’s “I don’t want to be like you”. But we still have to fundamentally realise that it is the diversity of perspective and preference and bias and interpretation that makes any sort of art have sufficient variety to be interesting and surprising. And without – well, there’d probably be no such thing as art (which I’m now thinking of application of creativity and skill to intentionally convey a viewpoint that’s likely to be uncommon).

      “Your photographs? – I have been backwards and forwards through this post a number of times – I would describe them as intriguing, if I had to select just one word…”
      Second example in point: I’d have picked ‘structured’ or ‘precise’ or ‘intricate’, if I had to do a bit of self-description. Neither is right or wrong, but the alternate perspective is still useful – maybe what works for me at an emotional level is so different to the majority of my intended audience that I’m attracting a completely different crowd – there’s no other way to know without this feedback. 🙂

      Don’t get me started on pokemon. Far too many near-misses with people driving and playing the game at the same time; that’s just stupid. It’s shocking to think that these are mature adults, and some of whom are probably also making decisions that actually influence the lives of others in significant ways…

  18. “This is precisely the emotion I want to create: order and logic out of a chaotic world”

    Order is what all photography is about. The very act of framing a photo is an exercise in ordering the world. Further, to say that a photo has logic is an odd thing to say. I’m not even sure what it means. Even still, order and logic (whatever that might mean) are not emotions. They have to do with how we arrange things — not what we want the viewer to feel, which for me is what photography is all about.

    Put simply, if you’re not feeling a photo, it’s not working. Coldness, aloofness, steeliness, iciness, orderliness, stiffness, stillness, and grimness are all a range of attributes that a photo can convey, and that we can all feel. The question is do our photos manage to convey these attributes in spite of the orderliness/disorderliness we contrive into them not because of it? In short, just because a photo is immaculately composed, it does not follow that it necessarily conveys feelings of order and ‘logic’.

    • Order implies logic – otherwise how would you know what that order/sequence should be?

      “Coldness, aloofness, steeliness, iciness, orderliness, stiffness, stillness, and grimness are all a range of attributes that a photo can convey, and that we can all feel.”
      Agreed: and whilst this is perhaps a far lesser sued range of emotion compared to the usual suffering/happiness dichotomy, as you point out – they’re still emotional because we’re still feeling something.

      • Logic has to do with reasoning. Anyone who knows how to press a shutter button knows about order and sequencing. We’re hardly faced with an Aristotelian conundrum when we begin to frame a picture. In any case, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to feel logic in a photo. I never mentioned happiness or suffering.

        • The lack of thinking or philosophy before hitting the button probably has a lot to do with the number of images that simply have nothing to say. You’d be surprised at how often you ask the photographer ‘what did you want to communicate with this image?’ and the response is at best vague of of the ‘I like the umbrellas’ variety.

          • Agreed. Thinking before shooting is important. But it’s hardly a question of logic or indeed of philosophy. It makes no sense at all to claim that just because you think hard or philosophise before you press the shutter, your photos will somehow exude a logical coldness. That’s plainly a non-sequitur.

            • Perhaps I should have been bit clearer with the intermittent steps: you need to have some premeditation to reach consistent results, even if those results are intentionally logical/cold. Rationality cannot happen by accident 🙂

              • Rather than talking in the abstract, I’m simply not feeling the coldness or logic in the photos you have posted here. Take the last one: I see of course an order that complies with conventional compositional rules. There’s a nice splash of colour provided by the umbrella. Beyond that, it doesn’t (for me) exude the emotions you impute to it, namely, of “order and logic out of a chaotic world”. For me it’s little more than a CCTV traffic shot much like this one: http://cossdotblog.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/Rainier-Ave-S-S-Henderson-St-view-rs.jpg which also has an order to it but with no artistic pretensions.

                • That may well be the case. You and I have very different aesthetic and subject preferences… 🙂

                  • I think part of this frustration (if I can put it like that) has to do with an over saturation of images that compete for our attention so much so that we simply can’t be bothered to look. But even still images have to be a product of their times. If Saul Leiter were setting up his Instagram account today, his work would be seen as unexceptional. But ironically the same could not be said of Vivian Maier. Perhaps she thought her work was mediocre or soulless at the time. Who knows?

                    • Agreed, and something I’ve been saying for a while: it’s become harder to get any attention, let alone enough attention to look at work that requires more than a cursory glance to reveal its motivations. I’m not sure about Vivian Maier, though more for the questions her work raises about ‘who else aren’t we seeing’ than anything else.


  1. […] Let’s Talk About Ugly Photography – Ming Thein […]

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