Camera Position 62 : Is Beauty Enough?

Is beauty enough in a photograph? It’s an odd concept in photography, especially in today’s visual world where so many photographers seem to ignore it. Or… are they ignoring it? We take a look.

Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo, 2007 Robert Adams - Beauty in Photography

Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo, 2007
Photograph by Jeff Curto
(click to enlarge)

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13 thoughts on “Camera Position 62 : Is Beauty Enough?”

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Great episode – and very timely for me as I’ve been languishing in the early dead-end tangential phase of a new project. I think you’ve helped me see the light, so to speak. Time will tell.

    Anyway, I have a question for you – I read Beauty in Photography perhaps a year ago and although I remember being affected and stimulated by it at the time, I had forgotten almost everything about the book before listening to this episode. As much as I enjoy reading all around photography (and I really do!), do you have any advice for translating that reading into actual, applicable learning and new insight that will stay me for longer than the few days after finishing a book?

    I have never formally studied photography or art but am hoping to find a place on a post-graduate masters course this year. I am very concerned however that when the interview comes round, I will only be able to comment on the last book I picked up – forgetting the 10 before it and the innumerable websites and podcasts I use online. Have you any advice for someone without an Arts background?

    Anyway, as always, keep up the inspiring work!

  2. Beauty has utility Jeff. Distilled out it becomes a tease without consummation. Advertisers know that, so they use it to bridge into their messages. Consumers have realized that so we have become beauty skeptics. Junk food folks have separated taste from nutrition. Too often great photographic craftspeople do the same. The question that separates art from craft is: What do we do after we go “Wow!”

    Soth and Henderson present us with images we can look through not just look at. That’s their appeal. They use devices other than beauty to construct that bridge. But beauty can transport us there as well. I think of Ansel Adam’s ability to force us to contemplate our humility as a species in the face of universal awe. Beauty alone is shallow. For too many photographers it is the beauty trap. It is a device, not an end. A tool, not a creation.

    But you… as a terrific teacher… you once again in this podcast have brought me through your portal and caused me to write an essay on What Do We Do After We Go “Wow”?: The meaning of beauty in art photography. Thanks for that. A Sunday afternoon without Curto is a tad melancholy.

  3. What an interesting and thought-provoking podcast! I’m glad Ted led me here, and look forward to more.

    I suspect my relationship to beauty and the sublime is tied to pain — because it is so glorious but ephemeral. That will be interesting to to consider with the links to the photographers and book you provided in this episode.

  4. Some great comments, all…

    Neil: I’ve installed addthis… excellent; I’d been looking for something just like that and hadn’t found it. Thanks!

    April: interesting thought on how beauty ends up being the complement to pain. That may explain why some things seem to me to be so beautiful that they “hurt.”

    Ted: Your thought that “Soth and Henderson present us with beauty we can look through, not just look at” is exactly the essence of it, I think. It’s about giving us something that is beautiful in a deeper sense; beyond surface. Thanks for your kind words and for your great essay; I’ve linked it from the blog now…

    David: Your question is a tough one… you asked: “do you have any advice for translating that reading into actual, applicable learning and new insight that will stay me for longer than the few days after finishing a book? Have you any advice for someone without an Arts background?”

    I think my answer to this is that you need to establish a context for the things that you read. If you start to think through the idea of how what you read connects with other things that you read, see and think, that may help.

    I have always thought that learning… *real* learning, not just memorization, is about synthesis. It’s about putting two, three or more ideas together to form a new idea that is uniquely your own. So, by putting those ideas together and making your own idea, you “own” the learning in a way that you hadn’t been able to before.

    A lot of that has to do with exposing yourself to the concepts that you find in things like Adams’ “Beauty in Photography” book. So, for example if you don’t know the work that he references (Six Persimmons – or other drawings- by Mu Ch’ i, the films of Ozu, etc) then get yourself in front of those things, absorb them and begin to understand the interconnections between those things. In reality, that’s what that “Arts Background” is… it’s about making those connections and the only way to make the connections is to actually do the work of seeing, thinking and synthesizing.

    Great stuff, all… thanks for listening and commenting!


  5. Hi Jeff,

    That’s really excellent advice – thanks very much for your thoughts and candour. I think you’ve really brought it home for me that I might have been concentrating on reading/watching/viewing/listening to too much stuff without paying enough attention to really engaging and learning well from it.

    That’s really helpful – thanks again.

  6. Neil… excellent! The ideas transcend the subject, right?

    Beauty is beauty and photographs are photographs, regardless of who is looking.

    In any case, thanks for the reference on your blog!


  7. Jeff,

    I listened to this podcast several times as I’ve been asking myself the questions raised in it for some time now.

    Most of my photography is done between home and work, during my commute, and during transitions between meetings. Sometimes traditionally beautiful scenes catch my eye, but more often I find myself photographing small bits of the city scape that form appealing patterns or shapes, usually due to some fleeting circumstance of the surrounding light. To me, such moments, brief as they are, communicate a sense of delicate beauty amidst the city’s harder edges. The images of such moments, when they work, reflect that impermanence and the impermanence of it all.

    See here for some examples:

    I find these images and images like them from other photographers twinged with a bit of sadness. Impermanence hints at loss and perhaps meaninglessness. But the temptation of such nihilism is overcome by the fact that such beauty, temporary though it may be, exists at all.

    Beauty, or rather our ability to perceive it, is not, as far as I know, a cosmological requirement. If the ability to perceive natural beauty has an evolutionary purpose, I am not aware of it. Yet, we have this capacity to see beauty in our surroundings. It feels like a gift received to ward off the notion of inevitable decay. I say that as an atheist, so I’m not invoking a higher power as the giver of this gift. I’m just happy to have received it and to have photography as a way to heighten my experience of it.


  8. Adam;

    Thanks for your comment.

    One of the things that I’ve always felt about photography in a very general way is that knowledge of it… “training” in it, if you will… is something that really helps us live a larger and more fulfilling life. Like learning to love someone or something that at first seemed foreign, learning to see is, I think, some sort of sharpening of an already-extant sense.

    So, while the passage of that beauty may be tinged with a sense of sadness, there is something about knowing that you’ve seen it in the first place that makes it a joyous event. Being able to hold that moment with the click of a camera’s shutter, however imperfectly, is a great middle ground.


  9. 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 kinda too obvious 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.”)

  10. Hi, Paul;

    Thanks for your comment. I saw a little snippet from Frank Gohlke in Smithsonian Magazine the other day… wish I still had the magazine at hand so I could quote it exactly, but he was asked about what he hoped people would take away from viewing his work and he said something like “I hope people will realize the beauty of the ordinary world around them.”

    In other words, I he’d agree (as do I) with your comment. Good art… good photography… often is all about showing us things in the world that we didn’t see before the photographer showed it to us “just so.”

    Or, as Dorothea Lange is famously quoted as saying, “The camera is a device that teaches us how to see without a camera.”


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