Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Beautiful Picture

What are we to do with the "pretty picture?" Is pretty enough to sustain a long-term relationship?

I often think art critics (Critics with a capital "C") write more for what their peers will think of their reviews than the public. In general they seem to always be thinking of heavy issues like influences, urban grit, importance (please, it's a painting, not brain surgery), visionary statements, the meaning of existence, or why is there anything rather than nothing.

One wonders if they ever just enjoy the art and don't try to evaluate and analyze the image. Whatever happened to statements like, "Artist X creates really beautiful picture and I just enjoy looking at them."

This brings me to the subject of the pretty picture. It's always seemed to me that we tend to put down the "pretty picture" because pretty is not enough. Beauty alone doesn't appear to be sufficient to justify critical consideration. Pretty just doesn't seem to have substance or gravitas.

I was recently in Chincoteague, Virginia (heat, horses, and mosquitoes) for about a week. I've been going there off and on for over 40 years. I love the area, not for photography, but for what it does for my soul.

Every time I go, I photograph. I think it's safe to say that I've never taken a picture there that I felt really expressed my personal vision, whatever that is. Maybe when I go to Chincoteague my personal vision takes a vacation too, but that's a topic for another time.

However, one evening we were driving around the wildlife loop and this fantastic cloud formation appeared. Braving the mosquitoes, capable of carrying off small cars and horses, I took this picture. It's a beautiful picture but........

Now I'm a little like the dog that chases the car. Once he catches it, what does he do with it? It seems too beautiful to ignore but I don't know what to do with it. This may be part of my integrating the dark side (color) into my vision. If this image made a good black and white I'd print it without a second thought. Somehow being in color, I'm worrying about whether or not this is just a pretty picture and is that sufficient?

Black and white is an instant abstraction. We see the world in color and thus the monochromatic abstraction of an image compels us to view it in a manner inconsistent with our vision. The question then becomes can the image work in color on the basis of the color itself combined with the content of the image? The answer is obviously yes but how does one translate that answer into the evaluation of a beautiful image and how it should be treated photographically?

When someone walks into my studio and comments on the beauty of a black and white image I say "thank you" and don't give it a second thought. If I do give it a second thought it's probably about what a discerning eye they have for great art!

With this image I don't know whether to just enjoy it myself or print it big and put it in my studio along with the black and white landscapes? Perhaps I'm over-thinking it. In Nike parlance, I should just do it!


  1. Jim,

    Wonderful question. I have the same difficulty. I keep trying to figure out how I can make an image of something that attracts my eye that would be different than someoneelse's image. Is this necessary? What does it say about me? There are many more questions that can be asked.

    I suggest an experiment for you. Print this image large and hang it in your studio and keep track of the comments it triggers. It would be interesting to see a summary sometime in the future.

    Bob Rosen

  2. This is the third try at posting this damn comment... my problem, obviously. The first quote that applies to this is Janet Russek's: "Surround yourself with beauty". And this IS beauty, I think. The second quote is attributed to Minor White: "What is it, and what else it is?" Beautiful B&W photographs have both those aspects. Some pretty color pictures do and some don't. I think this one does, so print it! Large, I think, though size is a really interesting question. But I this seems to tell me fairly large. The "what is it?" is the subtle color in the clouds. The "what else is it?" is the pattern of the clouds that needs to be fairly large to appreciated. I would be also be curious to see what comments this would trigger at your studio.

    bob rea

  3. Great idea about putting it in my studio and asking for comments. I'll see if there is a way to do it.

  4. It is a pretty picture, Jim . . . and a great meditation on pretty pictures. However, it doesn't tell me much new about either sunsets or about your vision. Nothing about this says to me, "Jim Steele took that." That's my gauge, I guess. It's damned hard to quantify or even describe. Now, if you put a picture of Mona Lisa up there in the clouds, *then* I would know it was a Jim Steele :)

    Eric McCollum

  5. I make it a point to distinguish between "beauty" and "pretty-ness". "Beauty" is a big deal and always "enough" in a work of art. But how to define "beauty"? One critic (can't remember who) wrote that beauty is the ecstasy of the mind. That may not be an entirely satisfactory definition, but I can't imagine anyone saying the same about the mere "pretty".

    Chris Cardellino

  6. Hey, Jim...

    I just found your blog, and am drawn to your "pretty picture". The older (and crankier) I get the more I tire of the self-importance that often accompanies the art business, which says that "pretty" isn't enough. This beautiful sky might not be smack dab in the center of your artistic vision, but it is a *lovely* moment, and one where I'm enjoying lingering for a bit. As part of your whole body of work it adds flavor.

    Did you put it up in your studio to collect comments?


  7. Marni, I would argue that you are not becoming crankier but rather more perceptive and comfortable with your own good taste!

    Eric: I don't have Mona in the sunset but I do have "Mona in the Sky with Diamonds!"

  8. "Mona in the Sky with Diamonds!"

    I'll have what you're having!