on unexpected beauty in photography
“Being is desirable because it is identical with Beauty,
and Beauty is loved because it is Being." - Plotinus
As an original element of contemporary visual art, is beauty played out? At this late date, are beauty's stage tricks simply too old hat - too old silk hat - to astonish us in the way that they used to? Is it still possible to do anything new with creating beauty in a photograph, or has it all pretty much been done before?
In studying and collecting images over many years, a sense of dreadful doubt about this question settled over me some time ago. I regret to feel this, but I have gradually tired of the art industry's endless iterations of the same conventionally beautiful subjects: landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, flowers, nudes, wildlife, exotic travel, and the like.
Panicked to think that maybe visual beauty was going dead for me, I put aside my day job in digital media several years back and initiated a sprawling body of exploratory work. I am sharing here what's emerged from this project, new instances of beauty in dialogue with ideas that become a distinct terrain in themselves.
beauty by concept. It may well be foolhardy (I've been warned) to attempt photographs that aim chiefly to deliver a potent aesthetic experience during an era in contemporary Western culture when so much of the interest in serious art has gravitated toward its conceptual, ideographic, and performative aspects. Nonetheless I have pressed on, and this note lays out how I've approached my search for fresh, unexpected beauty through five alternate lenses, by exploring how beauty emerges in relation to our notions of order, disorder, darkness, visual alienation, and symbolism or metaphor.
Beauty burdens artists with its intransigence. Like most other generations of art-makers, we're prone to perceive the arts of our day - perhaps especially photography - as hurtling forward in terms of high purpose, technical finesse, intellectual sophistication, and the shock of the new.
Yet, standing in stubborn contrast to these, the aesthetics that guide art imagery - considerations such as design, harmony, mood, coloration, texture, power, movement, the unity of form and feeling - seem to have advanced very little of late. Indeed, one could argue that, beneath the innumerable cultural flavorings and expressive styles that have been piling up, layer upon layer, from our earliest days as a smart species, the fundamentals of beauty have altered hardly at all since the cave paintings of Altamira, the compositional precepts of Plato, or the ingenious art philosophy of Plotinus. Everything else seems to be progressing, evolving; whereas mankind's sense of beauty is not. Or, at least, not as fast and not as much.
Still beautiful to our eyes, after 20,000 years.
timeless? or hidebound? If the elements of beauty are not evolving much in the eye of the beholder, this poses a predicament for innovation in artistic expression. It's a problem that hovers in the background of all contemporary art-making. For more than a century now, artists have wanted, above all, to be re-inventing our ways of understanding and experiencing the world; yet in this quest, even the most updated take on what's beautiful casts an obstinately familiar, weirdly archaic shadow. Artists working on the cutting edge today make their waves by challenging how we look at society, at cultural assumptions, at the art-making process itself, and at much else besides, but the breakthroughs they pioneer in how our brains conceive of visual beauty are few and far between.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the function of aesthetic experience in art - something deemed absolutely central to traditional fine art in centuries past - has, in a roundabout manner, wandered out of focus and lost its imperative position over recent decades. In its place, sophisticated art-making has migrated increasingly toward other expressive priorities, in relation to which sheer loveliness may constitute an irrelevant, if not actively counterproductive, distraction. As an historical development, this migration has been neither good nor bad as such, but it carries, I suspect, weighty implications for the depth and substance - by which I actually mean the shallow and contingent distractedness - of the public's engagement with visual art in our times.
My work recognizes the increasingly marginalized perch of aesthetics in visual art, yet makes an attempt to contribute something new anyway. While many of my images might appear, at first glance, to be conventionally decorative in subject and manner, underpinning most of my work are two intertwined concerns of a conceptual nature.
beauty's diminished role? First comes the question of relevance: does beauty still have much of a role to play in what makes contemporary photography matter as pathbreaking art, or must an image's beauty now serve chiefly, if at all, as window-dressing or a dash of gustatory garnish, something implicitly quaint, inherently extraneous, and increasingly dispensable? In other words, is beauty these days something that operates now chiefly as a sentimentalizing sideshow to art's loftier purposes?
What is photographic art supposed to be about, anyway? There are endless possibilities other than beauty, of course; and, plainly, certain artistic schools have moved on. Perhaps there's some rough truth to the sweeping bromide that, whereas 19th-century visual art hallowed Beauty, 20th-century art tilted toward Concept, and 21st-century art, in its first few decades, has become fixated on socio-cultural Identity and rhetoric.
Yet even today and across the most aridly intellectual of art experiments, aesthetics usually still find their way into the picture and factor, more or less consciously, into how art experiences are presented and enjoyed. As the critic Peter Schjeldahl once observed from the insistently sensuous textures of Jasper Johns' abstruse canvases, "many cerebral hooks are baited with visual seduction."
My photographs attend to the psychodynamics of visual beauty. That is, they test out the different ways in which the tired old levers of aesthetic response can still trigger us afresh under various conditions of subject and context. Beyond the over-worked realms of eros and identity (and apart from a handful of academics arguing in the corner about fine points of aesthetic philosophy), the matter of visual beauty actually receives scant analytic attention these days; yet it is my obsession here. I hunt for instances of the sublime that, even to our sated and dulled appetites, might somehow prove distinctive enough to hold center stage in a photograph.
beauty's exhaustion? The second photo-conceptual concern driving my work is the challenge of creative potency. If our sense of beauty hasn't changed much across millennia, and if civilization has accumulated billions of images for us to enjoy in similar ways, on similar themes, and in similar visual formats - a trend culminating in today's Instagram-Age surfeit - then where is any room left for creation of startlingly new beauty that makes much difference to viewers?
The pictures I take are haunted by doubt: is it possible anymore to create photographed beauty that feels genuinely original rather than derivative, or have all fundamental possibilities and modalities of beauty already become so played out and predictable to the viewer's eye that photographers are now forced to look past visual aesthetics if they want to say anything new with their art?
I worry that the answer to this second question might, alas, be yes. Isn't the vernacular of beauty now irredeemably worn out? I have created this body of artwork to convince myself otherwise. My images tackle a motley hodgepodge of particular topics in the realms of philosophy and psychology. Above all, however, they are struggles to bring novel beauty into the world at this very late date, and to accomplish this by photographing seemingly unextraordinary objects in relatively traditional ways.
My work is always, in part, about the leavening joy of simply looking with a fresh eye and spotting some little spark of strange new-ness residing in an image, as an aesthetic counterbalance to the intellectual heaviness of considering its subject. Ultimately the viewer must decide whether, against the odds, this ambivalent and often undemonstrative work manifests, in its visual idea, that odd glimmer.
In the course of creating these pictures over the last half decade, I have avoided, for the most part, the subjects usually vaunted for their beauty. Instead, I have re-oriented my search toward a lateral framework - a different star map - of my own devising. This page lays out my approach, framed in relation to a few big, prevailing trends in photo art today, for those who follow the field.
Along the way, I soar through some historical points at such a high altitude that I'll probably manage to nonplus all readers in one way or the other: half of them, because this survey bangs on for too long over seemingfly superfluous contextualization; the other half, because my treatment is too thin and scanty to be anything but glib, reductive, and overdrawn. In any case, I will close with a few suggestions for traversing the ocean of art on this site. Yes, I know: this is all a bit much. Still, here we are. Onward.
the primacy of beauty in our response to art and life. The mid-century minimalist painter Agnes Martin once remarked that, "When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life." I, too, believe in the continued essentialness of beauty as an art experience, and therefore in the steep challenge of making beauty that strikes the eye as original instead of expected.
There's no denying that this seems like a particularly poor cultural moment to be fussing over beauty's purported depletion and attempted revival. My quest must look curiously unneeded, and perhaps frivolous, to many, like debating how to keep the Titanic's proverbial deck chairs rearranged at their prettiest when so many aspects of civilization and life on Earth appear headed for chaos, shipwreck, and the abyss. No wonder the refined pursuit of beauty for its own sake during our hysteric times strikes a growing number as repugnantly bourgeois and diversionary, a rhetorically empty and irresponsible waste of time that could be better spent saving the world.
Such naysayers have got a point, but I think they're also missing one. While visual art isn't going to save the world anytime soon, there is simply no substitute for the epiphanic power of original beauty as one of life's cardinal joys. No wonder sublimity in art remains its own raison d'être: "The reason I don't argue in 'socio-political terms,'" remarked Gerhard Richter testily at one point, "is that I want to produce a picture and not an ideology." The psychologically inarguable validity of visual beauty persists, visible from all directions and distances like a mutely defiant monolith on the plain, throughout and seemingly beyond time.
And this remains true even though marketers and product designers have dulled our senses through “beautification" of every little thing around us in slick, conventionally pretty terms; and even though many fine artists – particularly among today’s ascendant generation of photo-conceptual photographers – have come to devalue aesthetic excitement as a vital deliverable of the art they make.
Why bother with old-school beauty, at this point? Because, while it may add little force to the cultural arguments that headline our deeply polemical age, beauty in art speaks to the human spirit in a manner and on a primordial emotional level that nothing else can. What the presence of great beauty has to tell us about life still matters deeply to our spiritual happiness, even when we're all running around with our hair - and our planet - on fire.
As a psychological phenomenon, the act of recognizing remarkable beauty - that is, of having a strong aesthetic response to something visual - remains among the peak experiences that human life has to offer. What's more, and especially during times of beleaguerment and dread, exposure to beauty operates obliquely on our psyches, as something palliative and reparative to the emotional wounds of living.
Our talent for experiencing visual beauty does not distinguish us from other species, as was long supposed. It looks now as though we share that capacity with much of the animal world, and we possess it for evolutionary reasons that remain mysterious, yet seem to extend far beyond the seductive mechanics of beauty operating merely as a factor in mate selection.
signal to noise. Having peak beauty experiences matters as much today as it ever did to a life richly lived, and the people who make things for sale understand how our eye hunts for reward. No wonder man-made environments are awash in generically “lovely” things of all kinds. Yet, paradoxically, it has become harder for us to encounter truly remarkable beauty amidst all the beckoning visual noise; and by remarkable, I mean beauty that stops us in our tracks, captures us wholly and, for a moment at least, makes the rest of the world go away.
To be clear, when I speak of “beauty” here, I am using the term in its broadest possible scope, to describe any visual image or art object that triggers aesthetic excitement for reasons beyond its nominal subject, i.e., that elicits a powerful intuitive or visceral response of engagement and a wish to look further. From this vantage, beauty may be present even if the image contains disturbing elements and might not be considered pretty in the ordinary sense, or even if that image might appear quiet and undemonstrative at first glance yet, upon closer inspection, contains refinements and details that mesmerize. Beauty is one's intuitive emotional or spiritual response to any image that strikes its own fresh aesthetic spark by any and all means.
"Beauty is no material thing. Beauty cannot be copied. Beauty is the sensation of pleasure on the mind of the seer. No thing is beautiful. But all things await the sensitive and imaginative mind that may be aroused to pleasurable emotion at sight of them. This is beauty."
- Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1930)
the trouble with beauty tropes. But why make so much of this? Can’t we all find more than enough gorgeous, high-impact imagery today in the sprawling precincts of fine art photography? Yes and no, I would say, because much of beauty's impact in artwork depends upon whether it catches us unexpectedly, that is, upon whether it strikes us instantly as something original, as a manifestation of beauty - like the Mona Lisa's smile - that we haven't ever quite seen before. Alas, singular beauty of such caliber does not come along very often. It turns out that the preeminent challenge with art is not how to make it beautiful - which is relatively easy - but how to make it unexpectedly beautiful - which is anything but. Echoing Schjeldahl once more, "Unexpected beauty unsettles." And things that unsettle break through.
Like some other seasoned art viewers, I suppose, over the years I have gradually tired of photographs that showcase conventionally beautiful things, as though the beauty were to be found in the definition of the object itself. I have grown wary of photographers who restrict themselves to what I've come to think of as the "beauty ghettoes," taking it as their artistic mission to deliver the sublime in their work by shooting the types of subjects that are, in themselves, widely held to be gorgeous by nature, and that thereby trigger a pre-patterned response from the mind.
The list of beloved beauty paradigms is long and all too familiar: breathtaking landscapes, brooding cityscapes, soaring architecture, radiant celebrities, astounding stop-frame sports shots, glossy young models, delicate floral still life’s, disarming portraits, exotic travel scenes, artsy nudes, winsome children, quirky characters, thrilling wildlife captured in close-up, evocatively composed street scenes that serve up grit and squalor to channel pathos, and so on.
Avid fans of photographic art know these pictorial clans well and, after a while, many must come to feel - like I do - as though they're seeing endless variants that pass around what amount to essentially the same underlying memes as to where the thrill of beauty can be found. Creatively speaking, each instantiation of the archetypal clan idea presents a momentarily interesting new face, but it's the same recognizable hero of a thousand faces, and it is humming the hero's warmly familiar tune. With every new beauty-clan image one sees, the less unexpected and less beguiling that tune becomes.
I have certainly given beauty tropes of these sorts a try myself (see the galleries under Natural Beauty), but on the whole I shy away from making art in the perennially popular categories. In a moment, I’ll explain why I think that creating yet more attractive images within the mainstream photo genres tends to work against originality and impact.
One observes, in any case, that powerful fine art images require none of these readymade sirens to succeed. Novel experiences of beauty come not so much from the qualities of the object being photographed as from fresh invention by the photographer. Only when what stands behind the camera has more going on than what stands in front of it, is original art even a possibility. No wonder so much decorous photography in the leading genres feels, to me at least, tired at heart.
how the modernists made beauty new. Tired art ultimately has less to do with over-reliance on wornout subject matter than with its interpretation - fresh or stale - by the artist. As the curtain rose on the 20th century, for example, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse found themselves favoring the same traditional subjects that other painters of their day did: portraits of women, nudes, flower pots on tables, guitars, and the occasional Minotaur – it hardly mattered what; they just kept painting. But painting differently, with a startlingly altered sense of what beauty could look like.
What's more, their artwork did not generally trouble itself with layered substrates of intellectual argumentation, nor did it ordinarily depend, for impact, upon a creation backstory or complex interpretations as to what, under the surface, the painting was "really about." Instead, the meanings of their images usually pertained simply to the sheer physicality of the objects before them and to the beauty of their canvases as executed.
As the century progressed, additional schools of painted thought emerged and contended: Surrealism, Dadaism, Abstract Expression, Pop, and so on. But throughout, the last century's masters of modernism were intensely engaged in inventing new ways to see and articulate visual beauty. The subject matter that posed before them served as an all-but-blank canvas for bold experiment. The sole standard they set for any painting or sculpture they finished was this: whether the piece be big or small, and whether its chief intent be narrative or decorative, it had to have a creative life of its own, that is, it had to surprise you with the distinct originality of its beauty.
the New Vision aesthetic. The same was true for leading modernist photographers of the 20th century – Stieglitz, Abbott, Weston, Maholy-Nagy, Evans, Adams, Drtikol, Rodchenko, Kertesz, Man Ray, Brandt, others. These pioneers put aside the all-too-easy literalism of the camera as a device for recording the familiar appeals of objects. They likewise put aside the derivative Pictorialism - that collective effort to give photos the romantic elegance and gravitas of traditional paintings - that had defined photographic beauty in the late 19th century.
As is well known, in place of literalism and Pictorialism, the early modernists brought forth a “new vision” for photographic art that led to a wild flowering of novel perspectives and unprecedented aesthetic experiences made possible by the unique art-making properties of camera technology. To undertake this adventure, they had first to abandon the pleasantly picturesque sensibility of late Victorian times, following the poet Verlaine's view that, to create art that matters, one must first "wring the neck of eloquence." In pioneering photographic art, the standard that modernists set for themselves resembled that of their painting contemporaries: they strove to surprise and delight you with the unexpected beauty they'd invented in the course of presenting you with an object they’d photographed.
As guiding artistic ambitions go, this strikes me as a worthy one, so I have sought to make it my own, as well. The enterprise before me, then, is not about shooting yet more pleasing images of the usual kinds of loveliness (toward which, I'll admit, I have developed a mild allergy).
lowering the beauty bar for conceptualism. In a world that’s already seen so much, of course, the creation of beauty that might strike the viewer as fresh is extremely hard to pull off, on even the tiniest scale and in the merest details. I can make no extraordinary claims for my own work, but then again, my sense is that the bar has been lowered quite a bit in our present day, if not, in some quarters, completely put aside.
As regards the pursuit of beauty, the photo art community seems to have sorted itself into two, diffuse, mutually wary cohorts. To offer an over-simplication for purposes of this discussion, we could group them very roughly as either Photo-Traditionalists or Photo-Conceptualists, depending prinicipally upon whether or not the pursuit of striking beauty is central to the art they make.
On one side, we find a legion of earnest photographers bringing lovely technical finesse to the memorialization on paper of gorgeous objects in all the standard categories of gorgeousness. Traditionalists churn out pleasing images that still sell briskly, but whose sensibility would not be far out of place in the late 19th century. More on the charms and drawbacks of Traditionalist output, in a moment.
On the other side, we have a long-ascendant movement of Photo-Conceptual experimentalists who've tired of old-school photo art conventions. For many of these artists, capturing visual beauty is no longer a guiding priority, since their images derive their power chiefly from the psychological impact of their subjects and from the intellectual novelty of the ideas they express.
In some conceptualist circles, to pursue the creation of pleasurable beauty for its own sake in art amounts to much the same thing as romanticizing subject matter for sentimental stimulation, as a formula for middle-brow appeal. In other words, the pursuit may be dismissed as archaic and artistically down-market, if not the gateway to kitsch.
beyond pretty. If artists aren’t striving first and foremost to produce powerful beauty, then what are they doing instead? The work of Photo-Conceptualists can be deeply interesting in its own right, and defies summary – extended surveys of the field struggle to get their arms around it all. The gamut includes, just for starters, photography undertaken to:
- Document art performances and staged public happenings;
- Capture elaborately conceived tableaus that dramatize and comment on moments of psychological or sociological interest (including personal dress-up scenarios in the Cindy Sherman mode);
- Re-create famous works of art that can be reconsidered in a modern context;
- Replicate actual objects in minute detail at doll-house scale, and then photograph the models;
- Shoot un-theatrical images whose overt purpose seems blank or ambiguous, as a starting point to viewer reflection;
- Catalog people, places, and things of idiosyncratic interest to the artist;
- Present images that seek to transform the significance of otherwise trivial items through the act of shooting them;
- Take pictures as visual diaries of intimate relationships, in the Nan Goldin mode;
- Undertake photographic activities and display their output as a way to examine the processes of art-making and art-viewing.
And my run-on sentence touches upon merely a few recent directions, among countless other photo-conceptual ventures that ultimately may or may not result in a fine-art print for sale.
As you might guess, stimulating profound aesthetic impact is seldom the overt point of Photo-Conceptual endeavors along these lines, though this certainly does not preclude some artists from making their work appealing to look at, as well. In some shots created for the purpose of conceptual exposition, one gets the odd sense that beauty may have been worked into the image - rather extraneously, almost surreptitiously, perhaps a bit sheepishly - as a seductive sweetener.
Even so, the output of many Photo-Conceptualists would probably be entirely baffling to the founding titans of art photography. For the classic modernists, whether they were bending their talent toward commerce, news reporting, or pure art-making, the pursuit of original photographic beauty was at the heart of whatever they did, and the intrinsic dynamics of beauty added an ulterior, secondary dialogue to everything their work expressed.
the look of large-format, today’s proxy aesthetic. That said, today’s contemporary art scene does appear to have coalesced, more or less unconsciously, around an aesthetic paradigm of sorts. Although its fascination may fade after initial viewing, much of the artwork produced these days by both Photo-Conceptualists and technically sophisticated Traditionalists makes for a captivating first impression because it offers that distinct look of infinite focal crispness that larger-format cameras and high f-stops can deliver. This general sensibilty gained steam early in the 20th century, as modernists took advantage of camera technology advances to put aside the mannered, soft-focus style of Pictorialism and embrace instead a new credo of "straight photography," as it was practiced by Ansel Adams and other members of the influential Group f/64.
Not coincidentally, large-format images containing fine detail also facilitate the production of gigantic prints and light box transparencies, whose imposing wall presence alone gins up impact – and gallery prices – almost regardless of other image qualities. (Some less successful shows call to mind Nietzsche’s mordantly unkind observation about Richard Wagner's days-long opera cycles, which were dumbfounding in his day and all the rage: modern art proves above all, said the philosopher dryly, that it is easier to be big than to be beautiful.)
I admire the superior technique behind large-format imagery and hope to emulate it someday. From my vantage, however, the satisfactions of endless image precision are simply not, in themselves, enough of a toe-hold on beauty to sustain interest over repeated viewings. Indeed, not nearly enough, considering how many other modes of beauty the universe stands ready to open up to our amazement, modes too easily missed while scrambling with large-format camera equipment and telling the world to hold still. (As it happens, akin to street photographers, I shoot most of my work, for better or worse, on locations outside the studio, in small format, through a prime portrait lens on a readily ported digital camera, working quickly. In other words, not so pristine.)
siamese twins – photo-traditionalists and genre painting. Since many Photo-Conceptualists do not task themselves with creating exceptional beauty whereas today’s Photo-Traditionalists typically do, it is the latter group that may do the bigger disservice, I think, to the cause of art beauty in our time. My problem with “beautiful” photography produced by means of the Traditionalists’ shopworn tropes, formulae, and techniques is similar to the reservation I have regarding traditional genre painting, by which I mean painting that sticks to popular themes and subjects that are immediately recognizable and reliably appealing to art buyers.
Over the centuries, genre painting has been the province of countless gifted artists, as diverse as the Brueghels, Jean-Honore Fragonard, Nicolaes Maes, John Constable, Christen Koebke, the Barbizon painters, John Singer Sargent, Carl Rungius, and Charlie Russell. Such artists have dilated variously on the rustic charm of country markets, home and hearth, peasant cottages nestled beside rivers at sunset, ivied ruins, beloved religious stories, bouquets in china vases, high society portraiture, hunting dogs, majestic elk standing in trout streams, navy battles, pink-cheeked girls on garden swings, luminous seascapes, and, in North America, the flinty cowboy life glorified nostalgically in the West, and all those dewy paeans to covered bridges in autumn leaves - Hudson River School a la mode - back East.
By and large, genre painting goes down easy, being anodyne, decorative, and descriptive rather than difficult and emotionally demanding. The artwork has a pleasing, reassuring effect on viewers. It accomplishes this by conveying the serenity of natural and beloved things, by affirming traditional notions of the good life, and by rewarding us with finely rendered illustration. Compelling genre imagery somehow contributes to the spiritual feng shui of the locations where it is placed. Such work can make a strikingly handsome first impression over the living room couch or in the paneled board room, even if its benign aspect makes it altogether too easy to look past thereafter.
Much the same might be said for traditionally-conceived genre photography. The best is rewarding work of high technical quality and classical refinement that cannot be easily dismissed, even if the general class of its subject matter is overly familiar. And there's no denying that many of the greatest milestones in the history of photographic art fall squarely into the most popular genres. To achieve genuine artistic originality with mainstream content, especially at this late date, is superlative achievement indeed. My hat is off to those contemporary artists who can find something strikingly new and stirring to say in the photography of big Nature landscapes or flowers or erotic nudes. For the most part I find that I cannot, so my search for new beauty gravitates toward less happy hunting grounds and odder quarry.
death by a thousand shots. The main qualm I bring to traditional fine art photography in the standard categories boils down to this: when so much artwork is generated around the same, popular themes and subjects, the work as a whole swiftly comes to feel monotonous, and then boring, to the eye. Our minds can spot familiar genres instantly, and we classify a given piece of art within its genre quickly by reflex. We then tend to consider the specifics and accomplishments of the artwork mainly as they relate to genre expectations – and to how well the particular image triggers the sentiments that are central to what makes the genre as a whole seductive – rather than on their own individual terms.
We cannot help but compare a given image reflexively to all the other photography that we’ve already experienced within its genre. And that's the rub: the categorizing maneuvers of our brains on autopilot have the effect of narrowing and deadening responsiveness to any new artwork that fails to surprise us. With genre photography, as with genre painting, it becomes harder and harder to achieve, for seasoned art consumers, anything original in the realm of sensed beauty or visual excitement. However "pleasing" a conventional image might be, it becomes impossible to deliver an experience of the sublime that feels genuinely fresh and unexpected, and therefore startling, to the viewer.
What’s more, when we feel that a given photograph fits into a known class of imagery, this categorization inclines us to brush past or undervalue the picture’s intrinsic aesthetic power as we concentrate instead upon our interest in its genre content. Many of Matthew Brady’s photographs of American Civil War battlefields are marvelous compositions in their own right, for example, yet we hardly notice this in our rush to dive through their window in time and study the inherently tragic figures of war who stare back at us. When its anchoring genre rises to the foreground of what we perceive, photo art is more likely to be regarded chiefly for its merits as a form of object or social documentation – Brady’s field work was certainly that, above all – and this interpretation of “what this photograph is intended for” tends to drain off aesthetic wonder for the image as an art object.
five alternate lenses on beauty. For all these reasons, in my own expressive photo work I have ordinarily sought to avoid subject matter that falls too easily into the standard genres of things known to be beautiful. Instead, I have tried to rethink the nature and context of beauty, coming at it from five alternate angles in a search for fresh directions.
Lens 1 - Beauty from Human Order. I have explored, for example, the way in which the universal human passion for imposing order among things might propel a new class of visual "beauty from order." Such beauty can be experienced in the sight of order-making activities. We instinctively absorb, for example, the clanging industrial excitement underway at building construction sites. We also draw aesthetic satisfaction from the pleasing sight of gracefully-formed, manmade things of every conceivable variety. My work here idolizes technical equipment of all sorts, common bridge underpasses and fire escapes, high school batting cages, the elaborately striated, plastic-sheet wraps of merchandise pallets, painstakingly woven aboriginal war bonnets, and many other overlooked miracles of practical invention that, upon close inspection, turn out to be as wondrously wrought as a Bach fugue.
One locates the penumbral beauty of order in a profligate range of unlikely contexts. We find it in the way a field irrigation gate can make water quiver in a satisfyingly precise moire pattern; or in the complex interplay of rigorous system versus random improvisation in German railway wiring. We find it, too, in the mighty, color-speckled canyonlands of empty plastic milk bottles bundled and stacked carefully for recycling at a collection center. To the extent that a principle of good order lies at the heart of a certain kind of beauty, it is to be found and celebrated in many places where artists seldom looked before.
This notion of beauty that emerges from visual order and from order-making activities could, at first glance, seem merely a derivative of Plato's famous theory that visual aesthetics proceed primarily from the principle of techne, that is, from refined measurement, correct proportion, symmetry and harmony. One might also say that my thinking is long-since preempted by Pythagoras, who supposed that pleasing proportions are aligned with mathematical concepts such as the golden mean; hence, when we see such proportion in art, the experience "uplifts the soul" because it calls to our awareness "the true sublime" inherent in the order of the universe. Or ideas to that effect, which have surfaced time and again under various lights over the long history of aesthetic debate, from philosophers as unalike as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, to romantically philosophizing artists such as Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Adams.
I am sure there is some truth to our inherent love of visual symmetry and balance, something probably hardwired into the evaluative subroutines of the evolved human brain. At the same time, I am persuaded that the specific forms, values and patterns in our aesthetic sensibilities - the sorts of factors that social constructionists like Herbert Marcuse used to put down to our conditioning in support of the existing social order - may indeed play a role in coding how we perceive beauty as an aspect of order.
But, as I've said, that's not the whole picture here. Classical precepts and pat Marxian theorems fail to capture the full scope of phenomena that trigger our sense of beauty from order. This scope isn't limited to pictures of objects that look well placed and composed within the frame. It also includes our appreciation of objects that look ingenious and well made, and it includes our intuitive embrace of order-making processes - for instance, pictures of intricate social collaboration or construction of complicated structures, such as in "Stenberg Brothers Temple" (above) - that embody the viewer's optimistic ideal of progress.
We find handsomeness, further, among objects in a photograph that look sensibly ordered in their display, or that appear to have been exactingly optimized. That is, I find that we like scenes whose objects have the uncanny, parsimonious property of looking "just right" for their place or purpose.
Obviously, to perceive beauty in these quite varied aspects of order depends upon the viewer bringing his or her own apperceptions and meanings about the things in the picture, about what purposes these things ordinarily serve, and about how they should properly perform. My galleries grouped under Beauty from Order gather diverse instances that please the mind in terms of any of these dimensions.
Lenses 2 and 3 - Beauty from Disorder, Beauty from Darkness. Looking "just right" isn't everything in beauty, however, and sometimes "just wrong" can work as well, though in a contrary emotional direction. Knowing that mankind reacts strongly to scenes where proper order is badly missing, and that our alarm at the sight of disorder contains an aesthetic dimension, I have consciously sought out beauty in dissonant contexts of chaos, disarray, decline, or frightening spiritual darkness - venues where the paradoxical appearance of beauty might prove striking and might operate as a balm to the act of looking at painful things. My images call forth the latent beauty in random disasters, discarded machinery, piles of deadly car wrecks, the collapse of living organisms, and even the grim skeletal remnants of a Nazi concentration camp. The felt internal tension between the viewer's pull toward the visual beauty, on the one hand, and an urge to pull away from the repellant content, on the other, becomes the essence of these beauty experiences.
Seeking to introduce a similar background tension into the beauty of some of my landscape images, I have also experimented with what I call "Uneasy Landscapes." These are handsome places that would ordinarily manifest the genre's usual appeals and draw the viewer in, as a traditional landscape painting does, but which trigger instead a damped reaction because, however lovely these outdoor pictures may be to look at, they also convey an offputting sense of coldness, brokenness, or personal limbo. For these reasons, they are places that the viewer will probably hesitate, by some instinct of self-protection, to project himself into.
I should also add, in candor, that this high-minded intellectual construct for images of disorder and darkness is only half the story. The other half is my lover's quarrel with the world. My work along these lines can be perhaps best understood as an aesthetic response to existential terror, the state I inhabit when coming eye-to-eye with life's manifold horrors, with the carnivorous nature and wasteful oblivion of existence, with our shared mortality, with God's apparent indifference to suffering, and with the persistence of true evil as a driving force in the material world, despite our best efforts to rationalize it as something else. I insist upon our looking at mean things without blinking, and upon judging harshly whoever created a universe so heartless.
On my own journey, the act of creating beauty in the face of moral despair appears as one of the two principal ways to redeem the original sin - by which I mean the harmfulness - of living lives so small. Like the poet Keats, I am certain of nothing except the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of our unlimited imagination for beauty. It is as though the god of universal order and righteousness fled the scene some time ago, leaving only the oblique god of loveliness to comfort us by imposing her own, fleeting visual order on the mayhem that has followed. (You'll find my central stumble through this subject in Chaos.)
Lens 4 - Beauty from Metaphor. To scan along an orthogonal dimension in search of aesthetic engagement by other means, we can find a class of beauty that blooms along the eloquent boundary terrain where an image's literal denotation (what object is standing before the camera?) and its richly embroidered connotative associations (what does this object stand for?) move into resonant, parallel positions. This is the enigmatic beauty arising from visual metaphor.
Metaphoric beauty works through what Minor White, and Alfred Stieglitz before him, used to call "equivalence," meaning the creation of images that powerfully evoke, in both the photographer and the viewer, certain lateral ideas and emotions that are expressed indirectly through symbolic content.
The quest for "unexpected beauty from metaphor" is rendered here into several extended essays pairing imagery with texts that amplify, elaborate, subvert or redefine what the picture otherwise would seem to be "about" or would appear to be "saying."
The essay topics include a review of things that make the journey of life harder than it rightly ought to be.
A second thread examines the eternal dilemma of misfit desires, being a survey of things many of us seek that are foolish to want or inherently impossible to obtain.
The largest and perhaps most sobering photo-essay on this site is incomplete and still under construction. In Our Nature is an elegy for the natural world in the hands of man, a battlefield tour of sorts along the blasted, bleeding hinterland between us and the rest of Creation. The gallery is an extended meditation on mankind's ambivalent mastery of the natural world, and evokes the uneasy condition of our biophilia. The gallery questions our continued veneration for Nature's archetypal forms, and our determination to patrol, govern, manipulate, nurture, imitate, disfigure, protect, exploit, and suppress at will the presence of the natural world in our lives. In Our Nature celebrates the abiding tenderness our kind feels toward plants and animals as decorations and playthings and symbols, while we blithely slaughter them around the clock. Under some absent god, we preside as the last, unmindful stewards of our beat-up, broken-down Eden. Such epic love and neglect, it seems, are both in our nature.
Lens 5 - Modes of Alienated Beauty. Beauty becomes more striking when it introduces something unexpected and perhaps inscrutable into the familiar. The literary theorist Owen Barfield invoked the quality of strangeness as a compelling poetic criterion, and his notion goes some way in explaining likewise how the process that I call alienation can amplify visual beauty: “Wonder is our reaction to things which we are conscious of not quite understanding, or at any rate of understanding less than we had thought. The element of strangeness in beauty has the contrary effect. It arises from contact with a different kind of consciousness from our own, different, yet not so remote that we cannot partly share it, as indeed, in such a connection, the mere word ‘contact’ implies. Strangeness, in fact, arouses wonder when we do not understand; aesthetic imagination when we do.”
One way to reawaken the viewer's fresh engagement with kinds of beauty that he or she has experienced many times before is to consciously alter certain aspects of the image's presentation in ways - in some cases overtly, in others subtly or even subliminally - that prompt the mind to stop for an instant and ponder what makes the beauty in this image striking, unexpected, or somehow alien either to the subject it portrays or to the viewer's notion of what a photograph should be. Broadly speaking, this is what early modernists like Maholy-Nagy, Man Ray, and Kertesz were doing when their artwork departed from the conventional depiction of objects as we know them to look in the real world: the familiar is rendered alien in newly beautiful ways. As Ezra Pound exhorted fellow rebels before the First World War, “Make It New!”
In contemporary art, photographers are doing much the same thing when they choose to continue working in black-and-white or sepia or, for that matter, daguerrotype instead of creating images in natural color, as camera technology has long-since allowed.
Monochrome can impart its own exquisite kind of beauty, drama, continuity within photo sets, and seriousness of mood - indeed, I trade upon these attributes here in my black-and-white photo-essays. Even so, the use of monochrome toning is always recognized instantly as unnatural by the human eye, and this difference versus the expected can work to the artist's advantage. To make sense of them, monochromatic subjects generally take a bit more attention and effort for the mind to interpret, which can make them more engaging. What's more, rendering in shades of grey is an abstracting device, serving to place the subject at a certain alien distance from the viewer. At the same time, monochrome is inherently somber and helps to telegraph that this image is intended for delectation as "fine art," rather than as something less elevated.
Limiting a work to monochrome is, however, merely the most old-fashioned of many potential modes for alienating photographic beauty to increase its impact. The galleries grouped under "Alienated Beauty" test a diverse palette of alternative ways to alienate an image, by means such as simple reorientation of the image in space, or the artful re-labeling of an image to confound its usual meaning, or the careful juxtaposition of multiple images in combinations that alter their implied meanings, or the deliberate ambiguation of subject scale and context, or the selective or comprehensive alteration of image hues and their tonal relationships, or experimentation with modes of narrative disruption, and other techniques as well.
Almost needless to say, as a coyly playful device for engaging viewers, beauty alienation in photography has roots as old as the artform. To pick just one early and celebrated example, consider the quasi-aerial disorientation of subject in the image, "Dust Breeding" (1920) by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.
Alienated images should be seductive, "make sense," and be convincing to the eye on their own, altered terms. My experimental practice of beauty alienation strives to expand the boundaries of what a photo-based image may, for the sake of creating fresh aesthetic excitement, be permitted to represent and express in relation to its ostensible content. My tactical approach is explained in detail in the commentaries accompanying the related galleries, where you may judge for yourself whether or not you like the brave new visual world conjured there.
Titles that Redirect and Alienate. Related to the beauty alienation, I should also say a word about the allusive image titles and accompanying textual materials - poem excerpts, links to related images or musical selections, editorial commentaries - that abound in my work. I don't share the belief of many photographers that an image should be able to stand on its own without further explanation, that its labeling contributes little to its impact as art, and that titles are assigned to pictures chiefly for the purpose of indexing and handling, and/or for perfunctory documentation of the shot's date and location.
The view that photo titling doesn't matter to creative impact is nonsense, and represents a wasted creative opportunity. My view to the contrary is that titles are very much an integral part of the visual artwork, and particularly so in the case of photography. If you study gallery-goers, you'll find that most people read the title cards next to images with intense curiosity, seeking interpretive clues, not only as to what they're looking at, but also as to how they should feel about it. For this reason, in my most ambitous work I seek to stimulate tense interplay between what the art viewer sees and what he reads about what he's seeing.
Creative titling is very difficult to get right, and most visual artists recognize that they're not especially good at this literary task. I suspect that this is why most of them retreat to pedestrian description or resort to "Untitled," lest they get it wrong. You'll find that my titles have hits and misses here, and that an image's given title may change over time as I spot better ways to say something. My titles and texts are sometimes plain and accurate, sometimes not, and not infrequently they are fanciful, cryptic, ambivalent or provocative. They, too, become a mode for alienating and thereby heightening the viewer's experience of visual beauty.
inventing beauty instead of recording things. The many alterations that I make to images – such as changes to lighting and hue – are introduced using editing tools, after the shot has been taken. In my function as an artist who creates pictures intended to work upon the viewer’s deep aesthetic nature, rather than as an impassive documentarian or an arid photo-conceptual theorizer, I deploy digital alteration at will and exploit my complete liberty to reshape reality and intensify emotional impact as needed to manifest my vision. The source material for many of my images is nearly unrecognizable in the finished pieces, and it is, for that matter, secondary if not wholly irrelevant to the image’s intended meaning and impact. To echo again the declaration made by Ernst Haas, the pathbreaking poet of colour photography, I transform objects from what they are to what I want them to be.
Many images built around alienated beauty are plainly otherworldly, but often in other images of mine, I am seeking to create a space that is neither conspicuously real nor conspicuously not real. For such photos to succeed, however, the projected place in between these states must manifest sufficient internal coherence that it can attain an integrity of its own in the viewer’s mind and can register, at an intuitive level, as possibly real and/or primarily real.
In this regard, my work owes something to the contemporary school of "setup" photography. Yet the native plausibility of my images as live shots of real yet remarkable objects in the actual world is one aspect that sets them apart, I believe, from the elaborate alternate realities of tableau photography, as it is done today by supreme practitioners such as Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson. With their work, which is brilliantly crafted and typically lustrous in its visual details, the viewer either knows going in, or can surmise at first or second glance, that their tableaus are simulacra depicting made-up or re-created and meticulously staged events. Through their manifest perfectionism, tableau photographs often convey - in an effect curiously reminiscent, perhaps, of religious parable paintings from earlier centuries - a vaguely unnatural, stage-set airlessness that flavors their drama by design. This impression triggers the viewer to suspend disbelief as a conscious act and strap himself in for the imaginary ride, which can deepen the intensity of viewing.
My images, on the other hand, are designed to exert an impact that is slightly different. In the case of my work, if the viewer has to overcome initial wariness in approaching an image because it strikes him, on sight, as “faked up” or diorama-like, then the quasi-authentic effect that I intend has fallen short.
For me, beauty-making is chiefly aimed at stirring emotion. Many of my better images are built around intellectual content and distinct visual ideas, yet ultimately I consider their emotional impact to be of greater importance to any lasting merit they may have as art. In my approach, a photo’s ideas serve chiefly to drive viewer experience and feelings – sometimes uplifting, sometimes disconcerting, often both at once – and not the other way around. Although she oversimplifies, I'm basically on board with Agnes Martin's view: "There is so much written about art that it is mistaken for an intellectual pursuit. Work about ideas is responded to with other ideas. Art work is responded to with ...emotions."
In attempting to create fresh beauty for viewers, as I said, I assume no obligation to render an accurate, literal portrayal of the objects in front of my camera, and I must reject on first principles (as Susan Sontag also did, with more eloquent vehemence) the illusion that a photograph is a clear window that can convey unfiltered facts. While I might not go so far as the puckish Spanish photo-conceptualist Joan Foncuberta does to insist that "Every photograph is a fiction with pretensions to truth," his stance seems to me more right than not. Rather than being factual, a photo is, at best, artifactual, comprising a blend of some fact and an enormous amount of selective art. The intrinsic artifactuality of the photograph as an art object is what my images of alienated beauty both presuppose and throw into stark relief.
It follows, therefore, that I accept no duty to render camera subjects “fairly” or pretend to assume an objective stance, as though this were possible through the scientific magic of the camera as a neutral device, a pretension that would be ridiculous on its face if I were instead interpreting objects with a paintbrush on canvas. The camera and digital darkroom are purely subjective canvas and paintbrush to me, with the added advantage that my images, by starting with photos of real things, begin with some measure of credence on the part of viewers that is mine to work with in connecting them to insights about the decidedly mixed pleasures of living, seeing, wanting, and taking.
the opposite of deadpan. My mission and technique represent, to that extent, the polar opposite of the so-called "deadpan" school of photography - to adopt the label for it favored by the art critic Charlotte Cotton - with its coolly detached sensibility, self-conscious literalism, propensity to catalog the material world, and reticence to explain too much about the individual images it produces.
As is widely known, this school of artistic practice emerged among students of the architecture documentarians Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf during the Seventies and Eighties, as a follow-on of sorts to the Neue Sachlichkeit ("new objectivity") sensibility that emerged during the Weimar years, in rejection of idealized romanticism in art.
The deadpan school's prosperous art stars – Gursky, Struth, Ruff, Höfer, Hütte – have become fixtures of today’s high-end gallery scene. Their allure as intellectual cadre and artists trades obliquely, to some extent, upon our collective presumption that a neutral or dispassionate approach to observation is possible, and that photography so approached can capture and present baldly factual, uninflected truths. Thomas Struth suggests an almost clinical stance toward art-making in his view of photography, not as a medium primarily for the invention of fresh beauty per se, but instead as “a tool of scientific origin for psychological exploration.”
Being a social scientist by training, naturally I applaud those seeking to visually catalog the world's surfaces as we find them, and this perspective has some appeal to me; but as an artist I feel little urge to emulate it. Art can dramatize, touch, transport, provoke, and inspire; I find that it is generally less impactful - to me, at least - when aimed at sociological insight, even though photo-conceptual artists do keep trying.
The finer gifts of photography as art, I believe, reside elsewhere. Many of Struth’s images captivate me for much the same reason that I have also come to enjoy the Bechers' de-glamorized surveys of industrial structures: not because of the intellectual apparatus that frames such work, nor its emphatically unemphatic tonality, but because the images somehow win me over anyway on aesthetic and emotional grounds. And they win me over, mainly, because Struth and his cohort have, by their chosen means and with deft craft, uncovered unfamiliar beauty in unexpected places - a singular achievement.
This brings me to the larger point about the deadpan photographers and other photo-conceptualists who might claim to abjure any particular focus on visual aesthetics in their projects and yet still somehow manage to sell a lot of work to private collectors who want something edgily enjoyable to look at on their walls. While the stated pretexts for their photographic work are all over the map and sometimes juicelessly academic, their best-selling images are usually those that combine high concept with striking visual impact.
Consider, for example, the brilliantly engaging photo-panoramas of the art market’s top earning photographer, Andreas Gursky. Gursky has retained the “objective observer” stance of the Becher school, but he stepped away from its unadorned literalism some time ago. Now his images of digitally augmented reality give viewers a fresh experience of unexpected beauty by introducing a novel dynamic between image size and "pictorial density" in the manmade landscapes that interest him; or, as the photographer puts it simply, "between great scale and a huge amount of sharp detail." The grand scale and sheer enormousness of his images (some of which are yards high and wide) and their simultaneous ability to summon up uncannily undiminished detail that the plain eye could never ordinarily see from that distance, give viewers a sense of the art space that feels thrilling and unprecedented to them. Expressed in the terms used here, Gursky has developed his own distinctive mode of beauty alienation, and his deadpan subject matter notwithstanding, this aesthetic achievement is what compels viewers.
image changes that are out of bounds in these galleries. In closing off this general discussion of differences between creating beauty for beauty's sake and documenting visual reality, I should mention finally that, in the artworks presented in this gallery site, I have never employed digital editing tools to move elements into different positions within an image, nor to paste foreign elements into a shot that weren’t there from the start.
This decision has had nothing to do with a wish to preserve the representational “integrity” of the original photo content. Rather, I have found that, unless the art piece is presented openly and up front as a formal collage, the eye usually spots such mash-ups instantly and invalidates them as disappointing fakery, which disrupts the perceived authenticity of the image space and renders impossible that imaginative suspension of disbelief that is so helpful to the viewer’s sense of wonder. Hence I ordinarily keep the image’s initial composition intact, pretty much as I found it in the material world. The vignettes that I come across in the outer, literal world become the foundational ideas for my finished art pieces, and typically their content anchors what makes the images most interesting for viewers.
Now, on with the artwork, and with this photographer's dogged pursuit of beauty that might strike you as fresh instead of expected.
.. navigating 40 galleries
The structure of this sprawling gallery site lays out the varied directions and experiments that I have undertaken in my efforts, over the last five years, to coax forth novel beauty that has impact. With more than 500 individual artworks to browse, you will have plenty to consider when you judge, and I will have more than enough opportunity to make my case. (In such profligacy, I adhere perversely to Andy Warhol's admonition: "Always leave them wanting less.") This is the first public exposure of this art zoo, and you'll find all the cages distressingly unlocked. As yet, none of it has been shown in offline galleries, and none of it has been submitted to industry competitions. If you like exploring art's byways, don't let this stop you.
In traversing a gallery site so expansive, my obvious suggestion for you would be to attempt a tour in more than one sitting, if you can make the time and find the work interesting enough to proceed.
art that unfolds with commentary. Not only is the artwork here unusually diverse in subject, style, and graphic handling, it also presents what one visitor characterized as “worlds within worlds”: it is layered with meanings, and often those meanings unfold only in light of the image’s given title and accompanying commentaries. Much of my work amounts to show-and-tell: my two-dimensional imagery embeds a third, literary dimension, which operates like a deep keel on its hull that you must choose to move through the water (that is, you must take a moment to read it) or else my art goes nowhere. I do appreciate that such show-and-tell requires more time from viewers than an ordinary flip through a stack of images would, and that you can therefore easily waylay and lose yourself down the gallery's innumerable byways. For the intrepid, a trail of bread crumbs may prove helpful.
Almost all of the images here were originally shot and intended to function as stand-alone statements, yet simply dumping them all on the floor in front of you as a big unsorted pile would make for a confusing experience. Fortunately, most of my work groups naturally around a number of core themes that make for coherent viewing experiences.
Every image in this site has been carefully classed and presented in a certain sequence among others, in order to enhance serial viewing. Sometimes I sequence simply by daisy-chaining images that share notable visual continuities, whose features morph gradually from one shot to the next in a kind of running visual joke. In many of the galleries, I have strung together images as explicit photo-essays whose narrative contains a conventional beginning, middle and end. Sometimes, instead, I sequence nominally unrelated images such that they contribute to an overarching narrative or meta-concept that is implicit rather than explicit. As you look into the galleries, you will get a sense of their flow.
The thematic range of my work is so broad that visiting only one or two galleries could leave you with the same kind of serious misimpression that the proverbial blind men had when each of them touched just one or two spots on the elephant; so to get a clear picture of what I am attempting to accomplish here, you will simply have to spend some time looking around, if you are so inclined. Otherwise, I hope that you'll somehow manage to come across the site's trunk, tail, and a bit of its considerable historical memory.
Thank you for taking a look at this work. Inquiries and comments always welcomed.
I thank God I’m not good
But have the natural egoism of flowers
And rivers that follow their path
With only their flowering and their flowing.
- Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Except where otherwise indicated, all text and images on HunterMadsen.com are copyrighted by Hunter Madsen (2020). All rights reserved.