Have you ever read something and suddenly the dots are connected? This is what happened to me while I was listening to On Photography by Susan Sontag.

Let me back up a few steps. Recent posts by Jennifer Nicole Wells have inspired me to take another look at my own photography. Part of that process was finally reading On Photography by Susan Sontag. (Ok I didn’t really read it, I listened to the audio version). When I was attending university, Susan Sontag’s book was extremely influential, yet I never found time to read it. Even if I had read it, I doubt I would have understood half of what she said. Sometimes you can only learn when you’re ready.

As I’m enjoying this short listen I was struck by a few of the quotes on the power of the photograph to render everything beautiful.

‘But many, through photographs, have discovered beauty. Except for those situations in which the camera is used to document, or to mark social rites, what moves people to take photographs is finding something beautiful. (The name under which Fox Talbot patented the photograph in 1841 was the calotype: from kalos, beautiful.) Nobody exclaims, “Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it.” Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is: “I find that ugly thing … beautiful.”’ pg 85

“But notwithstanding the declared aims of indiscreet, unposed, often harsh photography to reveal truth, not beauty, photography still beautifies. Indeed, the most enduring triumph of photography has been its aptitude for discovering beauty in the humble, the inane, the decrepit.” – pg 102

Make it Seem

These quotes immediately transported me to two previous posts on beauty. The first post is Make it Seem, a photo challenge posted by Kristina. The point of the challenge was to create an image that had the opposite effect on the viewer than the subject matter might suppose. At least this is how I interpreted the task. I’m still stumped by this challenge because my images only look one way to me – beautiful. I couldn’t capture the emotional response I was looking for. My images don’t look sad, shocking or urgent to me. They looked beautiful; they look pretty.

No matter how hard I tried, the end result was (at least in my mind) a beautiful image. I felt I was failing the challenge. But after reading On Photography, I realize that we only point our cameras at what we feel is ‘beautiful’. How you define beautiful is up to you. It could be a moment of light, a particular gesture, a bit of rust, the way blood splashes across a battle field…you get the idea. There is beauty in everything and we seek that out through our camera and lens.

Finding Beauty

Beauty is a concept I’ve struggled with. When I wrote a post on Finding Beauty in Toy Photography it was not simply a manifesto about finding beauty in toy photography, but a resignation that I will only create beautiful photos. In the fine art world, this isn’t necessarily a goal to aspire too. I would love to create images that have the power to move people to action, to make a political statement, but that isn’t who I am. When I look at the images of people I admire, like Brian McCarty of The War-Toys Project, even his powerful images have a beauty to them.

When I read: “Indeed, the most enduring triumph of photography has been its aptitude for discovering beauty in the humble, the inane, the decrepit.” I felt like the dots had suddenly connected for me. That my relationship with my camera, my relationship with my subject, is a discovery of beauty in the everyday, the beauty of life and the beauty of death.

There is something special about the physical act of photographing something that renders it beautiful. Whether this is the intent of the photographer, a trick of the lens or the mechanics of a camera, I don’t know. All I know is that by being a photographer, I render the ugly beautiful, I elevate little bits of plastic to a place value, I change the very nature of my surroundings by capturing it with my camera.

That is a powerful position to be in.

After all these years the dots are connected and I feel a measure of peace. I will go forward creating beautiful images and I’ll feel good about it.

Because that is the nature of photography.

~ Shelly

I will readily admit that Ms. Sontag’s book, and the language and ideas within, are very polarizing. Feel free to add your voice to the conversation; let me know how you feel about beauty and its relationship to photography. 

I’m looking for other photo books to read. Do you have any recommendations?