Photography and ‘Pretty’ Pictures

Intention and expectation are the starting points for all forms of creative endeavour. The hope of creating a ‘good’ photograph is the intention of many and to have that image appreciated an additional outcome that boosts confidence and self-belief. However, it is that very expectation that can lead to a kid conformity that is both negative and self-defeating. Photography is not about pleasing. It is not about replication and it is not about ‘pretty’ pictures. Well, it is, but it isn’t. Let me explain.

If your intention is to create images that are based on aesthetic considerations only, then you may well be making those decisions based on the work of others whose work appeals to you. That is a short term fix, a buzz, a high that is based on what you like not who you are. It is a practice that can lead you into a trap of pure interpretation at best or plagerism at worst. To be ‘informed by’ is one thing to replicate is something very different.

Many young photographers are introduced to the medium by being instructed to replicate images they have either found or been given. To replicate the composition, the atmosphere, the lighting and the aesthetic. Rarely do they seem to explore the personal life, experience and intentions of the photographer that led to that image. This can be a practice that is hard to break, preventing the evolution of a personal visual language.

‘Pretty pictures’ sit alongside ‘easy listening’ and ‘easy reads’ within popular culture. They do not challenge or question, but exist to provide a sense of well-being and contentment. As such they have their place. However, to designate them as evidence of success is to propagate a belief that art must be pleasant and conform to society’s norms.

That is not a belief that I have ever been able to subscribe to.

I am not acting as a gatekeeper here, laying down rules or looking down upon those who wish to create ‘pretty pictures’. But I do want to suggest that they do not have to be the only way to go. I have space in my life for Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and The Fall. I don’t want to be Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, but there are times when their music fits my mood, just as Mark E. Smith’s can. However, I always want my photography to move forward and never to become moribund.

To do this I cannot aim to please. I can only hope that people will see what I see in an image and appreciate my intention and conclusion. This is the case with both my personal and commissioned work.

That is not easy and does not always lead to Instagram likes, but that is not my aim. The question every photographer has to ask themselves before starting has to be, can I take rejection? If you can you will inevitably avoid the world of ‘pretty pictures’ not only in aesthetic but also in subject matter. If not you may be tempted to try and please the crowd, inhabit the middle of the road, and appeal to a mass audience. That may gain you likes, but whether it will provide you with a fulfilling photographic practice only you can decide.

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022


  1. As I always used to tell students over the years, “Photography isn’t about making pictures.” I’ve always seen it as a way of telling stories, expressing feelings and exploring ideas.

    Though that perhaps isn’t a route to becoming rich and famous…

      1. Is wanting to be rich and famous good motivation for a photographer?

  2. This is all true. Well for me anyway. But after using a camera for 50 years, 45 of them as a professional, having passed C&G advanced with merit, spent 4 years learning the “Kodak” way
    ( every picture I took should show the film at its optimum level ), struggling to find work as a freelance, well I have, as they say been on a journey ! The compass wavered between; pleasing myself, fulfilling clients needs, feeding my family and avoiding weddings. I am not a photo-snob about shooting weddings but the prospect always scared the **** out of me! Give me 7 weeks on the road for an editorial client rather than a wedding any day. Studying other photographers’ work was recommended to me several times as a way to improve but all it did was to make a bell go off in my mind when what I saw matched the template of some image that had proved itself “good” by being lauded, silently or otherwise, in an competition, exhibition, magazine or book.
    Life experience, morals, politics and knowledge of your subject, among other stuff I can’t bring to mind, are, for good or bad, the bricks we build our own viewpoint on. For me viewpoint is no.1, and don’t let anyone teach you where to find it. If you are changing as a photographer, as we all must, it is unstoppable that your viewpoint alters. Hopefully it becomes more our own and more sure. I subscribe to the view that any picture contains a balance of information and aesthetics.
    Either end of that spectrum is excluding the importance of the other. The best rule is to be open, react with your eyes leading the rest of you and stay true to your viewpoint while exploring others.

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