2

Pre-production

The aesthetics of photography

Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other sights.

(John Berger, 1972:10)

DESPITE its original derivation from the Greek verb ‘to perceive’, the primary aim of aesthetics from the eighteenth century onwards had evolved to include the study of ideas concerning beauty or taste. For example, Baumgarten, in 1735, began to apply Cartesian principles to the arts and, at the same time, coined the term aesthetics (Beardsley, 1966:156). More recently, since the beginning of the twentieth century, this field of study has been characterised by a concern for the principles (or rules) of art as well as the broader concerns of artistic practice. In this context, it is the aim of this chapter to establish a theoretical framework that is appropriate to the practice of photography. Nonetheless, it would be very unwise to suggest that successful photographs could be produced by applying appropriate formulae: tastes in photographic representation vary from individual to individual and are subject to change over time. But while concepts of beauty are culture-bound or can be partly determined by the individual’s subjective experience, there may be some universal principles which apply to all aesthetic systems. Symmetry, proportion and balance are three such examples. In the art of the Yolngu, the Australian people of north-east Arnhem Land, the Aboriginal word miny’tji approximates to the English terms ‘design’ and ‘colour’: it ‘can also be used to refer to any regularly occurring pattern or design, whether it is natural or cultural in origin’ (Morphy, 1992:184). As we saw in the previous chapters, the early practitioners and commentators on photography were led to think of the camera as providing an automatic record of the truth. And here the film theorist André Bazin has been frequently quoted from his paper ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, where he refers to the ‘objective’ nature of photography: ‘Originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting lies in the essentially objective character of photography…between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent’ (Bazin, 1967:13).

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