19 December 2008

Beauty as a Tactic

One of my very first posts here and a whole slew of those I've written since then address one or another topic at the intersection of beauty and politics in photography. As I've made pretty clear, I find most discussion of this topic irritatingly simple-minded. That said, I came across this post, entitled "Beauty as a Tactic," by Canadian photographer Tony Fouhse at Slightly Lucid*. Not only do I generally agree with Fouhse that we need to think about the uses of beauty and the consequences of using it. But I am intrigued too by the parenthetical aside in this comment:
"James Nachtwey and Simon Norfolk take their cameras to war, not exclusively, but a lot. Both have an "eye" (though I prefer the word "brain") that can, and usually does, turn the horror they witness into beautiful photographs."
I think too much writing about photography wallows in overly romantic musings about intuition and sentiment and simple luck (although the latter is probably the most important of the three). Seeing is a cognitive activity and that means "brains" are going to be pretty important. It is no coincidence that Nachtwey and Norfolk appear pretty regularly in my posts. They are really smart photographers.
* Slightly Lucid, by the way, is the very insightful blog of the apparently also very smart Montreal-based photographer Aislinn Leggett.

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Blogger Public Squalor said...

No doubt beauty is a tactic, but it's hardly new as claimed in Slightly Lucid. Ansel Adams photographs were created in part to support conservation of the wilderness.

I'd be interested in knowing what other conditions are necessary in order for visual representation to sway public attitudes on politics or policy.

- peace

19 December, 2008 18:17  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I agree that this is not "new" and have posted on Adams specifically in this regard:


That said, it is an extremely tired criticism to say beauty is somehow politically problematic ...

As for your second concern about how images might elicit effective public response one thing I also have hammered here (see the "Arithmetic of Compassion" paper in the sidebar - it is an early version of a forthcoming piece) on the mistake of supposing that the point is to elicit compassion in viewers for the poor suffering souls being depicted. That supposition is pervasive. So, maybe I offer only a negative reply - what to avoid - but that is a start.

19 December, 2008 18:30  
Blogger Mark said...

I think a better term might be 'convention as tactic.' If the goal is to make people look at uncomfortable subjects (and I don't pretend to know the photographer's goal), an effective way to do this is to present the subject in a way that disarms the viewer's natural inclination to turn away or avoid them. Natchway's photographs present an unfamiliar and frightening subject in a thoroughly familiar package. The photos are made with conventionally balanced composition, often in what landscape photographers would recognize as 'good light' and are printed to a high 'fine-art' standard. In fact nothing is challenging in these images photographically. To present the images in a posh gallery opening makes them even more comfortable. Also, to speak of 'convention as tactic' avoids the semantic minefield of using the word beauty.

20 December, 2008 18:52  

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