I have been reading (ok more accurately skimming) The Photographer’s Playbook: 307 Assignments and Ideas. It’s a collection of photography assignments aimed to get you thinking about photography. Each assignment is created by a photographer or photography professional designed to help you explore the medium of photography.

Most of the exercises will take you well outside your comfort zone and make you think about photography in new ways, regardless of your skill level. It’s a wonderful book for both beginning photographers and seasoned professionals alike

One exercise by Eileen Cowen, that caught my eye, is simply titled:


1. Photograph something beautiful. 
2. Make a beautiful photograph. 

The simplicity of this assignment intrigues me. What is beautiful? What make a photograph beautiful? Is it ok to make a beautiful photograph in our modern day world where shock and irony are the currency of the day?

When I think about these questions in relationship to toy photography I wonder if it is possible to make a photo of a LEGO mini figure that is anything but beautiful. Can you make a toy photograph that is confrontational? One that contains cultural criticism?

I think it’s fair to say my work tends towards beauty rather than irony or realism. I like my vivid colors and my simple compositions. I like to make pretty things that people can hang on their walls and enjoy. (It’s ok, you can judge me.)

But I always wonder “Is it enough?” When we are confronted by a world that is rapidly changing before our very eyes, is it enough to make beautiful photographs? Or should I follow down the footsteps of the inimitable Legojacker and combine LEGO with social commentary? Or create photos like the amazing Brian McCarty and his War-Toys project? Or simply create an alternate gritty LEGO universe like @tobiatchi?

Questions lead to more questions.

One way to judge the success of a photograph is the viewers emotional reaction. Is it possible to connect with your viewer in a deep meaningful way with a beautiful photograph, even one that deals with socially difficult topics? Boris talked earlier about how we are hardwired to view / see in a particular way. I wonder if we are also socially programmed to view imagery in a similar way. Images that are gritty, dark, overtly confrontational are automatically considered to be more serious.

Thinking about beauty is a slippery slope indeed.

There are no neat and tidy answers to any of these questions. Personal preference and history will inform how you think about these topics. But I am grateful to books like the Photographer’s Playbook that help me to step back from my camera and take a larger view of photography and what message I might be sending with my photographs.

Moving forward I will think about the question of beauty and photography: should I photograph something beautiful or take beautiful photographs? Or is beauty only skin deep?

~ xxSJC

What kind of photos do you like to take? Photos of beautiful things or beautiful photos?

The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields


    • It is a hard question, this idea of beauty. Is something more beautiful if you know there is a story of pain and cruelty behind it? Is being simply a beautiful object captured on film enough? I know we both agree there needs to be an emotional component to any photo, you recent image titled “Ophelia” is a great example of a beautiful image. By tying into the story of Ophelia you instantly tap into all the pathos and heartbreak of that story and the image instantly became more powerful. Really well done!

    • Lynn, I think the gritty alternate universe of Tobiatchi and the social commentary of Legojacker is a great way to use toys. By taking something that is benign and we all have fond memories of and using them in a counter intuitive way, it makes their message all the more powerful. Not to mention there worlds reflect the world we live in which makes them more accessible and relatable. Sometimes the bright hard plastic world of LEGO is too cheery, too happy of my tastes.

  1. Just an immediate reaction without to much thinking to this great post.

    “should I photograph something beautiful or take beautiful photographs?”

    I don’t think there are really things that are beautiful. Something can look beautiful but is not beautiful by nature. When we say that something is beautiful it’s actually because we look at it in a certain way, thus I believe things are not beautiful but look beautiful. It may just be a matter of words, but it means that potentially everything is beautiful as long as we know how to look at it. It also means that anything can become beautiful to the eyes of others if we know how to make them look at it the right way. Of course there are things that are easier to make look good than others, but overall I strongly believe that anything can be photographed in a beautiful way, it’s just a matter to know how to do it.

    In fact I think it’s what photography is all about: finding how to compose a picture in a way that it will create an emotion to the viewer. And being able to make a great picture out of everyday life things is one of the highest achievement in photography IMO. (And it’s a pity I haven’t really tried this exercise for a rather long time)

    Anyway thanks for this great post and to have made me discover @legojacker today!

    • Legojacker is awesome! We both go way back on IG and he has always ben supportive of my work and of course I of his.

      I think making an emotional connection with the viewer is key to any successful image. Using beauty in all its forms is a great way to sugar coat your message for the viewer. It is always hard to go down the road of “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”. In someways I find that to be a cop out. You can always take a beautiful photo of something ugly. Lighting, depth of field, use of leading lines and chiaroscuro all make for a visually appealing image, or in other words a beautiful image. By presenting something distasteful to our audience, in a visually appealing manner, maybe we as photographers will have a better chance of making that emotional connection we desire to make with our audience. I have no answers….just more questions.

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I am curious how I can see your photography? Are you on IG or Flickr, because I don’t recognize the name you are registered under. Shelly

      • I’m actually on both. Initially I was only on Flickr but I recently started using Instagram when I realized how much toy photography I was missing. Normally there is a link to my website on my profile that itself should link to all places where I more or less active.

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