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Photography, beauty, and the conferring of importance

April 29, 2012

In photography’s early decades, photographs were expected to be idealized images. This is still the aim of most amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful, like a woman, a sunset. In 1915 Edward Steichen photographed a milk bottle on a tenement fire escape, an early example of a quite different idea of the beautiful photograph. And since the 1920s, ambitious professionals, those whose work gets into museums, have steadily drifted away from lyrical subjects, conscientiously exploring plain, tawdry, or even vapid material. In recent decades, photography has succeeded in somewhat revising, for everybody, the definitions of what is beautiful and ugly – along the lines that Whitman had proposed. If (in Whitman’s words) “each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits beauty,” it becomes superficial to single out some things as beautiful and others as not. If “all that a person does or thinks is of consequence,” it becomes arbitrary to treat some moments in life as important and most as trivial.

To photograph is to confer importance. […] But the meaning of value itself can be altered….”

She continues: “In the mansions of pre-democratic culture, someone who gets photographed is a celebrity. In the open fields of American experience, as catalogued with passion by Whitman and as sized up with a shrug by Warhol, everybody is a celebrity. No moment is more important than any other moment; no person is more interesting than any other person.”

I haven’t worked out the connections yet – it’s really just an interesting set of statements… the shifting of focus she points to (and connects to specific cultures) is the relevance, I suppose…

Ref: p28 (in the essay ‘America, Seen through photographs, darkly’) Susan Sontag (1979) On Photography. Penguin Books: London

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