Sunday, July 1, 2012

On A New Aesthetic

I don't think this post has any clear conclusion, it's just some ruminations and ideas on aesthetics and how they might evolve, and be evolving.

I speculated last week or so that flickr (and more generally the online community) might be in the process of developing one or more new aesthetics with their super high contrast, their ghastly Silver EfEx 2.0 Pro effects, and so on.

What do I mean by an "aesthetic" here? The word has a definition, and my usage falls under that, but let us be quite clear. The aesthetic of a photograph for the purposes of these remarks means the overall look of the photograph, and includes any elements which are not a part of the underlying composition. Things like contrast, saturation, tone mapping, vignetting. These all contribute to what I mean by the aesthetic of the photograph. The fact that it is a picture of a flower, or an abstract, or a nude, these are not considered part of the aesthetic, here. Some things arguably fall in a middle ground -- is a strong vignette part of the composition? Let us agree to live with these ambiguities.

What does the aesthetic of a photograph actually do?
  1. it can exhibit effort, showing that the artist worked on the image.
  2. it can demonstrate personal artistic taste and ideas, simply showing off a look that the artist likes.
  3. it can emphasize certain elements of the image, and de-emphasize others.
  4. it can connect the photograph to other photographs that have been made, if those photographs applied a similar aesthetic.
There are probably others, but I cannot think of any offhand. The first two are important to a degree, visible effort makes some viewers happy and expressing personal artistic taste is a large part of what making art is about. I want to focus, arbitrarily, on #3 and #4, however, because they're more important and they're connected in interesting ways.

New aesthetics come along pretty regularly, I suppose. Every photographer, perhaps, brings some new ideas about how a picture ought to look. Some of them get tried out and copied by friends and family, perhaps.

An aesthetic succeeds as a new thing, I think, if eventually some good work turns up that uses it, when that good work gets more or less widely recognized. Ansel Adams is the most obvious example, his black and white landscapes have a specific look that is widely, widely copied. These days we see wildly exaggerated versions of that aesthetic rampant on the internet, to the sorrow of us all. Adams applied his aesthetic to emphasize and de-emphasize -- he wanted to make the clouds and rocks dramatic, he wanted his shadows to be shadowy and his highlights to be bright, to reflect the drama he felt looking at these landscapes. The contrast increased the sense of overal "sharpness" in keeping with the f/64 ideas of photography. He also simply liked the look of it, I imagine.

When some aesthetic does succeed, we see it copied widely, because photographers wish to refer to it. They are quite literally citing the previous work in their work, connecting their photographs with known-to-be-good work from the past. They are borrowing successful ideas, like every competent artist, and most incompetent ones. This is surely what's going on with the Silver EfEx 2.0 gone bad crowd, with their jet black skies. Whether they know it or not, they're quoting Ansel Adams in a gigantic and very ugly font, and the intent is that we should react to their landscapes in the same way.

It will be interesting to see if some good work eventually turns up that uses HDR, either in an effective way, or at least in conjunction with some effective and lasting work. Will it always be a gimmick tyros try out for a while before discarding it for something else, or will we see it as a visual trope that lets us cite a body of powerful work in our own photographs?

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