. the problem of beauty
is beauty played out?
The restless evolution of Western art-making during the 20th century has been spurred, below the surface, by an accumulating boredom with the conventional portrayal of loveliness, and a hunt for extraordinary beauty in other directions.
In this hunt, photography has been a seminal vector. Experimenting camera artists helped pioneer the modernist revolution, as is well known, trading out the mannered prettiness of pictorialism for a much broadened conception of the beautiful, made from tougher stuff, more daring elements, more abstraction and technical voracity, a more heretical vision.
Yet today, longstanding and traditional notions of the beautiful photograph still prevail to a surprising extent in the market for fine art, ringing the familiar bells over and over in all the beloved belfries of art subject matter and technique. Even modernism's classic tropes have long since been coopted and productized endlessly.
Technological advances in shooting, developing, and printing since the Eighties have made it so much easier to gestate beautiful photography of the old school (landscapes, nature, travel, portraits...) that countless additional practitioners - most of them talented non-professionals - have swarmed to turn out work of warmth and refinement.
As to the pro's, the preponderance produce artful works of enticement in the service of marketing, everywhere we look.
What comes of all this is a rising Kilimanjaro of photographic art - more than 100 years' worth of fine prints piling ever upward - by a proliferating legion, documenting gorgeously the ways and byways of our world using all the sophisticated means we've come to revere.
This exuberant muchness is all to the good, in my book: more beauty everywhere, please, each and every day.
Even so, the flip side of beauty's superfluity is its jading. Is a culture increasingly submersed in pedestrian but agreeable loveliness becoming inured to moments of extraordinary beauty?
Had Jean-Jacques Rousseau lived in these times and been summing up the problem of modern art instead of modern man, he might have bemoaned that beauty is born free, yet everywhere today we see it in chains of dulled expectation.
With our modern world awash in conventional prettiness splashing across a torrent of new images each day, perhaps the pre-eminent challenge with art now is not how to make it beautiful - which is relatively easy - but how to make it unexpectedly beautiful, and therefore moving - which is anything but. "Unexpected beauty unsettles," as Peter Schjeldahl once remarked, and things that unsettle break through.
While one thinks of beauty as simply running up a spectrum from less to more, in fact the mind reacts to expected and unexpected beauty somewhat differently, and this difference is what sets the most compelling art apart.
To familiar and expected expressions of loveliness, we respond with appreciation, pleasure and approval. But when we come into the presence of beauty so uncanny that it stops us in our tracks, for at least a moment we channel a state more sublime - wonderment, enchanted delight. Not just pleasure, but joy.
Art photography seeks out moments to set loose this fleeting joy for the eye. Our artform pushes ahead, even in times of general calamity, and even in the face of dulled expectation. So here we are.
What follows, in this note, is a cross-section of the art I've made over recent years - some 40 images - which explores fresh possibilities for what an ordinary photograph can become, in meaning and affect, through transformations and reinterpretations after the shot has been taken.
From unprepossessing photographic materials, my work pursues unexpected beauty through the introduction of alternate lenses, so to speak, interposed between the viewer and the original shot.
.. unexpected meanings
I have sought to liberate the image from its plain and ordinary documentary function by directing the viewer toward ulterior meanings through metaphor. Or through disruptive, counterfactual, or allusive titling that radically resets the situation. Or by footnoting the image with commentary and quotations that might challenge or cloud what's going on. The central task in my art is to join images with ideas that spark something.
.. unexpected contexts
My images also experiment with locating beauty in dissonant contexts outside the familiar habitats where artists like to situate visual joy. Contexts rife with unease, chaos, decline, darkness, and disorder introduce a bracing friction in place of beauty's usually balmy ambiance.
.. unexpected visualizations
I apply diverse techniques of beauty alienation to give the viewer pause. By alienation, I mean taking steps to make a photograph's visual treatment feel somehow foreign to, or inconsistent with, how the viewer might ordinarily expect the picture to look. These subtle or obvious deviations from the expected are detected immediately, intended as puzzles for the eye and mind.
My processed, surrealized images operate somewhat differently from conventional photographs. They are better understood as works of art that - like paintings or sculptures or, for that matter, fever dreams - conjure a notional space rather than a literal one, where any visual thing might be possible. Photojournalism, this is not.
But such a précis gives only the barest sense of the work itself. As the extended discussion here navigates through related issues in the aesthetics of contemporary photography, you will find that I introduce quite a diversity of images by way of loose illustration or, more often, in point of contrast.
If you haven't time for the essay, then feel free to simply tour the images. You'll get a clear sense of why my work looks and behaves differently from other kinds of photo art.
art in the phototrope age
Dulled expectation - arising from visual preconditioning that dampens response across a broad swath of overly familiar subject genres - has become a deepening problem for photography as an artform, propelled by the medium's relentless universality.
Photo imagery pervades every human channel, and serves every purpose. Our species is said to be generating, around the clock, something like 60,000 new photos per second. Over a year, that amounts to two trillion additional shots for somebody somewhere to appreciate.
Being part of mankind, this immense burden is yours, mine, everyone's altogether, which is why we groan. As the philosopher Alan Watts perceived, although we picture existence as a dichotomy between Self and Other, we recognize underneath that the entire world is our body, in discontinuous connection, and its affairs - such as humanity's astounding profusion of image-making - unfold as something of our own.
The circulation of photos for art and entertainment has likewise run riot ever since smartphones took to the internet, where roughly 3 billion images get shared each day. It's a blizzard blowing in all directions at once, and much of it is strikingly similar in subject and format.
Just as holding a hammer makes all the world a nail, toting a pocket camera through life makes everyplace a potential snap or video, setting legions on the prowl for anything photogenic. And these days, whether or not we judge a thing to be beautiful depends inordinately upon whether we think it would make a handsome photograph.
More and more, people in affluent societies become part-time auteurs and full-time entrepreneurs of images, and this is long before any of them sets foot in a gallery. From childhood onward, we crank out snapshots in prolific abundance, looking back in wistful reflection and self-critique before our time, excited to squeeze our fledgling personage onto the world's glowing little screen.
Too readily and too young, we become more attached to capturing the selfie moment than to simply being in the moment, as should be natural for kids. Whatever else they are, photo images are artifacts that confront us with change and loss: even children can see how photographs speak, as Susan Sontag said, "to time's relentless melt," and to their own.
So much lifelong, hands-on acquaintance with picture-taking means that most art consumers have, themselves, already grappled repeatedly with the issues of beauty, content, and storytelling that professional artists also explore. Over time, even the most casual dabblers develop expectations as to how an attractive photo image should properly look, and what it should achieve.
No wonder, then, that photography has become the master medium - far more so than drawing and painting, contemporary fashion, or even film and video - through which people encounter art and hone their own visual aesthetic.
we are the world, sort of
Long since, most of us have absorbed the idioms, tropes, and feints of visual storytelling in commerce, news, and fine art. We grasp which subjects are popular and inherently beautiful to memorialize. We look for remarkable personalities, touching moments, hilarious pets, cool buildings, landscapes, flowers, sunsets, models, the erotic, and so on - subjects that might appeal both to intimate and generic audiences.
Above all, we continually inspect and photograph our own personas, with vast rings of self-depiction rippling outward from our devices into recorded space, desperate in our conviction that the over-examined life is worth living, and thus worth broadcasting too.
All this picture-trading has cultivated a distinct epoch in art and aesthetics. I think of it as the Phototrope Age, the species's universal leaning toward all things photographic.
In the Phototrope, we have begun to blur the social and functional values that traditionally distinguished actual presence and concrete action in real time from the time-shifted representation of these in still and moving images. In our heads, real life is becoming indistinguishable from pictures, and what happens to pictures has begun to control our real happiness.
With this transformation underway, it makes sense that the evolution of our aesthetics follows suit. Much in the way that "mass culture is a machine for showing desire," as Roland Barthes observed, mass photo-sharing (with its ubiquitous thumbs-up signaling and profligate bestowal of hearts and frowns) has become our machine for showing and amplifying conventional notions of beauty.
the frankenstein's monster of pretty
And now along comes A.I. image generation: an expanding universe of neural-net-hatched imagery shaped under our loose direction that further reifies norms for expected beauty. A.I. pleases by applying routines that glibly synthesize uniquely "new" images from a sophisticated amalgam of prior aesthetic choices deemed successful in the art market. A.I. art aims to generate slightly-outside-the-box content by riffing with mostly-inside-the-box aesthetic sensibilities.
Amidst this rising din of mimetic noise, fine-art photography must struggle ever harder to deliver an experience of meaningful beauty that strikes viewers as potent, singular, unexpected and uncanny.
too much of a good thing
Intensive, sustained exposure to art stimuli can end up altering the viewing experience in either of two directions. On the plus side, akin to wine tasting, the more fine art our eyes take in over time, the more refined our palette and sensibility can become, provided we don't start losing interest along the way.
But that's the risk: extensive exposure can lead to burnout, less careful looking, and reductive takeaways - like what happens to your dwindling attention when you try racing through the Louvre in its closing hour; or when you skim hundreds of otherwise affecting Civil War photos in a single go.
Under most conditions, the human mind is supremely discretionary in what it pays close attention to. Our brain's first order of business is to handle the complexity in front of it by keeping an eye out for new and different things that could present threat or reward, while glossing swiftly over everything else it regards as familiar, safe, repetitive, redundant, or boring.
This mechanism operates even when you visit an art gallery to check out new work: unless you've got time to kill, your normal instinct will be to do a scan of the walls to pre-sort which few pieces catch your eye for inspection. With most of the selected artworks, a closer look triggers the impulse to keep moving.
Yet you might come across one piece that leaves you smitten. Falling for unexpected beauty parallels somewhat, eerily, the experience of falling in love. Instantly you immerse yourself in the artwork's label details and pricing, fully persuasible to its virtues and eager to sell yourself on this impromptu coupling.
You slip into the reverie that psychologists call cathexis, yearning to become one with this piece of art, to possess it wholly. Imagine two strangers who meet, entwine in passion, and become forever changed by their union, making it hard to let go and move on for years afterward. That's collecting, of course. The sublime transfixes: to meet its gaze, eye to eye, is of an utterly different order than breezing past more expected iterations of loveliness.
My Funny Codependent Valentine (2013)
But love-at-first-sight is never better the tenth time around. Like it or not, much vibrant art photography today evokes déjà vu through no fault of its own, because the mind is always on watch for family resemblances. Working in the backroom on autopilot, our eye has already registered and filed away millions of image examples encompassing nearly every class of photo topic and pictorial style, and is prone to perceive new experiences as variants of prior ones.
Thus, the art viewer's mind makes sense of new images, wherever possible, in relation to whatever he or she may previously have seen within that genre. Of course this encumbers expectation and relaxes attention, making it harder to encounter an image afresh on its own unique terms.
And even as we art lovers flirt and dally with fresh muses at 1stDibs and Hyperallergic, we do so against a distracting barrage of ambient beauty-noise that never lets up; because the wider marketing world never stops competing for our attention, upping the ante by wallpapering every other media surface in our lives with pictures designed to entice, which can easily crowd out and outshout more refined art statements.
Taken altogether, the sapping ubiquity of familiar, pedestrian prettiness from all sources marinates our senses around the clock in soothing sunset light, until all is comfy and prone, like Prufrock's patient etherized upon a table. And yet, steeped as we are in pictorial pentothal, we still look to fine art imagery to awaken us with a jolt of the sublime. Let us go then, you and I...
the dull surprise party
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? When it comes to photographic art, in particular, is it still possible to do anything fresh with aesthetics that surprise the eye, or has it all, pretty much, been done before?
In studying and collecting images across many years, a sense of doubt settled over me some time ago regarding the picture industry's perennial iterations of the same consensually lovely subjects - countrysides, melancholy ruins, exotic wildlife, charming oldtimers, troubled youth, outsiders, mother's love... (an honor list follows) - which, though beautiful all, have proliferated unviewably into the zillions online.
Worried that maybe visual beauty was going dead for me, I put aside my day job in digital media several years back and began a sprawling body of exploratory work that seeks the sublime on roads less traveled:
What kinds of new beauty might be uncovered if we made a point of steering away from the usual contexts and subjects frequented in the hunt for the picturesque, decorative and beautiful?
In the many precincts of this sprawling gallery site, I am sharing what has emerged from this project, new instances of beauty in dialogue with ideas - often challenging ones - that become a distinct terrain in themselves.
between art and chaos
Part observation and part commentary, the photographs and interpretive texts here locate glimmers of heaven and hell in overlooked corners, which abound. Though original beauty is its raison, this body of work is not what most would consider feel-good photography. A cloud map of the content at this URL would resemble a meadow pocked with countless rabbit holes to tumble down, leading variously to disorientation, dismay, and the occasional dormouse.
It's a lot to take in, I realize. And with the world it portrays mired in mishegos, the picture isn't entirely pretty; at best this beauty is fragmented, imperfect, its own kind of unruly mess. On the other hand, as Lord Byron once shrugged when pressed about the profligate expanse of his last poem, Don Juan, isn't that also life, is that not the thing?
Bless and Release (2023)
The artwork here pursues its themes through provocation and indirection, mixed messaging and paradox.
As noted, my images speak to the tension we feel when experiencing beauty alongside suffering, a psychological impasse elemental to the human condition. To all art encounters, we bring a mind made of love, made of beauty, made of fear.
joy for the eye, even now
Sad and embittering times do not negate the case for beauty, any more than they warrant a retreat into despair, cynicism, or art flattened into rhetoric. Whatever meaning one might wish to convey, its articulation in the presence of unexpected beauty enables for viewers a degree of elevation and transport that may not be achieved by any other means.
Reflecting back on a lifetime of painting through the course of two soul-gutting world wars and a raft of personal travails, Rene Magritte - the consummate visual magician - summarized a creator's credo that suits our times as well: "Experience of conflict and a load of suffering has taught me that what matters above all is to celebrate joy for the eyes and the mind."
Although the underlay of my art is a broad exploration of the ways we modern apes live and what we value, the specific subjects in my images range widely.
Some pictures delight in sour metaphor and the incipient weirdness of ordinary moments. Others celebrate the inherent rhythms of made objects. Still others grieve the collapse of the natural world in the hands of man. And still other others explore the mysterious power of beauty to establish itself in the face of chaos, decline, and earthly evil.
Cutting across all this rumination and soul-searching is an interrogation of beauty's place in photo art. My practice reconsiders a proposition that Euripedes posed in ancient times, and that Edward Steichen's boosterish 1953 MOMA show, The Family of Man, proclaimed triumphantly for photography as a fine art: "Shall not loveliness be loved forever?"
I would answer this question with a yes, probably, but if you asked a growing number of artists working today on the photo-conceptual frontier, their answer regarding the beauty imperative in art would be no, not so much.
What has emerged over time, in some quarters, is a quiet disconnect between visual passion and conceptualism, which my photography seeks to bridge by exploring the interplay between beauty and ideas in those "thought-things" - Hannah Arendt's term - we call works of art.
what can beauty get done
when pretty steps back?
I find myself returning now and again to this question:
Beyond peripheral decoration, what is the role of beauty today in art that concerns itself with more than prettiness?
That is, for fine-art photography that grapples with more difficult, ambivalent, or conceptual material, what part does visual reward play in creating impact? Or, is to deliver striking beauty no longer a priority, nor even a help?
The cross-effects - ideally concordant but oftimes confounding - between beautiful execution and art messaging pose challenges similar to what listeners may encounter in songs whose words and music don't quite match up in sensibility: where there's a disconnect, most often it is the music - or, for visual art, the aesthetics - that end up asserting emotional control.
Auden once pointed out cheerily that, no matter how heartrending the star soprano's crisis on stage might be, there's really no such thing as "tragic opera," because the singer, the music, and thereby the audience are all so plainly "having a wonderful time," regardless of storyline.
Likewise, it is hard not to come away pleasured - even if confusingly so - by a Goya, a Basquiat, a Lange, a Ballen, a Witkin, or a Salgado picture, however much their frames might be packed with trauma and bleakness. At the level of psychology, how is this alchemy of beauty and chaos made compelling for viewers, and at what point does fascination with the synthesis fall apart?
Dialectical tensions between beauty and subject matter haunt and animate the sweep of modernism over the last century. In beauty's house, alongside the familiar sublimities, door after heretical door has been pushed open to reveal a ramifying floor plan of magnificently ugly chambers springing nasty thrills. To do this topic justice would greatly exceed the scope of an introduction to my work.
Even to raise such questions about beauty's dynamic invites demurrer. After all, what kinds of beauty are we talking about here, who gets to say whether these are present or not in a work of art, and what yardsticks should we use? When we talk beauty, do we mean camera technique? artmaking process? lovely subject? composition and set-up? A.I. inputs, randomicity?...
beauty from the barrel of a camera
Isn't the aesthetic of photography a rather different animal when compared to other arts, in any case, placing a guild-like emphasis on the mastery of camera and printing skills that comprise their own canon of beauty in technique? "In no other form of art," insisted Ansel Adams, "is technique more closely interwoven."
A meaty doctoral study could be written - probably has been, somewhere - tracing how photography's beauty standards have evolved in lockstep with the artform's technological advances and commercial aspirations; favoring, for example, increasingly large prints, colour formats, and Photoshopped perfectionism. As recounted in the memoir of longtime Times art critic Andy Grundberg, these and other factors propelled "how photography became contemporary art" from the Eighties on.
Over more recent decades, the digital arts, tech, and online distribution have further altered how we think about photographic beauty. Smartphones have driven image capture ubiquity, reset image quality standards in various ways, and added on-board image enhancement tools that routinely widen, rather than narrow, the reality gap between what's been seen and what's being shared.
Social media have propelled this image tsunami anywhere and everywhere, for art-viewing experiences that bear little resemblance to the gallery browses of yore.
Tillmans, Gursky, Burtynsky and others have also pointed to the unprecedented super-resolution now enabled by more advanced cameras, which can operate from previously impossible vantages via drones and other conveyances, and whose images can be displayed at stupendous dimensions. Together, these technologies are prompting a fundamental recalibration in how the human mind comprehends both beauty and scale in the world.
The AI and NFT revolutions further compound the entanglement of technological and artistic values. As Charlotte Kent recently observed in Aperture, artificial intelligence has already proved unnervingly good at conjuring body topographies, even if it still "struggles to process the aesthetic of emotions."
It seems inevitable now that AI will soon throw wide the gateway to new dimensions of unexpected beauty. (Refik Anadol's towering abstract animations give us a tantalizing peek.) What remains to be seen is how well artificially-generated beauty can illumine ideas.
Recipes for a New Planet - The Three-Minute Robin's Egg (2020)
beyond aesthetic neutralism
Even as new technologies for beauty generation and enhancement proliferate, they collide with a countervailing regime to take beauty simply as it comes. Much colour art photography, since the earliest days of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore, has operated from a neutral aesthetic sensibility that accepts and conveys vernacular beauty choices pretty much as the photographer encounters them in the field, with documentary fidelity obviating image interventions and modifications. One thinks particularly, in more recent years, of the exquisitely subtle colour work done by Joel Sternfeld, Fred Herzog, and Alec Soth.
Of course, the penchant to stick with colour neutralism, at least in the early days, followed from a determination to differentiate the authenticity of colour art photography from the saturating hype of colour advertising, and to preserve the high-low distinction between purported fine art and everyday family snapshots in Kodachrome.
To my mind, those days and their cultural-aesthetic prohibitions are long past, so like many other artists now, I deploy colour in unnatural and incendiary ways. I share the view of video/installation artist Pipilotti Rist that, in the West, colour tends to be underestimated. "It's dangerous, it's emotional, like music."
This discussion returns us to the dual problems of beauty in the artmaking of our times. First, is it possible that the making of beautiful pictures has become its own shopworn dead end in fine-art photography, dulled by relentless fixation on beauty's longstanding muses?
Second, should those artists who create pictures for non-decorative purposes strive anyway to make their work aesthetically outstanding, or may they now set that agendum to one side?
nudging beauty off the podium
At this stage in the short history of photographs as a medium, some of the field's more admired artists appear to have subordinated aesthetic impact to more coolly intellectualized agendas and experiments; and others seem blurry or indifferent as to how they want beauty to figure into their work.
Among conceptually oriented pioneers, one thinks, for example, of Thomas Ruff and his deadpan portrait series; of Ken Lum's shopkeeper and necrology projects; of Catherine Wagner's Art and Science investigations; and of the almost clinical stance from which Thomas Struth deploys his camera, he says, as “a tool of scientific origin for psychological exploration.”
The images created by such artists in lab coats are stimulating on their own terms, having been crafted with meticulous care and freighted painstakingly with ideas. Presumably many find their work beautiful by a variety of standards.
Even so, to create an experience of unexpected beauty is not usually the point of conceptually-oriented photo projects. In some contemporary cases the images we see would appear to be designed more for demonstration purposes, operating as though they were, in effect, illustrating a patent application for intellectual ownership of some new art-making process, theoretical insight, catalog of objects, or social observation that the artist wishes to call to our attention.
Once the point or process behind pictures of this sort is laid out, the photograph - as the stimulus to ideation - will have delivered its main payload and the viewer is ready to move on. Any emotional combustion that an image's design and finish might additionally induce may, in some cases, feel almost beside the point, if not a distraction, since the intended viewing experience is more cerebral than sensory, more a project in exposition than viewer enticement.
into tropes and sentiment
How did visual reward come to take such a back seat? Understandably, many of the field's front-runners are eager to leave behind the tired memes and over-sweetened sensibility of conventional photo art, which still sells vigorously because it works within well-trod paradigms of Romantic sensibility that trigger a pre-formatted, sentimental response.
Autumn Tropes (2022). Idyllic beauty becomes our punched-up happy place.
Consider the most popular, go-to subjects for photo art, which I've come to think of as our beauty ghettoes. These are inherently appealing and instantly familiar aesthetic contexts so pat and pre-coded for beauty appreciation that many of them constitute standard entry categories in international photography competitions.
Through innumerable image exposures over a lifetime, our culture trains us to anticipate beauty in these settings...
expected beauty habitats
. landscapes, seascapes, sunsets
. flowers in still lifes, fields & gardens
. soaring urban skylines
. aerial/drone, space, and aquatic subjects
. amazing sports and wildlife closeups
. fragrant travel exotica
. impassioned musicians, dancers
. radiant portraits of celebrities, heroes
. soulful portraits of plain folk, laborers,
outsiders & minorities, protesters,
the poor & downtrodden, the war-torn,
the ill, the elderly, mother and child
. artist self-portraits
. street buzz, local dramas
. down-and-out corners
. things rustic & rural
. melancholy ruins, ancient or modern
. poignant slice-of-life moments
. lyrical human tragedies
. quirky characters
. troubled youths, kids at play
. glossy fashion shoots
. arty nudes
While to see the whole gang anatomized this way makes for an amusing roundup, this reductive roll call may sound more snide than I intend. That these contexts are evergreen favorites for photographic art goes to the heart of what makes us human, framing and reframing the hero of a thousand faces and our archetypal narratives of striving and loss.
What's more, strikingly lovely art of integrity and individuality is being created every day within these classic genres: there is an enormous abundance to admire and to learn from.
That said, if reading through this Top 20 Most Beautiful list made your jaw tighten a bit, then perhaps you recognize the problem of sentimentalized expectation within these heavily-trod arenas.
W. Eugene Smith once quipped that "hardening of the categories causes art disease." Have we already witnessed too much photographic beauty of similar kinds in the usual go-to settings and genres to get one's pulse racing anymore? Has the contribution that aesthetics make to art objects, even in highly sophisticated work, become implicitly formulaic and expected? Is this where beauty ends in our times, with a shrug of appreciation and a jaded sigh?
To achieve originality with mainstream content, especially at this late date, is superlative achievement indeed. My hat is off to those contemporary artists who can - and some do - find something fresh to say in the photography of pounding surf, autumn light, scenic travelogues, thundering stallions... For the most part I find that I cannot, so my search for unexpected beauty gravitates toward less happy hunting grounds and decidedly odder quarry.
switching the subject
While I also make images within the traditional genres (you'll find my portfolios for Natural Beauty, Personal Beauty, and Human Order), most of my work pursues unexpected beauty outside the subject-matter venues where viewers are most deeply conditioned to expect visual pleasure.
What if the experience of beauty were pointedly detached from its usual habitats and bonded to less anodyne affairs, with aesthetic delight operating not as a secondary sweetener, but as the central reason for appreciating the picture, an experience sharpened by beauty's less familiar trappings and more dissonant content attachments?
Although they saddle up quite a menagerie of disparate themes and topics, taken altogether these images amount to an exploration of art for the eye and mind in less expected places and more varied forms.
As noted, we live in an era that is all-but-buried in pix of conventionally pretty things to look at. Some - this photographer included - worry that such over-abundance is dulling our minds' underlying capacity to respond deeply to beauty in general.
Our brains come to anticipate stereotypic ideas of the sublime and plug them into their standard groupings by reflex ("another vivid sunrise," "another alluring model," "another delicate yellow rose in a handsome porcelain vase"...) rather than encounter each new image as a fresh, unique experience.
As we keep reacting to the onrushing barrage of gorgeous things in all the expected categories of gorgeousness, a benumbed predictability creeps in. Sooner or later we see Gertrude Stein's point, because a rose is a rose is a rose. What, really, is the good of artists pumping out yet more "new" images along those lines?
Should we, perhaps, consider alternate starting places for the creation of less expected beauty? From the darkroom, can we finger our way toward brighter entrypoints into the animal joy of looking?
the pursuit of unexpected beauty
Hence the challenge confronting photo artists today: with eyes now glazing before its familiar charms, can one possibly awaken viewers to fresh loveliness arising in contexts - often, uncomfortable, unexpected, or unpromising ones - where beauty's very presence still has the power to surprise and to feel somehow original?
Or put this another way:
In a contemporary culture where the experience of beauty has been framed so often as little more than the eye candy come-on of commerce, is there still a way to conjure original images whose aesthetic character - their striking composition, design, use of light and values, energy, emotional overtones or spiritual feeling - becomes the chief point of engagement, the aspect that draws you back to look again and calls forth its own distinct wonder, for reasons over and above whatever animal, vegetable, or mineral happens to be posing for the camera?
Just as Robert Frank did, “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.” This challenge drives much of the work here, within a compendium that, across 40 portfolio galleries, brings together several hundred images, plus a diverse selection of text-and-photo essays, completed over the last decade.
breaking the surface
These are forays into the relationship between surface and substance, designed as soundings into deeper matters that remain to some degree unspecified. Photography is a tool "well-fitted," as John Szarkowski once pointed out, "for the exploration of those areas of our experience in which we recognize but do not understand meaning."
Akin to what Agnes Martin once said about her paintings, many of the images here are less about what is seen than about what breaks through, long known in the mind. Art of this kind is less concerned with capturing the decisive moment than with stirring murmors in the viewer's heart and brain, which take on the work of interpreting the picture by projecting emblematic meanings onto it. Here, interpretation is prompted further by image titles and texts that are suggestive yet open-ended.
In pursuit of new beauty that might break through, the photographer saddles up and gallops off in all directions at once, across a limitless horizon. Even clinging to a site map and trailing a sack of bread crumbs, newcomers may, at first pass, find this riding hard to circuit.
Rather than unearth yet more images from the locales where beauty is traditionally mined, most of the photography here starts by looking elsewhere, in places where beauty can emerge instead from resonant metaphor, from invigorating contexts of order or disorder or spiritual darkness, and from emotionally complex - rather than merely picturesque - landscapes.
so picture this
When presented in large prints on gallery walls, many art images today suggest themselves as spotless windows framing views to literal elements - persons and things - in an actual space located somewhere else, a frame that we peer through as a mode of visitation; the image operates as a teleportation device, a step through the looking-glass.
The hallmarks of beauty for such photography stress crystalline focus, large-format picture detail, and the rendering of pictorial depth in a way that feels literally true to the eye, complimented by lighting skillfully devised to further this effect. Altogether, a sophisticated aesthetic built around spatial realism.
Much of the work here intends a different experience that either dispenses with or subverts that premise, presenting instead the two-dimensional image as the viewer's final destination, a place compressed with meanings, a space that operates under its own rules and posits its own non-documentary realities.
Indeed, preferring viewers to remember at all times that they're examining the contrived realm of an art object, with a shrug I let some digital brushstrokes show by leaving editing imperfections on random display. I then go further, modifying the aesthetic dimensions of many images in subtle or obvious ways, such that a picture's appeal might strike the eye as somehow unexpected or even alien to its subject matter.
strangeness as aesthetic
Deliberately alienated beauty can heighten the viewer's attention and engagement in ways that more familiar and expected expressions of beauty cannot. Often it is through alienation that a certain music, or a glint of the uncanny, slips into an image by the side door.
The wide-open approach that this work takes toward the introduction of unexpected beauty by any suited means follows that of forerunners such as Pete Turner and Ernst Haas, the pioneering poet of color photography. The eloquent Austrian liked to think of himself as "a painter in a hurry," and of his creative process as "dreaming with open eyes." Through a range of deliberate alterations, Haas embraced his unfettered liberty to "transform an object from what it is to what I want it to be."
f (chatbot + mask + voice of A. Turing + smile) = pass/fail
Although generally unlike his artwork in subject matter and much the lesser in technical finesse, the images here take Haas's creative principle forward, presenting an intensified or augmented reality of sorts that owes as much to the expressive latitudes of painting as it does to the documentary presumptions of photography.
In this regard, my images also mark affinities with the work of other mid-century painter-photographers, such as Saul Leiter and Frederick Sommer. Like theirs, this is street photography from the streets of a slightly different universe.
where from here...
Plunge into .. ideas if you are up for a longer lap around art photography's aesthetic divide, and for hearing more about this site's offbeat framework for cultivating unexpected beauty.
For a speedier tour d'horizon, you can browse the why pages that introduce each gallery set (especially, the first two of these) and illustrate my approach with examples of beauty in relation to:
On the other hand, if you are someone who is only marginally interested in this stuff anyway, then you have already made yourself slog through quite enough artspeak. You are probably best advised now to simply poke around the place in search of something unexpected.
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