Beauty in Form


We often talk of “beauty” when describing a photograph that pleases us, but what do we really mean? The various dictionary definitions of beauty seem to agree on the following:

Beauty: A combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight…..

In his essay “Beauty in Photography”, Robert Adams suggested “Beauty is the overriding demonstration of pattern” and concluded saying “if the proper goal of art is, beauty, the beauty that concerns me is that of form”. Adams questioned why form is beautiful and decided that we, as human beings are “compelled to understand form by its fragmentary reflection in the daily objects around us….” He suggested that form “helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning”. In short, Adams was arguing that pattern brings a semblance of structure to the chaos that surrounds us. But how does art reveal beauty, or form? Adams offered, “like philosophy art abstracts and simplifies and is never exactly equal to life”. In photography, we use composition to create order out of chaos. As photographers, we aim to create images that describe a better world, but we can only do so by examining and composing a part of what is laid out in front of us. Although it could be argued that our compositions are therefore technically deceptive, we aim to create images that are uncontrived. The deception is necessary, however, if the goal of our art is to be reached. Therefore, only pictures that look as if they had been easily made can convincingly suggest that Beauty is commonplace. Adams suggested “for a picture to be beautiful it does not have to be shocking, but it must in some significant respect be unlike [the chaos of the world that surrounds us]”.

I recently read Beaumont Newhall’s 1956 article “Photographing the Reality of the Abstract”, which is still as relevant today as it was then on the subject of form and beauty. Newhall suggested “Form is basic to all art”. With the exception of the still life, which can be arranged, Newhall argued “the painter creates form, while the photographer can only recognize it”. Since the camera instantaneously records the scene in front of it, Newhall suggested the moment we trip the shutter release is the moment when the “form which we have discovered has the most meaning to us”. However, Newhall further expanded this thought by suggesting that “photographing the recognized form is so stimulating an experience that we are led on and on, discovering form after form, which somehow would have remained latent without the catalyst of the camera”.

While Adams suggested composition is key to the beauty in photography, Newhall suggested our goal in photography is to make the common uncommon and achieving the uncommon requires a careful examination of the scene in front of us, which is made up of many different forms. If we fail to examine the scene and form a connection with what we are looking at, we may not recognize the gifts laid before our eyes. If we fail to connect with our subject, we are in danger of simply capturing a smaller part of chaos and fail to capture the very order we sought in the first place. To me, when order is captured, the human soul is laid bare, which is when beauty truly takes form.

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