What is Beauty?

First – sorry for the significant gap in postings. I’ve been confused and depressed about what I’m trying to do and if I’m going to be able to do it. If it will matter to anyone else – and if that is even important. 

I’m struggling again because I’m wondering if I can do what I want with just photography – and I don’t think I can. But that means to do what I want I need to do more than simply refine my photography skills. I need to develop my additional skills. I spent some time on that the last few weeks and made some progress. Then I let myself get overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of what I’m trying to accomplish.

Then there is a philisophical question that has been bouncing around in my little head: What makes a work of art beautiful?  I’ve posted here and in the comments on other blogs that it doesn’t matter how you get there – it is the final image that matters. The work should be judged solely on the merits of the image, not how it got there. That was my reaction to the debate on To PS or Not to PS…

It sounds profound, and pure and well thought out – and it’s a bunch of bunk.  I hate to say this, but I was wrong.  As I’ve pondered that statement I’ve realized that we really do admire and respond to the effort and skill that went into the making of the work. The digital evolution has made it so much easier to produce high quality, amazing images. That has raised the level of, maybe not of beauty, but of qualitative beauty. To be great and significant, the artist has to raise her/his threshold, push it further.

So back to the question – what is beauty. What do we respond to? Why?

And I found the following talk on TEDS by Denis Dutton:

Virtuoso technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance…

One fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings, the beauty we find in skilled performances…

We find beauty in something done well.


Use of color arbitrarily to express more forcibly – Vincent Van Gogh

I love Vincent Van Gogh. I love his passion as expressed in his painting. Powerful, brilliant, unique. But I didn’t really appreciate the man until I read a compilation of his letters to his brother Theo. He wasn’t just a brilliant artist – he was a highly intelligent and tragically honest man.  I like people like that. Either because I’m like that or, because I think I’m like that.


I picked the compilation up tonight, opened it and started reading and found a great insight into what he was doing with color – how he expressed what he felt about his subject by the color choices he made.

Here is that section – from ‘The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh’, edited by Mark Roskill:

… instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly. Well, let that be as a matter  of theory, but I am going to give you an example of what I mean.

I should like to paint the portrait of an artist friend, a man who dreams great dreams, who works as the nightingale sings, because it is his nature. He’ll be a fair man. I want to put into the picture my appreciation, the love that I have for him. So I paint him as he is, as faithfully as I can, to begin with.

But the picture is not finished yet. To finish it I am now going to be the arbitrary colourist. I exaggerate the fairness of the hair, I get to orange tones, chromes and pale lemon yellow.

Beyond the head, instead of painting the ordinary wall of the mean room, I paint infinity, a plain background of the richest, intensest blue that I can contrive, and by this simple combination the bright head illuminated against a rich blue background acquires a mysterious effect, like a star in the depths of an azure sky.

In the portrait of the peasant I again worked in this way, but without wishing in this case to evoke the mysterious brightness of a pale star in the infinite. Instead, I think of the man I have to paint, terrible in the furnace of the full ardours of harvest, at the heart of the south. Hence the orange shades like storm flashes, vivid as red hot iron, and hence the luminous tones of old gold in the shadows.

On, my dear boy… and the nice people will only see the exaggeration as caricature.

John Loengard – what is a photograph?

Today, at ScottKelby.com, John Loengard posted for Guest Blog Wednesday.

(who is John Loengard – check out this post by Joe McNally who works for/with him)

Some amazingly beautiful images. I loved the portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe. Check them out.  She was so stunningly graphic as a person – simply in the way she dressed and carried herself. Of course it doesn’t hurt that she was photographed by some of the best photographers of the age.

The following are quotes from his article that honestly and clearly define what it means to make a photograph.

It is not important if photographs are “good.” It’s important that they are interesting. What makes a photograph interesting? I’ll count the ways: It can be our first look at something. It can be entertaining. It can evoke deep emotions. It can be amusing or thrilling or intriguing. It can be proof of something. It can jog memories or raise questions. It can be beautiful. It can convey authority. Most often, it informs. And, it can surprise.

Before I became a picture editor, I assumed that “good photographers” took “good pictures” because they had a special eye. What I found was that good photographers take good pictures because they take great pains to have good subjects in front of their cameras. (Reflect a moment on what cameras do, and this makes sense.) Good photographers anticipate their pictures.

This quote reminds of something Jerry Garns, the first photoographer I worked for told me: ‘If you want to take good looking pictures of people, take pictures of good looking people’.  I’ve always remembered that.

No photographer can go out today and take a photograph that sums up the Obama Administration. Photographs don’t generalize. But a detail, when photographed, often conveys a sense of a whole. A finger, the man. A leaf, the tree. A curbstone, the city.

Read the full article here.

Inspiration vs. Creativity

Chase Jarvis posted this excerpt:

“The reality is that it’s easier to be inspired than it is to create an original idea and we are hardwired to take the path of least resistance. It’s easier to jump onto a design inspiration gallery site than it is to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil. It’s easier to follow a pattern than it is to test-drive new options. It’s easier to copy a style or idea that works than try something that might miss the mark or outright fail. Above all, it’s cheaper mentally for us to rally around what’s already been done and emulate it…”

Read the whole post here, at Viget.com – don’t forget the comments.

I loved this comment from Rob Gilgan:

My own experience has been those with a traditional arts background tend to lack originality and produce largely derivative work. I have colleagues who are short on education and long on space and form conception – they produce, by and large, stunning work without a debt to other artists.

I always impart the anecdote from a show I produced, where a local art educator and ‘expert’ couldn’t determine if he liked a piece until he found out where the artist had trained.

Now – I’m not ripping the value of education – I just think that we use it as to much of a crutch. It is somehow easier to read a book, take a class, read a blog rather than go out and shot, draw, build. I know I fall into that trap.  It makes us feel like we’re improving our selves, but at the end of the day, we haven’t produced anything. That is the true test.

Is it photography?

I just hooked up with Zack Arias’ blog and was reading back posts when I came across this one:  Is it Photography?

The post is built around a comment he recieved from a previous comment he made.  Read the entire post – it is great.

But I’d like to borrow the text of the actual comment, because I loved what this guy said about why we do this, the growth process.  Zack gave his name as ChrisDavid42.

First, my opinion about art vs. commercialism:
Art has always existed at a cross-roads between commerce and human expression. Artists who wish to benefit from their art will always be subject to the aesthetic of those who are willing to commission, or pay, for that work. On the other side of the coin are the artists who reject all control in pursuit of a “pure unadulterated expression of their vision.” I recently read of a photographer from eastern Europe who was discovered in his sixties or seventies. He spent much of his life in poverty and two decades in a mental hospital. I don’t want to be that guy.

I believe a key element of art is the interaction between artist, medium, and subject. Though at times this may not be conveyed successfully to the viewer, an arguably necessary component of “successful” art, the joy of the creation of art, in my mind, is as important as the result.

Zack consistently pushes his listeners and readers to strive for excellence and individual vision in their work, and I agree. And, I have been encouraged by his message. However, I must respond to a couple comments, including the comment about getting a side job rather than producing mediocre work, or as in one of Zack’s repeated quotes “competing with Wal-mart.”

I also take issue with Zack’s comment that an image can be a photograph, but not photography. I agree completely with the sentiment that there is way too much mediocrity in the industry and in the media. I cringe at most of the photos our local paper runs, especially after years of reading Zack’s blog and Strobist and knowing that 5 more minutes of effort could have improved those pictures. And yet, that tolerance for mediocrity is the what will allow me to build a small portrait business and get the experience that you can’t get from blogs, or shooting your kids and neighbors, and pay for the equipment that I can’t pay for out of my household budget.

As a photographer, I find incredible joy from making images of people. I find joy from growing in my craft technically, or, to say it differently, interacting with my camera and equipment. I find great joy from interacting with people and creating a photo with them, not of them. My goal is to someday have the skill that allows my images to show the world “my experience” or “what I see in my subjects.” However, I am still producing mediocre images, because of where I am at technically in my photographic journey. But, my skills are improving, and I am seeing more and more improvement in my images.

I have recently had the opportunity to do two evenings of “event portraits.” Setting up in a corner at a community event and doing a hundred mini-portrait sessions over the course of two hours. The blogs and videos very much informed that experience, but having to shoot successfully under pressure is something that you can only learn from experience.

And I loved every minute of it, every compromise, every success, every time that I had to sacrifice composition to a technical detail, every time I was able to show them a picture that was better than they expected; even the failures when I couldn’t overcome technical difficulties, or connect with my subjects. Every second of that was PHOTOGRAPHY.

Even if it doesn’t translate yet on my website, it was photography. Even if I spend two years competing with Walmart for customers. It was photography because it was a labor of love for the craft; even if the viewer cannot see it. Someday it will be GOOD PHOTOGRAPHY and the viewer will see it. And that is my problem with Zack’s criticism, you can’t always ascertain the process from the product. however, I think we could agree it is a communication failure, the failure on the photographers part to successfully communicate his/her vision.

Perhaps where I take issue is that I perceived an insult to the process, and I see the process as inseparable from the product. (Honestly, what is really tweaking me is that I really identify with the first person you critiqued. One of the first things you read from her e-mail was that she had been doing this for one year. I look at what I was doing after a year and think “wow. I didn’t have the guts to put together a website after a year.”)

Zack commented in earlier critiques that kid sports photography may be boring, but he will buy it because it is his kid. I totally get what he means here, it is like watching a movie where somebody’s dad dies in the first scene, you are emotionally connected to the movie whether it is poorly scripted and produced or not. Same thing with the pictures, you buy them even if they make you cringe. However, I think that the answer is not to berate the photographers for making lifeless images, the answer is to stop buying the images. Vote with your wallet, pay a more envisioned photographer to make images of your kid in his softball uniform. Keep encouraging and educating photographers and the overall level of the industry will rise.

In summary, thanks for taking the time to read my rant. Your critiques are successful because they are thought provoking. I love listening to them. I listened to your critique on Tuesday and have been arguing the ideas in my head all week. I absolutely loved your talk at Photocamp Utah; it inspired me. I will continue to cull my best images for my portfolio, and I will continue to shoot whatever people will pay me to shoot (or let me shoot for free), and i will likely display some of that in my portfolio, if that is what my customers want and are paying me for.

enough said.