Beauty is truth, truth beauty?

In working on Earth Now, I’ve had conversations with many people about the role of beauty, especially in the context of photographs that raise questions about American land use, energy choices, and human disconnection from the environment.  It’s not necessarily pretty! We’d like to bring that discussion onto the website and invite you to comment at the bottom of this page.

The young John Keats began his epic poem “Endymion” (1818) with the words, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”  Most photographers consider beauty an important tool for communication. An ugly or badly composed photograph is ineffective because few people want to look at it. How, then, can an artist make a picture of suffering, war, or disaster that is truthful and powerful but also attractive enough to encourage sustained attention? Later in Keats’s poem about love (which I am quoting wildly out of context), he wrote, “Pleasure is oft a visitant; but pain clings cruelly to us.” All of us have turned away, at some point, from images of worthy subjects that are painful to confront. But we also know that ignoring unpleasant situations seldom makes them disappear. During World War II, photographers working in the landscape were criticized for taking pictures of mountains instead of documenting human distress. Ansel Adams countered that beauty and the enduring qualities of nature were indispensible in a time of human atrocity. 

Talk to me! I know you have an opinion!


Katherine Ware
Posts: 14
The Pros and Cons of Beauty
Reply #6 on : Wed March 02, 2011, 14:43:01
Beauty is a thunderbolt that electrifies me for an instant and leaves behind a small scar.
Phil Underdown
Posts: 14
Some thoughts on beauty from the perspective of a user
Reply #5 on : Wed March 02, 2011, 10:24:11
( Or "beauty is in the hold of the be-eye-r." )

Beauty, being one of those words that you think you know the meaning of until you try to define it, vibrates with a range of meanings, but the closer I look at it the blurrier it becomes. In thinking about this post and the responses of others here, I have tried to think about beauty from my perspective as a user, in relation to both making and viewing photographs. So I ask myself, what is beauty?

Beauty is a magnet that keeps pulling my eye in certain directions.

Beauty is a rut that leads me down well worn paths.

Beauty is a veil that hides what's underneath.

Beauty is a taste that makes me want to take another sip.

Beauty is a trap that I can get caught in.

Beauty is a door that invites me through.

Not sure if this makes any sense to anyone other than me, but I'd love to hear other peoples definitions.
Kate Ware
Posts: 14
Denny's List
Reply #4 on : Thu February 24, 2011, 12:27:51
I love that you included contemporary photographer Zoe Strauss on your list. I got to know her work when I was in Philly. There is no getting around the fact that many of her pictures are odd and unflattering. That's the truth part. And the truth part moves them toward beauty. The other "beautiful" thing is the strange and magical transaction between her and the people she photographs. She is a kind of safe-deposit box of human fragility, people come to her bearing their wounds. It can be ugly, frightening, repellant, funny...but it usually isn't pretty. Is it her honesty that makes us look, is it shock value, it is our grisly human curiousity about other people's disasters?
Denny Cormier
Posts: 14
truthful and powerful but also attractive
Reply #3 on : Thu February 24, 2011, 10:58:30
"How, then, can an artist make a picture of suffering, war, or disaster that is truthful and powerful but also attractive enough to encourage sustained attention?"

I was not sure that I could come up with an answer that was worthy of the question within the confines of a one paragraph comment - so I went to my memory of truth seen in art during my journey and I went to my photo-book collection for some examples of photography and art that are simultaneously truthful and powerful and beautiful - and finally I remembered a short poem about sharing my truth.

Here is just a partial list of what came to mind over coffee this morning -

Guerneca - Pablo Picasso
The Children - Sebastiao Salgado
A Vanished World - Roman Vishniac
East 100th Street - Bruce Davidson
Children of War, Children of Peace - Robert Capa
War is Personal - Eugene Richards
I See Angels Every Day - Hiroshi Watanabe
The Spirit and the Flesh - Debbie Flemming Caffery
America - Zoe Strauss
Oil - Edward Burtynsky

... and the poem -

"Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind -- "
- Emily Dickinson
Katherine Ware
Posts: 14
Richard Misrach and Bravo 20
Reply #2 on : Wed February 23, 2011, 16:30:22
In the Earth Now book, I call the luscious but deadly images of Richard Misrach and David Maisel "Sinister Beauty." So we're seduced by color, size, glossy surface, abstraction, etc., and then when you lean in to read the title of the piece on the wall label, WHAMMO!, they hit you in the breadbasket. That pretty red line? That's your drinking water! But once you know that trick, do you keep falling for it?
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