The Beholder’s Eye

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the photographer who can see it in everything before him is at an advantage. The photographer who can find pleasant viewpoints, arrangements, and compositions for his imagery, in addition to having the ability to look deeply enough into his subject matter to see the inherent beauty within and without, is likely creating very potent works of art.

The notion that something must be beautiful to make a great photograph is erroneous; the reality is that all has beauty, and that it is a matter of perception to catch that. Recording and representing it in a fashion that others can appreciate is a more difficult matter, but if I had to say, it starts with noticing and admiring the imperfections in everything. The flawless face, free from wrinkles and blemishes, may have a lot of plastic sex appeal. However, that pretty face that has a wrinkle or two, or a faded scar that makes it stand out, that makes it unique; in that uniqueness, in those things that grant character and individuality, we have beauty. Knock “pretty” out of the equation, abandoning the fashion or animal worlds of sexual desire, and you can discover entirely different layers of beauty in an image of a person who perhaps falls flat on that spectrum. A striking portrait is infinitely more fascinating than one of a supermodel who spent four hours in the makeup room and another eighteen in Photoshop. That starving holy man of a long-forgotten faith in distant lands, decked out in whatever monastic garb he has on hand says something about that human in particular and his humanity in general, and showcases an inner beauty that cannot be found in the gossip tabloids.

But to see all that, you must start by noticing the actual imperfections, and rather than running from them, embracing their supposed ugliness. The scarred face of a cage fighter might not be too pretty, but it says a thing or two about the fighter- it showcases that man or woman’s nature and experience, and all the forces ranging from age over time to the left hook that gave her a shiner the night before- all that forged her into who she is at the moment of exposure. Not all of that is flattering; not all of that is what you want to stand out on a first date or at a job interview, but all of it is true, and all of it has meaning and character behind it. One has to actually take time dwelling on the visual exterior to catch all this, and appreciate all of this; it takes study and practice, a careful examination of every dimple and depression on the face, staring solidly at them for a long time to understand and be able to do this.

An excellent way to pick up the practice is to draw from a photograph as realistically as possible even if you cannot draw. What separates the realistic drawing from the unrealistic drawing is, apart from understanding of form, accurate replication of the subject’s flaws from the photograph to the drawing. Capturing the basic forms is critical of course, but to really convey the image of another person, you need spend time focusing on and reproducing every wrinkle, every scar, every ugly irregularity. And when you do so, if you’ve spent enough time on it, you find something crazy happens; even an ordinary looking face becomes one you’ve suddenly fallen in love with. This is because you’ve picked up the ability to see deeply into the surface; you’ve spent time gazing on the face until that moment occurs when something deeper, something spiritual, takes over, and you cannot avoid seeing the beauty of the person before you. Some of this newfound sight is intimate visual acquaintance with the person before you, and somehow that turns into love and an ability to perceive beauty. Everyone is unique; through the pockmarks and dents, we find the individuality and the flaws, and when you learn to love the sight of the flawed, all becomes beautiful.

In taking this newfound love of visual flaws to the world beyond human subject matter, the same principles apply. This is because the same, to be honest, is true of a flower, or a landscape, or even a trashcan on a street corner; you don’t see a lot of perfect geometric forms and flawless smooth-faced symmetry in interesting photography. The artificial is almost jarring to the eye, especially when viewed in perfectly engineered fashion unvarnished by the scars of time. In a real sense, when it comes to beauty, the perfect is the enemy of the good; one is seeking to showcase not just the external nature of a subject, but also the spiritual nature of it to rightly capture beauty. A totally flat and uniform flower, even one of a perfect hue, is vastly less interesting than one run through with veins and a messy array of sort of but not quite symmetrical color arrangements. The forest, in its infinite variety and eternal rebellion against uniformity, is beautiful without even trying, as are all wild areas. These are places of life and inanimate matter sculpted by the elements, and it’s really the chaotic scarification done by the wind and weather and the raging war of wildlife against wildlife that grants them these qualities.

To be sure, composition figures in greatly in creating beautiful imagery, but that’s something else that can be learned to be seen and considered. The beginner tries to center the subject; someone with more experience throws it off center to a degree and tries to find multiple points of interest. It’s not perfect arrangements that create the best photographs. No, it’s the odd numbers and odd arrangements, the unusual angles composed well, the various elements that make up the photograph fixed together in a strange harmony that make for excellent photography. One learns this through studying other works of art, and not just works of photography- and then one applies it through constant experimentation. Like the perception and appreciation of flaws and blemishes and even outright damage, this, too, is something seen and perceived by the trained eye, mind, and spirit of the photographer.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but if the beholder would seek to see and represent beauty he or she would do well to train her spirit, her mind, and her eyes to perceive it in all things, on the numerous levels of existence.