“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. 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 and unfamiliar, 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 just as 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.
Broadly speaking, beauty alienation is what early modernists like Picasso, Brancusi, Kertesz, and Moholy-Nagy were engaged in 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 was the staggeringly diverse means deployed to probe, stretch, disrupt, and rewire our mental maps interlinking subjects with their conventional depictions and cognates. What emerged were daring new aesthetic renditions geared to shock, tease, and please.
Soon artists were delinking objects from their familiar visual markers and attributes so utterly that what started out as exercises in descriptive abstraction (think Braque's Cubist guitars and violins) 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, Gilliam, ad infinitum).
Because people are so heavily preconditioned to regard photos as literal documents reporting material things, the medium is an especially choice one for bushwhacking viewers with alienated beauty. This technique permeates my own craft so much that my images often blur the line that traditionally distinguishes photography from free-form painting.
These days, the most conventional mode for alienating beauty in art photography, to heighten impact, 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
- re-labeling an image to confound its usual meaning
- juxtaposition of multiple images in combinations that alter their implied meanings
- deliberate ambiguation of subject scale and context
- suggestive resonance with distant or deceptively related ideas or images
- the selective or comprehensive alteration of image hues 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, 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."
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.
99 alienated images, the first of the five galleries in this grouping, lays out these procedures as it goes along.
33 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.
You may judge for yourself whether or not you like the brave new visual world conjured by these explorations.