Seeing the Beauty

As photographers (I suppose I could extend it to all artists), we are told that our greatest skill, the one that must be most cultivated, is that of seeing. We are supposed to show others what is there that they don’t know how to see or are too busy to see. Conversely, there is a sense among many non-artists that see more than what is there, that we are tuned in to some kind of metaphysical, even supernatural in its literal sense, reality.

I think most people who have ever made a fine art photograph will know what I mean. Say you take pictures of nature- suddenly people start saying to you, “I was driving by a field the other day, and I thought about how beautiful you would make it look.” Or if you’re a portraitist, people will say that you have a talent for making people look prettier than they actually are.

My own first brush with this experience was when some family members were going through a box of test prints I had made. There were some shots of farm refuse – a broken fence lying in overgrown grass, some bricks that had tumbled off a neatly-stacked pile. My uncle, who at that time was just getting used to his retirement role as caretaker of the farm, said that seeing those photographs made him hesitant to clean anything up, since I could make such nice pictures of rubbish.

For my part, I think I agree with the first opinion stated above. As photographers, we have an obligation to develop a skill of seeing the beauty that already exists in the world, and showing it to others. The field was already beautiful – the portrait subjects were already pretty – the rubbish was already nice in an odd abstract manner. Our role is not to make these things beautiful, it is to capture the beauty we see and reveal it to those who for whatever reason don’t see it as easily.

This is one of the main reasons I am attracted to portraiture. So many people, even many professional models, truly believe deep down that they must be ugly. Finding the beauty in them and translating this into a portrait is not difficult. The greatest challenge is in showing the sitter their own beauty as I see it. When this is accomplished, I feel a great sense of success.

Of course, some things are beautiful to begin with. Often that’s when the real trial begins.

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~ by David Cupp on August 17, 2008.

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