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!


Jonathan Blaustein
Posts: 14
Reply #1 on : Wed February 23, 2011, 12:16:27
I know that Richard Misrach is included in this show, and I'm excited to see the work. Some of his early photographs from the Salton Sea are perfect representatives of the anti-aesthetic tradition, as are images from Bravo 20. Ugly beauty. Artfully created images need not be beautiful, but if they're compelling, they'll allow a viewer to find "beauty" in unexpected ways. Seductive and pretty are not the same thing.
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