“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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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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