Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Between good or bad: how to consider the ambivalent aesthetic status of failed photographs?

“Aesthetics” includes theories about the nature of art as well as about the criteria of aesthetic judgement. “Sociology” here includes a variety of approaches to the arts which insist on comprehending them in their social and historical location”
Janet Wolff

“To make a picture you need a camera, a photographer and above all a subject”
Man Ray

The purpose of this essay is to outline the problems that are linked to aesthetic judgements regarding photographic productions. To this end, we will focus our analysis on the arbitrary conventions that allow us to categorise a picture as good or bad. Thus particular attention will be given to the social norms that usally identify “failures” or bad photography, through a popular and an artistic point of view. Consequently, this essay will aim to answer the question: is there any specific aesthetic experience provided by photographs?

This essay will be structured as follows:
Starting from an accidental serie, the introduction will ask some initial question about our subject matter. The first part will outline the main differences that photography has with former artistic practices and how its causal nature has slowed its recognition as a fine art practice. The second part will show some conventions which restrict depictions in the photographic field of representation. The third part will be focusing on the case of the popular aesthetic and the social concerns that go with amateur practices. The fourth part will show the recuperation of popular conventions by contemporary practioners. Finally, we will focus on Paul Graham’s “End of an Age” serie, whose aesthetic deliberately looks “failed”.

Introduction: The Light Leak as Serendipity

“Sometimes the very first or last picture on your roll of film captures what is called a light leak from your camera. This is what most likely happened in this photograph. The colors can vary, and the types of anomalies that show up in the photograph can range in shape and size. This is why we disregard every picture from our rolls of film that where the first and last ones taken if they contain this type of photographic anomaly.”

The starting point of this essay is essentially based on this accidental, yet quite common circumstance called “light leak”. A few months back, one of my films came back from the photolab showing this curious incongruity. The four first pictures of the film were scrawled and consequently completely unreadable.
It is quite difficult to determine the exact conditions that have shaped this serie: Was the film incorrectly engaged in the camera? Was it out of date or spoilt ? Was the subject too luminous or the camera not adjusted well enough? These questions could be relevant if we were to give a mechanical meaning to this curious anomaly. However the practical causes that have given rise to this visual arrangement are not what’s interesting. This anomaly shows an exact illustration of what we do not give any importance to when we receive our photographs. However, I find these “apparitions” rather pleasant.

Indeed, although initially surprised by these accidental features, I have been rapidly attracted to their vibrant force and somewhat quite apparent sequential progression. A bit like fire, the composition and colours of the pictures mark an evolution in the direction of something less organic and more abstract. As a result, the colours and forms have been completely wiped away as if the film, and the supposed subjects recorded on it, have been submitted to a total combustion. The radiating and ardent red and yellow tints of the first pictures seem to have burnt all the constituents of the pictures. Following this subjective interpretation, the last grey picture could be viewed as a metaphor of ash.

This progressive attenuation of visible signs to monochromatic images is the exact thing that never fails to attract my attention. This strange removal echoes bizarrely with some observations that were made in my previous essay on the possible interpretations of photographic blank traces.

However, can we understand this failure as potentially beautiful art? Is there anything aesthetic in this breakdown? To go beyond this personal interpretation, it is necessary to put this sequence in a more general context. In this way, these pictures will work as an initial counter-example to outline the selected principles and rules that provide artistic status to photographic productions. Coming from nowhere and completely unexpected, these visual mistakes will be considered as the point zero of any aesthetic experience.

According to Henry Allison’s statement, “the basic idea, which governs everything that follows, is that art, as distinguished from nature, is conceived as the product of conscious human intent and skill. In order to be regarded as a work of art, an object must be assumed to have been deliberately created for the sake of some end” (Allison H. E. 2001: 273). Taking this description as starting point, these pictures do not achieve the basic condition of artistic production, that is to say: an intentional stance. This is the reason why they will be considered essentially for what they are: a unintentional mechanical failure. Thus, rather than to display ambiguous norms that could qualify what a good photograph is, it could be more pertinent to outline which norms allow us to consider a photograph as being unsuccessful. What makes a picture good or bad?

This accidental serie also operates as a “serendip effect”. This denomination is used by Clément Chéroux to refer to the methodological providence that analysis of failures can bring to photographic knowledge. Indeed, according to the dictionary, serendipity is “the fact of something interesting or pleasant happening by chance” (Chéroux C. 2003:43). Thus, the pleasant impression created by these pictures will be the first step towards asking questions about the prospective significance of failed photographs. Consequently, this serendip serie set an initial limit to categories and notions that allow to consider photographic productions as artistic or non-artistic artifacts.

This essay also follows three main moment, which are: an inquiry on the nature of the photographic medium (the camera); an analysis of its productions (the subject), and a description of its practionners (photographers). It outlines some initial conditions that precede any aesthetic experiences related to photographs. This argumentation follows a rather unusual approach. As we will see, following art history precepts, artistic artifacts are usually define through their ability to attain pure beauty. Consequently, it is common to define photographic art works through features and examples that characterise good models of older artistic ways of depiction. In this sense, with regards to these artistic principle of beauty, it is not easy to specify status and originality of photography.

Part 1: The Servant of the Science and Arts

“Any work of art reflects the personality of its creator. The photographic plate does not interpret. It records. Its precision and fidelity cannot be questioned”
Encyclopédie française (cited in Bourdieu P. 1990 (1965):73)

This section outlines the main difference that the realistic photographic depiction has made to the former pictorial media. In this way, we will see the difficulties that photography initially met in order to gain its own aesthetic status within former arts. Even if photography embraces many similarities with other artistic forms, it radically varies on fundamental issues. Photography has suffered the comparison with other pictorial media such as painting, drawning, engraving and collage. Following Jonathan Friday’s theories, the pictorial media have been labeled under the general name “manugraphy” (Friday J. 2002:38). One of the main differences between manugraphy and photography is found in the mode of production. In particular, because “photography are causally dependent on the world they depict, but manugraphs have an intentional relation to the world in that the beliefs thoughts and skills of the manugrapher are the sole determinant of the world depicted in a manugraph” (Friday J. 2002:39)

The principal issue with recognising photography as an art expression remains in this causal relation to the world. Through its mechanical and photochemical process, photography removes any human intervention during the decisive moment of the creation. This situation was paradoxal enough to achieve any artistic status. Following traditional Kantian conception: “art in general may be defined as an intentional activity of human beings that aims at the production of certain objects and that requires a significant degree of specialized skill or talent of some sort. Correlatively, the product of such activity are works of art. Art so defined, however, is obviously not equivalent to fine art, which is alone the concern of taste. Thus, in an effort to arrive at the required definition, Kant first divides all art into mechanical and aesthetic, the difference lying in the nature of the end intended” (Allison H. E. 2001:273).

This subordination has not failed to be noticed by many observers of the beginning of photography. Charles Baudelaire, for instance, was a virulent critique of this new technology as being a product of industry. He argued that photographs provided an impression of reality that did not reveal the spiritual momentum defining art works. In his famous text “Le public moderne et la photographie” published in 1859, he declares that "If photography is allowed to supplement art in some of its functions, it will soon have supplanted or corrupted it altogether....its true duty... is to be the servant of the sciences and arts - but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature” (www.jahsonic.com)

Photography embodied a perfect demonstration of a mechanically governed mode of production. Besides any aesthetic considerations, this exemplary status could by itself eliminate photography from any pretention of fine art recognition. This disparity is still obvious nowadays when we say that a painting is made by the painter and a photograph is taken by a photographer.

This situation is also due to imperative requirements of realism and objectivity that have largely banned photography from having any aesthetic recognition for a long period of time. In a way, it is principally due to the intrinsic nature of this particular “pictorial medium” (Friday J).

Part 2: 10 Tips for Great Picture

“Have you ever got your photos back only to discover that something that looked awe-inspiring at the time looks dull on paper? This is because your eye needs some reference point to judge scale. Add a person, car, or something of known size to indicate the magnitude of the scenery.”
10 Tips for great pictures

According to Clément Chéroux’s rather clever suggestion, we will show how to understand aesthetic dimensions of photographic production by using norms that define what is commonly accepted as bad photographs. To achieve this assignment Clément Chéroux asks a basic but nevertheless crucial question: How can a photograph be regarded as unsuccessful?

He remarks that it is as problematical to answer this question as it is to identify the qualities of a good photograph. However failures have the huge benefit to be rigorously normed. Thus, a photograph is always regarded as unsuccessful according to strict preconditions. It is always a picture that does not completely fulfill its mimetic function for different reasons: the shutter has been accidentally tripped, the photograph is over- or under- exposed, the situation or objects in front of the camera have suddenly changed during the shot, superposition, red-eyes effects, blurry or contrasting pictures, etc. All these technical obstacles are almost the same from the beginning of photography to today and the risk of failure photographs is still seen as the one worry that photographers have.

Besides these essential technical problems, rules of style have also been established. These norms are strict and easily identifiable for any photographers. They are generally prescribed by different intermediaries like photo-clubs, professionals, photolabs, magazines and others manuals which provide strict recommendations. As an example, these 10 Tips for great pictures article is extracted from one of the numerous photography manuals: Hold It Steady; Put The Sun Behind You; Get Closer; Choose A Format; Include People; Consider Variety; Add Depth; Use Proportion; Search For Details; Position The Horizon. Each tip is accompanied by an advice like the one at the beginning of this section.

According to Pierre Bourdieu, these prescriptions are the results of an arbitrary selection. These cultural choices define objects and topics that are worth showing and the correct way of depicting them. These strong principles have helped normalise social uses of photography and firmly allocate its fundamental function. “Photography is considered to be a perfectly realistic and objective recording of the visible world because (from its origin) it has been assigned social uses that are held to be “realistic” and “objective” (Bourdieu P. 1990 (1965):74). In this sense, photographs should follow above all visual conventions which embody their social functions. That is to say the practical concern is to take the most standardised and common pictures of the world.

Part 3: Towards a Popular Aesthetic

The depreciated status of photographic productions in the art world is not so effective anymore and it is quite difficult nowadays to contest its place in the sphere of fine arts. The question of the causality, even if it is still a current issue does not work as a central and discrediting argument to judge photographic aesthetism. Considerations related to the medium tend to outline the part of creativity and intentionality which stick to every production. Thus, it is actually more common to state that “photographers must choose their subject matter, the position from which to photograph it, as well as the equipment and materials to be used and, in doing so, they may be guided by a conception of what they want to achieve. In all these ways the photographer’s intentions dominate the use of the medium and – so the argument goes – reference to photography as a causal mode of depiction is misleading” (Friday J. 2002:40).

Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the mid-60s outlined that this conception was not so clearly established. Photography was situated in a middle level between popular and fine arts. At the same time, this process of recognition had also provided strong delimitations about the aesthetic stances to adopt regarding photography. Bourdieu’s observations during this transition period also allow us to outline the aesthetic categories that were clearly noticeable when photography was still a “middle-brow art”. According to him, these diverse perceptions, whether legitimate or popular, are representative of a hierarchical division of contemporary society.

This apparent distinction is mainly due to cultural capital of individuals looking at and taking photographs. As for traditional manugraphic works, people use different tastes in order to read photographic productions. However, the main particularity of photographic perception still remains in their realistic appearance. As we will see, the natural correlation of photographic representations with the real world implies strong preconceptions.

However, following the recent evolution of photography, the case of popular “aesthetic” is particularly interesting because it has never completely considered as an expression of (fine) arts. Photography is not viewed as an autonomous sphere and it should rather evoke an explicit continuity between (mechanical) art and everyday life. By definition, popular productions tend to give a more important place to the function than to the form of photographs. Bourdieu defines it as the exact opposite of pure aesthetic: “the popular aesthetic expressed in photographs and in the judgments passed on photographs follows on logically from the social functions conferred upon photography, and from the fact that it is always given a social function” (Bourdieu P. 1990 (1979):39). By adopting a practical perception and refusing “the criterion of disinterestedness” (Wollf J. 1993:36) “this aesthetic of the simple man” (Bourdieu P. 1990 (1965):84) embodies “barbarism par excellence” (Bourdieu P. 1990 (1965): 246).

It induces an aesthetic attention that is essentially focused on the realness and on the information value provided by the photograph. The quality of the pictures is also essentially considered through their informational significance and the interpretations that they provide about the world. The goal is also to give the most normal vision of a reality that is already known and referred to personal experience or judgements. Thus, these experiences “have nothing to do with the pursuit of beauty in and for itself” (Bourdieu P. 2002 (1979):85). Rather than to put a distance between reproduction and reality, that to execute a break with ordinary attitude towards the world, barbarous tastes use photography to come closer to real things or human-beings.

To be considered as a good photograph, a picture should also follow the basic principles of a highly normalised aesthetic and “the ordinary photographer takes the world as he or she sees it, i.e. according to the logic of a vision of the world which borrows its categories and its canons from a vision of the past. Pictures which, making use of real technical possibilities, break even slightly away from the academiscism of vision and ordinary photography, are received with surprise.” (Bourdieu P. 2002 (1979):75). As we will see, the status of this poor aesthetic has been notably modified in the last ten years. Hence norms that disqualified popular productions to any artistic recognition have been re-evaluated through the works of contemporary photographers.

However, mistakes can be interpreted differently. Realism and objectivity are always subject to modifications depending on places of exhibition or the rarity of the picture itself. In a photo-album, for instance, mistakes like red eye effects and blurry or contrasting pictures are less important and people tend to disregard them. Memories of a moment or the people depicted are more important. It is this rather sentimental value which guides the appreciation of the quality of pictures. It does not matter that pictures present imperfections, their rarity give them a particular affective status. This observation is even clearer in historial documents or reporters’ scoops. In these contexts, photographs can be considered as rare testimonies of exceptional events, their apparent mistakes having lost their failed aspect: they become documents. As we will see at the end of this essay, mistakes and failures can also become aesthetical elements.

Part 4: Barbarism but Pure

"I use magazines as an extended exhibition space"
Wolfgang Tillmans

Bjork by Terry Richardson

The massive recognition process of photography as fine art during the 80’s has been rapidly succeeded by a trend of intentional deficient photographs. This provocative counter-aesthetic follows a quite usual artistic logic: “the easiest, and so the most frequent and most spectacular way to “shock the bourgeois” by proving the extent of one’s power to confer aesthetic status is to transgress ever more radically the ethical censorships which the other classes accept even within the area which the dominant disposition defines as aesthetic. Or, more subtly, it is done by conferring aesthetic status on objects or ways of representing them that are excluded by the dominant aesthetic of the time, or on objects that are given aesthetic status by dominated “aesthetics”. (Bourdieu P. 2002 (1979):47) This consideration is particularly relevant when we consider the impact that cheap photography has had during the nineties especially in fashion and lifestyle magazines. Rather than focusing on objects and topics represented in these productions, I would rather outline the influential collision that trash photography has generated between popular and pure aesthetic.

This trend instigated by fashion magazines since the beginning of the nineties spread in the photoghraphic world. Through an assortment of provocative subjects, a new generation of photographers, like David Sims, Terry Richardson or Wolfgang Tillmans, popularised a trend commonly known as trash photography. Terry Richardson, for instance, shows a sincere respect for the poor stylistic amateur conventions and only takes snapshots. They are, according to him, “idiot proof”. He deliberately contested the principles of good tastes praised within institutional photographic networks. But taking pure aesthetic conventions into account, his provocative, and sometimes shocking pictures flirt with bad taste.

The main interest of these productions for our purposes lie in the fact that they have clearly knocked down the last enduring boundaries that distinguished traditionally popular aesthetic from pure aesthetic. And, consequently, the boundaries that traditionally allow to differentiate good photographs from bad ones. Working primarily as professional photographers for magazines or commercial activities, Terry Richardson and co. are massively present in galleries and art books. Through these various activities, they simultaneously occupy three sectors that used to be traditionally clearly distinct from one another: amateur, professional and artistic. Nervetheless, it is sometimes difficult to perceive the artistic stance that motivates their work.

Paul Graham: Between Two Worlds

“Why Does Red-Eye Happen? Red-eye typically happens in low-light conditions because our pupils are wide open to let in more light and thus reflect back enough light from a flash to show the color of the blood vessels inside our eyes. Therefore, to avoid red-eye you need to shine additional light on your subject before photographing them in low-light conditions.”
Kris Butler & Donn Clark, Remove Red-Eye

This final part will aim to show how popular aesthetic, and particularly aesthetic failures work as elements within artistic activities. Indeed this inclination to generate cheap or trash photography was also adopted by contemporary photographs/artists. The case of Paul Graham is particularly significant in the sense that his artistic intentions clearly differ from the aesthetics presented in magazines and they reveal a stance that is situated far away from fashion standards and commercial interests.

Through their conceptual force, these pictures are in line with a fine art approach. For the cover of his catalogue “End of an Age” published in 1999, Graham presents an overstressed red eye effect. This initial mistake also gives the aesthetic tonality adopted in this specific work which presents an intentional non-professional aesthetic. Thus many common “mistakes” avoided by photographers are clearly presented. “Graham eschews the most basic convention of portraiture -the direct gaze of the subject - along with most rules of professional photography. Some images are out of focus; others are almost entirely obscured by color cast” (Levi Straus D. 2000)

This work presents a portrait collection of young people shot in rave parties all around Europe between 1996-1998. Any sign of specification like nationality, group or cultural appartenance are abandoned. The people in these pictures do not express themselves through their looks or through a particular attitude that ordinarily act as communicative “tools” in these kind of places. This is in total contradiction with fashion photography

All these anonymous portraits show a rather collective representation of contemporary youth. In this sense, raves can be considered as emblematic, in-between places of expression for many youths that are about to enter adulthood. However, rather than showing marks of exuberance, sensuality or excesses that usually go with these recreational places, Graham’s portraits show people with a deeply concerned gaze and attitude. In "End of an Age", the deeper subject is the passage from innocence to experience. The club kids in these pictures are suspended in that liminal zone between childhood and adulthood, or between the personal and the social. It is significant that they all are portrayed as spectators. They stand around the edges like actors in the wings waiting to go on. They drink, smoke, listen, and watch. Their utter absorption makes them appear even more vulnerable, and that state has a particular expectant beauty that Graham captures splendidly. But the tenderness is undercut by a certain zombie freeze” (Levi Straus D. 2000) It could be the effect of drug or the effect of light on the eyes, one trait is however always present, “nearly every one of these kids wears the same expression: an open, somewhat stoned, searching look”. Additionally, this apparent seeking stance gives these peoples something of a “slightly predatory”nature.

It is not only their manifest and visible aesthetic properties which give Graham’s pictures their artistic dimension. Intentionally adopting the codes that define mistaken pictures, Graham outlines the role of indecision and indistinctness that characterises this transition period. Through their simplicity, the pictures give an impression of proximity in the same way that amateur photographs do. But at the same time, all of these pensive and anonymous subjects seem very far-away. They remain between a familiar state, which could be interpreted as childhood, and an imprecise future. They gain a sort of iconic status as representatives of a generation balancing between two ages.

Hence, through his artistic stance, Graham alters our established ways of reading this type of pictures and gives another meaning to this traditional failure. His non-professional aesthetic allows to reveal both the proximity that usually sticks to these failed pictures. And, through the collection of anxious gazes, he positions these anonymous people at a substantious distance.

Consequently, this photographic work can be considered as fine art thanks to its “aboutness”. That is to say “they endeavor to make a statement (for Danto a reflexive, theoretical statement) about the nature of art itself, and for one to regard them as work of art is just to view them in this light (as objects susceptible of interpretation).” (Allison H. E. 2001:275). To be effective, this ability to provide susceptible interpretations must be intentionally produced by the artist/photographer. What gives a real exemplarity and originality to this work is the fact that Paul Graham has chosen these simple “aesthetics attributes” to achieve his conceptual intentions.


In conclusion, I would like to return to the initial “leaking light serie”. It is clear that they remain clearly outside any aesthetic norms and both popular and artistic tastes. This essay has been primarily focusing on a number of social aspects that define photographic aesthetic according to arbitrary conventions. Consequently, it is still difficult to interpret what I find a somewhat pleasant effect.

Even if the leaking light series do not have any artistic issues, they have helped confirm my personal disposition for conceptual photographic productions. Through their unexpected apparition, that is to say through their serendipity, they have activated a specific “affect-oriented account of aesthetic experience” (J. Friday): to be agreeably surprised and to look forward to activating this affect again.

As a result, while looking for photographs to illustrate this essay, I came across some works whose composition echoed this light leak effect. That is the case of this blurry picture of Hubert Kretschmer or this monochromatic blue sky of Paul Graham. I was quite surprised to see how many photographic projects could be associated with it. I did not know that this type of abstract approach was so widespread.

At a time when traditional fine art seem to have reached its limits in many fields, photography still has an incredible potential for artistic progression. It is rather hard to find any explanation to this phenomenon. It could possibly lie in the prejudice against photography as an artistic practice.

As a mechanical and causal medium, it always leaves something to indecision. In this sense, even if the intention is always to control indecisiveness in photography, being good or bad, it is intrinsically stamped by serendipity. The photographer is an adventurer whose discoveries are always uncertain.


Allison Henry E., K 2001 Kant’s Theory of Taste: A Reading of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment; Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu Pierre, Photography: A Middle-brow Art; California; Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu Pierre 2002 (1979), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London; Routledge

Chéroux Clément 2003 Fautographie: Petite Histoire de l’Erreur Photographique Crisnée; Yellow Now.

Friday Jonathan 2001 Aesthetics and Photgraphy; Ashgate

Levi Strauss David 2000 ArtForum

Wolff Janet 1993 Aesthetics and Sociology of Art, University of Michigan Press

Internet sources


Illustrations Credits

Richardson Terry
Graham Paul "End of an Age 1996-1998", 184 x 143 cm
Graham Paul "33 :18 (113)", 184 x 143 cm
Kretschmer Hubert


Blogger j said...

i want more ;)

4:19 AM  

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