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 element of visual art, is beauty played out? Is it still possible to do anything new with beauty in a photograph, or has it all pretty much been done before? As each generation of art-makers tends to, we perceive the arts of our day - perhaps especially photography - as hurtling forward in terms of technical finesse, high purpose, intellectual sophistication, and the shock of the new.
Yet, standing in obstinate contrast to these, the aesthetics that guide art imagery - considerations such as design, harmony, mood, color, texture, energy, 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 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; yet at base, our human sense of beauty is not. Or, at least, not as fast and not as much.
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, a problem that hovers in the background of all contemporary art-making. Modern art wants, above all, to be about re-inventing ways to understand and experience the world; yet in this quest, even the most updated take on what's beautiful casts a stubbornly familiar, 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.
Just as we can usually tell the difference instantly between art and porn, when it comes to spotting an exceptionally beautiful image, we simply know it when we see it, and this recognition hits us as a primordial intuition. (Sometimes we even know it when we'd rather not see it, in the case of "unseemly" beauty: one of the telling curiosities of our present cultural moment is how compellingly lovely photographs - take Edward Burtynsky's luxurious landscapes of industrial degradation - sometimes draw public condemnation for the sin of "aestheticizing" objectionable subjects that, some insist, should have the decency to stay ugly.)
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the function of aesthetic experience in contemporary art - something deemed absolutely central to traditional fine art in centuries past - has, in a roundabout way, wandered out of focus and lost its imperative position over recent decades. This historical development is neither good nor bad as such, but it carries, I suspect, weighty implications for the nature and intensity of public engagement with visual art in our times.
My work recognizes the increasingly uncertain perch of aesthetics in 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 substance and manner, underpinning my efforts are two intertwined issues.
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, something that operates as a sentimentalizing sideshow to art's loftier purposes? What is photographic art supposed to be about, anyway? There may be some rough truth to the bromide that, whereas 19th-century visual art hallowed Beauty, 20th-century art stressed Concept, and 21st-century art, in its first few decades, is fixated on Identity. Even today and across most subject matter, however, aesthetics still factor explicitly into how artwork is presented and enjoyed. My work explores the psychodynamics of visual beauty, a subject that - beyond the over-worked realm of eros - is not much examined these days. I hunt for instances of beauty that are distinctive enough to hold center stage in a photograph.
Second comes the question 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 and on similar themes - a trend culminating in today's Instagram-Age surfeit - then where is any room left for creation of 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. Surely the vernacular of beauty is now irredeemably old-hat and utterly exhausted. In something of a panic, I have created this body of artwork as an attempt to convince myself otherwise. My images are immersed in concerns both philosophical and psychological, and they tackle a motley diversity of particular topics; yet above all, 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 for him- or herself 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 usual photographic subjects featured for their beauty, and have instead re-oriented my search toward a lateral framework - a decidedly different star map - of my own devising. This page lays out my approach, framed in relation to some prevailing trends in photo art today, and closes with a few suggestions for traversing the ocean of art on this site.
primacy of the beauty response in art. Agnes Martin, the mid-century minimalist painter, 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, even in an era where marketers and product designers have sought to “beautify” every little thing around us in slick, conventionally pretty terms, and where many serious 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.
As a psychological phenomenon, the act of recognizing remarkable beauty - that is, of having a strong aesthetic response to something visual - is among the peak experiences that human life has to offer. Exposure to beauty operates obliquely on our psyches, as something palliative and reparative to the emotional wounds of living. Our capacity to experience 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 possess it for evolutionary reasons that remain mysterious but seem to extend far beyond the seductive mechanics of beauty operating merely as a factor in mate selection.
Having peak beauty experiences matters as much today to a life richly lived as it ever did. No wonder our 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 – beauty that stops us in our tracks, captures us wholly and, for a moment at least, makes the rest of the world go away.
And to be clear, when I speak of “beauty” here, I use the term in its broadest possible sense, to describe any picture 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. In this sense, 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. New beauty is 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. "Unexpected beauty unsettles," as the art critic Peter Schjeldahl once remarked, 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 thing itself. I have grown wary of fine-art 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 photographing 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. Here the list 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 is to 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's humming the hero's warmly familiar tune. With every new clan image, the less unexpected and less beguiling that tune becomes.
I have given beauty tropes of these sorts a try myself (see the galleries under Traditional 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. In truth, tired art may have less to do with over-reliance on wornout subject matter than with how it is interpreted 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 new 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, from Surrealism to Dadaism to Abstract Expression and Pop. But across them all, the last century's masters of modernism were intensely engaged in inventing new ways to see and articulate visual beauty, and 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 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.
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 new photo 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, churning 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 rising movement of Photo-Conceptual experimentalists who've tired of old-school photo art conventions. For many of them, 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.
The shift in aesthetic compass becomes discernible, perhaps, when one takes in the distinctly unlike experiences of, first, savoring the idealized Sierra landscapes conceived, with epicurean delight, by Ansel Adams at mid-century, and, then, moving on to bear witness to the rigorously plain - even abstemious - Western landscapes that Robert Adams has documented, to nearly equal acclaim, in more recent decades. In some conceptualist circles, to pursue pleasurable beauty for its own sake in art now amounts to much the same thing as romanticizing subject matter for sentimental purposes as a formula for middle-brow appeal. In other words, the pursuit is dismissed as archaic and artistically down-market, if not the gateway to kitsch.
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 old-school genre painters. 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, I think, for traditionally-conceived genre photography. The best of it 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 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 is manifested in 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.
In truth, this notion of beauty from order is not so novel as one might suppose, since it resonates with Plato's idea that visual aesthetics proceed primarily from the principle of techne, or from refined measurement and correct proportion. I find, along similar lines, that, when objects look well-made or are well-ordered in their display, they please the eye by appearing to have been exactingly optimized - in other words, they have the uncanny, parsimonious property of looking "just right" for their place or purpose.
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 also 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 emotionally 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. My work along these lines can be perhaps better 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 the universe harshly for this general mess.
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 but 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 beauty arising from visual metaphor.
Such beauty is what Minor White, and Alfred Stieglitz before him, used to call "equivalence." They meant 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 diverse essay topics here include a poignant review of things that make the journey of life particularly hard for some persons. 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.
A third gallery evokes the bittersweet resonations and contradictions of contemporary bridal wear. A fourth essay mines the absurdities of tribal thinking in the West, and a fifth kneels before the querulous gods blighting America's fragmenting culture.
The largest and perhaps most sobering photo-essay on this site is still under construction (and not yet ready for viewing): "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. The essay 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. 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 Picasso 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.
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. B/W 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. Finally, a word about the often allusive image titles as well as the accompanying textual materials - poems, 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 stand on its own, and that its labeling contributes little to its impact as art, titles being assigned to pictures chiefly for purpose of indexing and handling, and/or for perfunctory documentation of the shot's date and location. I believe, to the contrary, 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, which is why, I suspect, most of them retreat to pedestrian description or resort to "Untitled," lest they get it wrong. You'll find that I have hits and misses here, and that an image's given title on this site may change over time. 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.
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, today’s paramount style. 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 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") movement during the Weimar years. The school's prosperous art stars – Gursky, Struth, Ruff, Höfer, Hütte – have come to dominate today’s high-end gallery scene. As intellectual cadre and artists, to at least some extent they have succeeded by trading obliquely upon our collective belief (I would say, myth) regarding the plausibility of observer neutrality and the validity of baldly factual, uninflected photographic truth. Thomas Struth reflects the group’s 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.”
This perspective has some appeal to me as a social scientist by professional training, but as an artist I feel no urge to emulate it. Art can dramatize, touch, transport, provoke, and inspire, but I find that it seldom makes for penetrating sociology, even though photo-conceptual artists do keep trying. Fine-art photography’s greater gifts, I believe, reside elsewhere. Many of Struth’s images captivate me, not because of their intellectual apparatus, but because he has uncovered unfamiliar beauty in unexpected places, a singular achievement.
Gursky's new beauty. 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 often 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 image 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.
Whether modeling the River Rhine, supermarket shelves, a stock exchange, or an arena concert by Madonna as seen from high up in the air, Gursky’s intensely articulated contemporary topographies deliver a god-like sweep and a crowd-pleasing sense of spectacle whose most kindred antecedants, oddly enough, may be the wall-sized 19th century travelogue landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church, or perhaps the large-scale history paintings also popular during their times. Church knew a thing or two about layering spatial drama atop the recitation of refined details on a massive canvas, and so does Gursky, even if he gets there through digital technique.
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 38 galleries
The structure of this gallery site lays out the varied directions and experiments that I have undertaken in my efforts, over the last five years, to come up with novel beauty that has impact. With more than 500 individual works of photo art to browse, you will have plenty to consider when you judge, and I will have more than enough opportunity to make my case. This is the first public exposure of this artwork. As yet, none of it has been shown in offline galleries, and none of it has been submitted to win so much as a single industry award. 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 is layered and unfolding. My artwork is not only quite diverse in subject, style, and graphic handling, but also presents what one visitor characterized as “worlds within worlds”: it is layered with meanings, and often unfolds fully only in light of the image’s given title and accompanying commentaries. Quite often my two-dimensional imagery embeds a third, literary dimension, which operates like a deep keel on its hull that must also be moved through the water, or else my art goes nowhere. In other words, much of my work is a blend of show-and-tell, so I encourage you to check out any text that may accompany the image.
Almost all of the images here were originally shot and intended to function as stand-alone statements, but 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.
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 (2018). All rights reserved.