Pretty pictures


Forgive me, fine-art photography, for I have sinned. Last month I made some pretty pictures.

I admit it, I succumbed to peer pressure. I have some friends whose daughters are dance majors at various universities, and they asked me if I’d like to do photos with those daughters while they were home for the summer. So I rented the use of a historic house for three hours, and we borrowed some tutus, and one thing led to another…

…Wait, why do I feel I need to apologize for making pretty pictures? After all, I tell myself, pretty things do exist in the world, so it’s legitimate to document them. Surely not everything has to be ironic and attitudinal and edgy and post-all-that.

And yet I understand why, in the serious art world, pretty alone isn’t good enough. Resorting to pretty is a sign that you didn’t think hard enough, didn’t have a strong enough viewpoint. This infuriates hobbyist and commercial photographers who concentrate on making stereotypically “beautiful” images, and then feel miffed when the art crowd fails to be impressed. “I’ve chosen to work with beauty, and they don’t respect that,” one told me once. “Obviously they don’t really know what they’re talking about — they’re just full of BS.”

Unlike him, I do get it. I realize that since roughly the beginning of the 20th century, art primarily has been an ongoing conversation — about what art is, what it can do, and how it fits into society. Artists participate in that conversation by making works; critics and scholars participate by analyzing them and placing them in context; galleries and museums participate by organizing shows; collectors and dealers participate by writing checks.

The conversation has been going on for a long time now, and unavoidably has become somewhat esoteric. Getting into it is like going to a party and walking up to a group of serious baseball fans who have been debating the fine points for hours. Even if you happen to know quite a lot about baseball, it’s going to be difficult to jump into that conversation. If you try to say something non-controversial — “Rogers Hornsby was a great hitter, eh?” — all you’re likely to get is a withering glare. It’s not that anybody disagrees with you; it’s just that they covered all that stuff hours ago.

It’s the same with beauty in art. Nobody doesn’t like it, but it has been explored thoroughly by experts; it’s an achievement to find something new about it to add to the ongoing conversation.

I understand that, and I decided not to care. I decided that not everything has to be art. Time passes, memory fades, and my three hours with these lovely girls will never come again. I can’t array anything against those cold realities, but I can enjoy basking in the warmth of my pretty pictures.

Grateful thanks to Allison Harsh, Sophie Henning, Madeline Koesters, Phoebe Perry, Emily Reiff, and Julie Rose Zukaitis for making pretty pictures with me!