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 www.donotbendfilm.com
© Grant Scott 2022