“Astonish me!” – Sergei Diaghilev
Beauty becomes more striking when it finds a way to introduce something unexpected and perhaps inscrutable into the familiar. One way to reawaken the viewer's fresh engagement with kinds of beauty that he or she has experienced many times before is to "alienate" the beauty along certain dimensions of meaning; that is, to consciously alter selected 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, unanticipated, or somehow alien either to the subject it portrays or to the viewer's notion of what a photograph should be.
Broadly speaking, beauty alienation is what early modernists like Picasso, Brancusi, Kertesz, and Moholy-Nagy were doing when their artwork departed from the conventional depiction of objects as we know them to look in the real world: the familiar is rendered alien in newly beautiful ways. As Ezra Pound exhorted fellow rebels before the First World War, “Make It New!”
These days, the most conventional mode for alienating beauty in art photography, to heighten impact through abstraction, is to shoot 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.
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 more diverse palette of alienators. These include:
- reorientation of the image in space
- the artful re-labeling of an image to confound its usual meaning
- the careful juxtaposition of multiple images in combinations that alter their implied meanings
- the deliberate ambiguation of subject scale and context
- the selective or comprehensive alteration of image hues and their tonal relationships
- experimentation in a mode that I call "narrative disruption"
- other techniques as well
As a 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 photo of accumulated dust on a sheet of glass in Marcel Duchamp's studio, usually titled "Dust Breeding" (1920), by Man Ray.
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 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.
66 alienated images, the first of the four galleries in this grouping, lays out these procedures as it goes along.
33 floe abstractions renders, in an updated take on Stieglitz's cloudbank "equivalent" experiment, a world of water whose ambiguities of subject and scale confound whether these are submarine macro-images or shots of sky and space.
My tactical approach is explained in more detail within the commentaries accompanying the related galleries, where you may judge for yourself whether or not you like the brave new visual world conjured there.