Informing Contexts - Is there anything wrong with beauty?
Updated: Mar 13
Reading Andy Grundberg's article ‘PHOTOGRAPHY VIEW; A Quintessentially American View of the World’, from the New York Times I was interested to learn more about the National Geographic which for me has always been a publication I would skim through rather than actively buy. I would also be the first to admit that the pictures always appeared more important than the words and articles that sat next to them. Over the years I have always been drawn to the many spectacular images that dominated the publications. Grundberg makes the obvious point that the photographs in the National Geographic represent 'the apotheosis of the picturesque' and 'aim to please the eye, not rattle it'. As a result it is this imbalance, with the more gritty images of the likes of Don McCullin being absent that forces the view that everything is beautiful and colourful in the world according to them.
I appreciate that this is a cause for concern amongst many, including the photography community but this is where I do have a personal challenge when I look at my own practice. Whilst I have done street and travel photography over the years my overarching style is to make my images as Grundberg would call them 'picturesque', and I would not hesitate to add an aesthetic over the reality of a shot if I felt it enhanced the end result. A constant contributor to the National Geographic is one of my early influences, Steve McCurry, and now looking at his work I can see why his style works so well with this publication.
The above image of a Mother and child looking through a taxi window in Bombay has all the classic vibrancy, sharp focus on the eyes and composition that is typical of McCurry's work. What do we see when we view this image ? For me when I first saw this I was in awe at the composition and the aesthetic of the rain on the window and the story that had been captured by the photograph. Yet as I look at it now with a more critical and ethical eye I do start to question this photograph more. The photographer, from the comfort of his warm, dry taxi, the window cracked open to avoid steaming up has clearly taken this photograph without permission of a mother and child in need of both warmth and shelter. Neither of which is offered as the photographer moves on, his work done in terms of the getting the shot.
As identified McCurry does have a certain style, the focus on the eyes being one of the common themes but is it the vibrancy of the colours that suggest his pictures are picturesque and therefore lack some of the reality in front of him. The image below is another that was shot in Bombay. We will have to take McCurry's word that permission was given by this individual, although the eyes suggest something else. However whilst in the earlier shot I have now started to question the ethics of the mother and child image, this one for me has everything. The composition and colours are striking and pleasing to the eye and yet the photograph clearly maintains enough reality to illustrate the struggle and issues facing this community. Surely McCurry's work on this occasion has achieved a wider result.
Roland Barthes describes the photograph's 'punctum' as being the accident that pricks or bruises him and for me both of the above images give me that sense when I viewed them for the first time. The picturesque style of McCurry and by inference National Geographic is there which in Barthes words, is the studium, but there is a disturbance in both photographs that makes me see them as more than just a beautiful well composed picture.
Switching this post back to my practice now does require an almost 180 degree turn as I am currently using still life photography to explore what makes a photograph and how the context of the image can be achieved from the objects that are used. As a result the following image is I guess very different to ones above and from an ethical point of view there is not much to say, as it was taken in my home studio and the objects shot certainly required no model release forms. However this is a particularly 'pretty' image for me and I am keen to hear what you all see. Is it just a pretty, picturesque photograph or can you see and read more into what I am trying to say with it.
The really interesting part of this exercise is that the above question was posed to a number of my peers on the MA course and their responses included:
'I get a sense of a two dimensional painting becoming a three dimensional object/photo as the subject matter escapes the frame. It's a great composition and maybe you have struck on a theme here of crossing between mediums through photography. The colours are beautiful too and there is a sense of decay for the flowers which have escaped. leaving the younger bud still proudly sitting in the frame enjoying its moment'
'For me the rose internal to the frame is preserved (forever?) in its fresh state, those that escape to the outside begin to wither and decay. A social comment? '
Both of these comments have really helped confirm to me that this type of still life photography does have an ability to tell a story and give context over and above just being a pretty picture. In my current project I am bringing in prose and poetry to accompany these images and for example this one currently has the words, “seize not the beauty, for the memory will fade ”. Following the feedback from my peers on this one I may alter these words slightly as both comments have given me a fresh view on the image and the message I have created.
1. Steve McCurry - Mother and child looking in through a taxi window, Bombay, India , 1993
2. Steve McCurry - Welder in a ship-breaking yard, Bombay, India, 1994
3. Steve Rabone - Captivated, 2021
GRUNDBERG, Anda. 1988 ‘PHOTOGRAPHY VIEW; A Quintessentially American View of the World’, The New York Times , 18 September. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/arts/photography-view-a-quintessentially-american-view-of-the-world.html (Links to an external site.) (Accessed: 10 March 2021).
Strawberry (2013). Roland Barthes: studium and punctum. [online] Museum of Education. Available at: https://educationmuseum.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/roland-barthes-studium-and-punctum/.