Sunday, March 16

• An Essay

What Do We Do After We Go “Wow”? • An Essay
The purpose of beauty in art photography
By Ted Byrne

I suspect that somewhere deep down in our reptilian brains – beauty has a utility. Someone once wrote that we use pornography up. If we didn’t, he asserted, there’d be no reason to publish more than one issue of Playboy.

Pornography apparently is linked to a primal drive to procreate.

Artists have been on an ageless quest to distill out the essential beauty in the human form – male and female. The girls do get prettier at closing time. Lady ‘cougars’ are on the prowl for stud-hunks.

And yet, that beauty that teases, entrances, seduces… loses its magic in the post-coital hangover. Regardless, all of us hunt for that initial burst of beauty which will cause us to tumble into the bubbling stew of love.

I wonder about this tendency to use beauty up. To seize it, then dispose of it. We seem drawn to to perpetuate the species…What Captain Picard called, “The Prime Directive’.

Art Historian and art photographer Jeff Curto in a compelling podcast questioned the artistic appeal of Alec Soth and Derek Henderson. And Curto wondered how it is that we are attracted to images that are not beautiful and which have even pushed beautiful images out of fashion.

Beauty snares us into deeper things. Marketers know that so they have surgically separated beauty from its evolutionary purposes in order to push washing machines or flat screen TVs. They tease in order to sell… but there’s a disconnect between packaging and product that we sense and which eventually leads us to distrust the tease: Distrust the beauty. To become at best skeptical about anything that is ‘merely’ beautiful. Anything that is no longer connected to the function we are hard wired to expect it to deliver.

And as people wear y of the way beauty’s triggers are exploited I wonder:

- Will we grow increasingly frustrated as stimuli arouse us but fail to lead to consummation of any sort?
- If beauty is a foreplay for some other matters, will we begin to reject it unless it is offered up in ever escalating doses?
- Will we increasingly yearn for a functional beauty which allows us to enter into a world of ideas, thoughts, or answers as their payoff.

Simply put: Is beauty enough? What do we do after we go, “Wow”?

Beauty, along with shock, humor, farce, pathos, drama, surrealism, awe, romance, narration, satire, and others are tools found in the photographic artist’s tool kit. They’re devices that inform a body of work… a life view. The danger comes when we confuse the tools for art. Their mastery in isolation is at best craft.

One way of determining a craftsperson’s worth is in the market. Dollars are numbers on a scorecard. “Wow” sells better than anything. Because in the commercial world we want to trigger viewers to action. It is the tease which makes a frequently unrelated message accessible by pointing it out to the viewer. “Wow” is not something that is bought for its own message – people who buy “Wow” want to exploit it to sell theirs. Commercial markets demand that the craftsperson separate the tease from its meaning.

Many of us confuse market success with art. We define art’s importance with its price tag. In many ways the photographic artist faces the same problem as the poet..

Just like poets those who work in the field of photographic art face much smaller numbers of potential buyers. Here, some of the most successful artists financially are also the best artistically but there’s no natural link in a system where very few artists are involved in the decision concerning who and what sells. Commercially successful art photography must first filter through the tastes of: gallery owners, curators, art historians, academics, agents, marketers, collectors, publishers, critics, and many more. Can anyone imagine Warhol’s ‘artistic’success absent the white wig and a circus of transvestites?

As I’ve said, beauty is one of the photographic artist’s tools. Beauty used exclusively as one note - results in a body of work which can bore. Only a great master, like say Ansel Adams, can continually mate it with awe to cause us to reconsider the significance of our role in the universe. His work deals more with humility than scenics. And that’s the point, an artist pulls you back to confront questions beyond the “Wow”.

We categorize photographers two ways: by genre (wedding, fashion, sports, nature, street, journalism, art… etc) and by dominant tools (beauty, shock, humor… Etc.). But we characterize the artist by depth of message. Tools like beauty can leave both the viewer and the photographer marooned at the “Wow”. Imagine if a playwright, novelist, or poet was limited to all good, or all evil. Imagine one limited to the one note of shock, menace, or beauty. There would never be a story arc, no narrative would occur. Their work might sell for a time, but would quickly languish. Who remembers for example, any of these astonishingly successful formerly household-names as artists: Dean Cornwell, Violette Oakley, Walter Biggs, Réne Bouché, Robert Peak, Lorraine Fox, Heysa McMein, or Dorothy Hood? Yet they made astonishing money for their art that was seem on a regular basis in the first half of the last century by hundreds of millions.

The torrent of beautiful images now available has led me to filter out those which I cannot look through as well as look at. I am searching for the portal to ideas or conclusions. Whether the window artists create leads me to ponder the human condition, the meaning of life, or the way we can alleviate hunger, or simply make happiness grow… Whether the consummation on the other side of an image is playful or fundamental, I value those images which lead me into a place which develops my thoughts or feelings something that Soth and Henderson are doing. I want beauty to bridge to a conclusion. And if the conclusion is veiled by ambiguity, that’s fine as well. Ambiguity engages me, causes me to ponder alternatives, a process which is satisfying by itself. Beauty is one element of accessibility… perhaps the most enthralling.

Too many photographer s of great craft also look to peel the “Wow” from its utility. We are drawn today to trivial image-making where “Wow” is the end rather than the means. Craft is a useful but insufficient condition for art, so is beauty. A work of craft or beauty will satisfy me once. A work of art will nurture me each time I return to ponder, and its power to bring me back is precisely the measure of its importance. Alone, beauty is cerebral/emotional junk food – taste without nutrition.

Because I suspect that somewhere deep down in our reptilian brains – beauty has a utility.


Debra Trean said...

ted - I read this entire blog and I think that old saying - beauty is in the eye of the beholder rings true. I think we all find beauty in different things especially men and women. I think beauty is a necessity regardless if it has a wow factor.

Ted said...

Yes... .but I'm arguing here Deb that regardless of what it is... it is best when it is more than only a tool... a device to consider something more. Beauty well rendered takes a great deal of craft, but I wonder if beauty alone represents more than craft as opposed to art?
Your work for example leads me to ponder so many more things than are seemingly rendered in your frames. You are commenting upon so much that contributes to the wonders of life. And with each new part the totality of your work is wonderfully optimistic... thoughtfully designed to make me think and feel beyond the instant that you've frozen and enhanced.
Beauty can reveal a port to explore your mind, my mind, all jumbled with objective and subjective possibilities.
That's art, no?

mcmurma said...

I dunno quite what to say. You have stepped so far outside of the realm in which I prefer to dwell that I almost feel you are speaking in a foreign language. The words are recognizable enough, but my ability to comprehend your meaning is, at the moment anyway, lost in a thousand disconnected thoughts.

Don't get me wrong. I'm intrigued, I really am, but it will take some time to sort this one out.

mcmurma said...

OK, so I have thought this one over for some time and here is what I have to say.

Beauty, for me, is nothing more than a stepping stone. Something that I use to try and get me to the other side, whatever that may be. It's rarely an end point in and of itself, although sometimes it is. Because sometimes it seems to be enough.

My problem, I think, is that I have grown so weary of trying to produce something "as good as those that have gone before" that I refuse to put any more effort into anything than I care to. And many times this is really not that much. I'm admittedly lazy, after all, and if I happen to come up with something that works for someone else as much as it does for me (or even more) then that's just some gravy on the side and life is good! (Maybe one day I'll quit being such a slob and try to do something worthwhile.)

My earliest influences were the great outdoor photographers, whose work I can't begin to emulate. Ansel, of course, was a factor before I even knew I wanted to pick up a camera. Later, I recognized the work of Carleton Watkins and Andrew Russell, among others. My appreciation for their work has grown since I picked up a camera, but only enough to know that I've never been within a country mile of matching any of the great pieces they have done.

And frankly, for the moment at least, I'm comfortable with that. Besides, I believe these greats, especially Adams, sacrificed an awful lot to get the kind of recognition he deserved. And perhaps more importantly, I believe Adams was fortunate to have been born in a time where his talent, hard work, and unique vision could all come together to create the lasting impact it has. And it surely didn't hurt that he had some great marketers along the way! Even if they came rather late in his life.

To me, his work represents the purity of craft, talent, vision that is sometimes matched, but rarely exceeded these days. And I have always viewed him as an artist first, even above the fine work he did on the environmental front.

I'd also like to think that one of the last things on his mind as he composed "Moonrise Over Hernandez" was whether or not it would turn a buck.

But really, it's all kind of romantic to think about. Very much a fairy tale that could no more happen in today's world than the story of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty (no pun intended :)

Anyways, Later, when I picked up a camera for myself, there was more of a desire to emulate the contemporary outdoor photographers such as Galen Rowell, Carr Clifton, David Muench, and a host of others whose work so often graced the pages of "Outdoor Photographer" magazine back in the mid 80's.

Now, these guys were all about sales. A good part of their goal was clearly to make a buck. Or so the magazine made it seem. And to be like them was my early dream.

And, unlike me, I feel their work does hold a candle to Adams. I mean, these fellows were (are) good. But these days (20 years later) there are so many MORE OF THEM, that it humbles me to think I could begin to compete in their world if it was to be my sole source of income.

In fact, I came to realize that if I also wanted some sort of family life, and was unwilling to make a tremendous personal sacrifice on the familial front to help it happen, then I would need to settle for something more personal, less commercial, more manageable, more "me", than these fellows were reaching for.

So what does all of this have to do with "What Do We Do After We Go “Wow”?" I'm not 100 percent sure. I can only say that, for me, at least, it's all contextural. If I were Ansel I might say "Wow...That's so nice." And then go about my business. If I were David Muench I might say "Wow... That's beautiful." And then see how it might sell. But as me, I tend to do a bit of both, and worry about neither. My goal, after all, is just to get to the other side. Whatever that is.

Ted said...


You are approaching my question to myself, as a question to yourself. One that never occurred to me - which is something you frequently do in the essays you write for your Blogsite (See Tripping On through among the links on this ImageFiction home page).

You wonder what, as a photographer to do after you go, "Wow!" I wondered what I as a viewer am to do. Are they two edges of the same scissors? You also wonder about devices toward an end, particularly an economic end. And I, as an economist, hadn't considered that. Hmmm.... talk about disconnect.

But I think we have both agreed that beauty - if truly valuable - is a device, a tool, a mechanism to lead to somewhere else. Perhaps that's why we consider vanity a sin of shallowness... The vain person cannot see beyond beauty and to its use as a latchkey... a combination to pull wide the safe of life. Rather they see it as an end in itself... hence "shallow".

But if it is a key, the question which we've both wrestled with here is, "Key to what?" And that's what Jeff Curto also contemplates in the podcast I link to above.

What does beauty want? Or ... what to do after we go, "Wow!"?

Thanks for thinking at me....


Anonymous said...

Ted, having come lately - or late - to your essay, here's my comparatively simple comment:

Some of the images I've seen that have a "wow" factor I do admire and love to look at for a while. But after that - well, I'm ready to move on. I couldn't live with an image like that on my walls.

But other times, when I see another image and go "wow" - it's an image that I know I can live with for the rest of my life.

So for me, the term "beauty" has different levels or depths. I like the Japanese concepts of beauty - there's the fresh gaudiness of spring flowers that probably we might not be able to live with comfortably all year long, as the brightness may tire our nervous systems - the stimulation is too strong and we need a rest. This is the concept of beauty they call "hade."

There are also stages in between hade and shibui, which to them and to me, represents the highest form of beauty - the kind of beauty that nourishes and sustains. It doesn't yell at us to notice it. It just quietly "is." Shibui refers to things that have survived all the hassles and gaudiness and have settled down into comfortable and enjoyable contentedness.

Against the background of shibui we can introduce temporary hade objects. But we always want to go back to shibui.

Thanks for a stimulating essay.


Ted said...

I think Flo, that we are on the same page. The essence of peace which floods you from the Asian wisdom you enjoy is precisely the payoff... the art of that work. It is the surface beauty of the images which capture your attention, but they deliver beyond that in feelings that resonate within you.

The beauty is a sign that brings you to their shop of feelings... teases you through the door... and causes you to tumble into what they really have to share.

Pamela Anderson is beautiful and essentially meaningless to anyone who has matured beyond early male adolescence. There is no "there" there, even though her look will capture most eyes. So to will a circus clown. Anderson is a perfect example of beauty without a door to enter. Her beauty is shallow as a parking lot puddle, but less useful in terms of payoff to the viewer.

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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

This is always a fascinating subject, and I thank you for it.
In considering it, I realized that there are several different notions of beauty, esp. in the way we respond to it. Like Soth and others in the blogs, I often find myself taking pix with my low-def pocket digital camera that are of unexpected beauty. Why is that? Well, in part I think, I have been given "permission" by people like Robert Adams and Arbus and Friedlander (to name only 3)to consider other things as subjects. In other words, they have opened my eyes to other possibilities all around us in the world. That is the problem that some of us have with Ansel Adams and Co. It's a kinda too obvious subject at this point.
But there's one other thing here that may be even more important: What is the purpose of this art?
I love a beautiful print (inc. Ansel's) as much as anything, but does it really alter my perception when I step back outside on the street? Exotic places and people and animals are all good subjects, but does the effect of these photos/beautiful prints actually transform my own vision of "everyday" reality?
In other words, is the art all about the beautiful print on the wall, which is certainly a good reason. Look at Friedlander's photos of bushes and cactus: they're certainly beautiful prints of almost snapshot framing. But they also transform our vision of what is there for seeing, whether we have a wide-angle Hasselblad with us or not. Whether we even take the photo or not. (Think of all those shots in your mind "that got away.")