The Sunday Morning Photographer
Monthly Column By
Recently I've had occasion to think again about an idea for an article that I've been meaning to write for a long time. The title I've had in mind is "The Problem of Prettiness." The trouble is that I've never quite been able to completely formulate my thoughts on the matter. Nevertheless, prettiness remains a problem for me, and I think for hobbyist photography in general.
What instigated these thoughts was that I recently spent several hours poking around on a large picture-posting site (I won't name it explicitly, to try to avoid hurting anyone's feelings). For the most part what I looked at are amateur pictures, and not even polished, finished presentations — just a large mass of random pictures that people have taken, and, for some reason, liked. So it wouldn't be proper or fair to criticize too harshly just because what's presented isn't always art.
When I first start looking at large numbers of snapshots, I can get excited about possibilities, and my mind is full of comments I might make to the photographers. But after a while, a particular kind of fatigue sets in.
I don't mean to look down my nose at the work of amateur photographers, or to imply that I don't like looking at pictures. On the contrary, some of the amateur work I see is excellent, and occasionally remarkable. And I have a protean appetite for looking at photographs. It's just that I tend to look at pictures actively — I tend to seek the intelligence behind them, the coherence between one photographer's different pictures, the purpose and meaning of what I'm looking at. And this is where the fatigue comes from…because after a while, it starts to become clear to me that what the majority of people are chiefly seeking is simply prettiness.
There are a number of symptoms of this. One is that there are always examples of certain kinds of stock subjects. Scenics, mainly. Endless parades of blasé scenics. One after another after another after another. I've referred to these contemptuously in the part in a kind of abbreviated shorthand, listing a few of them to stand for the many. When I spent time on the Pentax list, for example, I was not infrequently teased about my dislike of cat pictures, flower pictures, sunset pictures. But, actually, I don't dislike pictures of cats, flowers, or sunsets. I never mind seeing really good ones. I remember, for example, a remarkable little book that a photographer named Tony Mendoza made entirely of pictures of his cat. It's just that I don't think that the presence of a cat, a flower, or a sunset is enough, all by itself, to make a picture work. And, really, although it's difficult to put together a comprehensive list of all the stock subjects that exist, every one is just as bad as all the rest. You know them when you see them, and you've seen them all a hundred times before. Or, in my case, five thousand times before.
On the site I visited, people are encouraged to write "critiques" of each other's pictures. This is a good idea, and sometimes it's even helpful. Only rarely, however. For the most part, the comments I read over and over again just illustrate how difficult it is for most people to say anything remotely intelligent about a photograph. "Nice shot," "good colors," "I find the ------ distracting," "I would have cropped it differently." Especially the cropping comment. Crop this way, crop that way. Crop this out, don't crop that out. It's not uncommon for somebody to suggest cropping out the very thing that for me makes the picture work. No wonder photography teachers for years insisted that students just print the whole frame and live with it!
Improving photographs has nothing at all to do with cropping differently, of course. Not even remotely.
Naturally, what I tend to turn to is a clear and uncomplicated concept of what's going on, and hard, practical, specific advice about how to deal with it. It's not enough to suggest that people look at their pictures and ask, "Is this merely pretty? Is that all I'm responding to?" It's not enough to say, be creative! Do something different! That doesn't really help.
Something a friend of mine once said comes to mind. I'm privileged to know a few truly remarkable people on this Earth, and the guy I'm talking about is one of them. He's one of the people I've learned a lot from — he's often given me clues. He's a longtime photographer who has a deep involvement with music, not as a musician but as an appreciator, a sort of ideal audience for the work of musician-artists. I think he knows more about many bands than they know about themselves; he approaches their art giving them tremendous credit, truly listening, astutely looking for the creative intelligence behind what they're doing. All artists wish for and hope for just such people among their audiences.
A long time ago, an acquaintance of his had introduced him to a certain type of extremely hard and abrasive punk, and this got my friend listening to a lot of this music. When I questioned him about it — asking, I suppose, what he was wasting his time for — he said, in essence, that he wanted to learn how to listen to that kind of music and find out what's good and what's not.
So here's what I think is going on with all those pretty scenics. I think that the mistake people make is that they become too undemanding when they've got their lenses trained on one of those stock subjects they think makes a good occasion for a picture. It's as if they're thinking, well, I've got myself a sunset here, that's enough. In truth, I think they ought to become more demanding when faced with a stock subject, not less. You have a lot to overcome when all you're doing is taking a bland scenic. You have to overcome the existence of a zillion other bland scenics everyone else takes. A few years ago, an excellent landscape photographer showed me a picture of a mountain crag with four hawks tumbling in the air near it. When I singled out the picture, he mentioned that he almost chose one to print that didn't have the hawks in it. But to me, they made the picture work; their presence lifted the shot out of the category of a simple scene.
When you choose to take a sunset, you have to really engage with sunsets—learn how to look at them, learn how to distinguish among them. What are the best sunset pictures? How to they work? How does yours stack up? Instead of taking one sunset and being satisfied, you ought to take a hundred sunsets and choose one.
The real cure is to find something other than scenics to take pictures of. But that's not really mine to suggest. People should take pictures of whatever they want to take pictures of. That's what I always say, at least.
But I still think prettiness is a problem. So many people seem to have such a fatal attraction to it. Someday, I'll get around to writing that essay about it. I have to think about it first.
— Mike Johnston
See Mike Johnston’s website at www.37thframe.com. Also, check out his monthly column in the British Black & White Photography magazine! (Usually available at Barnes & Noble bookstores.)
Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, has just been published.