“Astonish me!” – Sergei Diaghilev
Photographic beauty becomes more striking when it finds a way to introduce something unexpected and perhaps inscrutable into the familiar. One method for reawakening fresh engagement with kinds of beauty that the viewer has experienced many times before is to "alienate" the image presentation in ways that surprise and excite.
beauty in a foreign tongue
This means consciously altering selected aspects of the image - 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, unanticipated, or somehow alien either to the subject it portrays or to the viewer's notion of what a photograph should be.
The mind attends to alienated visual content in much the same way that it seeks, by reflex, to make sense of other unexpected phenomena. Regions of the neocortex light up when our grey matter grapples with ambiguity in language or music: the brain "hears something ambiguous and it's trying to solve it," as the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin once explained when appraising Joni Mitchell's offbeat tunings: "You get neurons firing, and that's engaging you. You don't want to leave the experience; you want to stay there and figure it out."
Alienated beauty works similarly to invigorate our attention, a diverting jungle-gym for the mind to clamber about and make something of. For explaining alienation, even our projections of a force called magic may suffice and, in the projecting, the idea of magic itself momentarily gains plausibility, which exhilarates both the grownup and the child in us.
make it new
Broadly speaking, beauty alienation is what early modernists like Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Rodchenko, and Moholy-Nagy were up to when their artwork departed from the conventional depiction of objects as we know them to look in the real world: the familiar is rendered alien in newly beautiful ways. As Ezra Pound exhorted fellow rebels before the First World War, “Make It New!”
While each movement proceeded from distinct historical antecedents, social contexts, and evolving theories of art-making, when viewed altogether, much of what made 20th-century art interesting to viewers were the staggeringly diverse means deployed to probe, stretch, disrupt, and rewire our mental maps interlinking subjects with their conventional depictions and cognates.
In the process, longstanding presumptions were upended as to what art is made of, how it gets made and by whom, and how it delivers visual enjoyment. What emerged from these myriad reorientations were daring new aesthetic renditions geared to tease, please, and shock.
Soon artists were delinking objects from their familiar visual markers and attributes so utterly that what had started out as experiments in complex description (think Braque's Cubist guitars and violins drawn in fragmented perspectives) moved quickly on, within just a few decades, to the interior terrains of dreamscape, abstract expression, and non-objective subject matter devoid of identifiable "real world" referents (Kandinsky, Pollack, Rothko, Mitchell, Kusama, Gilliam...).
At this turning point, the picture became no longer an act of perception but, as Jason Farago said, "an act of imagination, with a life and logic of its own." And the preeminent preoccupation of imagining was the alienation of a subject's beauty such that it might be experienced as fresh and unexpected - and uniquely attached to the artist's exciting new voice - rather than as predictable, conventional, and old-hat.
Because people are so heavily preconditioned to regard photos as literal documents reporting material things (a preconditioning reinforced by their own relentless snapshotting), the medium becomes an especially choice one for bushwhacking viewers with alienated beauty that performs differently. This technique permeates my own craft so much that my images often blur the line that traditionally distinguishes photography from free-form painting.
fifty shades of grey
These days, the most conventional mode for alienating beauty in art photography, to heighten impact, is to shoot or develop images in black-and-white rather than in normal colour. 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.
the modernist panopticon
Limiting a work to monochrome is, however, only one - and arguably the most old-school - of many potential modes for alienating photographic beauty to increase its impact. The galleries grouped under alienated beauty test a more diverse palette of alienators, each of them a longstanding tool of modernism. These include:
- re-orientation of the image in space
- re-labeling an image to confound its usual meaning, or to set an alternate definition of what the image might represent (cue Magritte's experiments in the "treachery" among objects, images, and texts)
- juxtaposition of multiple images in combinations that alter their implied meanings
- deliberate ambiguation or misdirection of subject scale, context, and spacial relationships
- suggestive resonance with distant or deceptively related ideas or images
- alteration of image hues, values, and their tonal relationships
- introducing a "narrative disruption" - that is, the presence of discordant and competing narratives as to what the picture seems to be about
- other techniques as well
As a playful device for engaging viewers, beauty alienation in photography has roots as old as the artform. To pick an early celebrated example of context ambiguation, consider the quasi-aerial disorientation of subject in Man Ray's 1920 photo of accumulated dust on a sheet of glass in Marcel Duchamp's studio, usually titled "Dust Breeding."
Alienation techniques such as image juxtaposition and narrative sequencing have long been staples of art arrangement. In Looking at Photographs (1973), John Szarkowski made a point of this when appraising a diptych by Ray Metzker: "Most photographers have at one time or another discovered... exposures that have worked together to produce meanings distinct from those of individual pictures [depending] on the fortuitous confluence of associations, or on a surprising redefinition of spatial relationships... and variations on the basic concept of cumulative meaning through multiple imagery."
Beauty alienation techniques would make no sense and have no impact, of course, but for the way in which our culture has trained the brains of viewers to expect, decode, and project layered and protean meanings from art that go beyond what is literally shown. Indeed, most of the fun of looking comes from this integrative experience, this reading between the lines. Like a Moebius strip, the image and the imagination - the photographer and the viewer - become as melded and discontinuous from each other in this instant as the dancer and the dance.
a change in what makes sense
Images that deploy alienated beauty should be seductive, "make sense," and be convincing to the eye on their own, altered terms. My experimental practice of alienation (which is described at greater length in my essay, ideas) 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.
. alien modes, the first of the five galleries in this grouping, lays out my use of certain alienation procedures as it goes along.
. floe abstractions is an updated take on Stieglitz's cloudbank "equivalent" experiment, rendering a world of water whose ambiguities of subject and scale confound whether these are submarine macro-images or shots of sky and space.
. the industries of oz is an enlivened foray into re-contextualization of visual documents. Or something serious of that sort.
Additional photo series of alienated beauty celebrate
You may judge for yourself whether or not you like the brave new visual world conjured by these explorations.
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