Seeing and Beauty
Gertrude Stein said that, “To call a work of art beautiful means that it is dead.” Beauty is suspect, it’s dead, it fails to uphold its promise to console, it is ‘mere,’ and it ‘runs the risk of the charge of narcissism,” as Sontag points out in her essay, “An Argument About Beauty.” Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Nobody of any real culture ever talks about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned.” To which Sontag replies, “sunsets reeled under the blow, then recovered.”
When we look at a painting, or the light that falls on our breakfast table, what are we looking for? What is it that we hope to see? And likewise, when we listen to morning birdsong in the spring, or when we listen to a piano sonata, what do we listen for? Beauty hasn’t been dead for even a second, which Stein knew quite well. To be fair, she’s not saying beauty is dead, but that to simply call a work of art beautiful is the death of it, of us all. She wanted more from our engagement with a work of art, with the world, than for us just to trot out a well-used word.
When I repeatedly photograph a subject over the course of say, a week, or longer, each time it's unfamiliar, strange, just as every sunset is, (however old-fashioned), upon deep looking, unfamiliar. And this is what reminds us to pay attention, to look at sunsets over and again. The composer John Cage said this: “I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I am doing.”
What’s difficult is to keep our seeing fresh. Thoreau suggested that it’s necessary to employ one’s senses and that “the more you look the less you will observe.” There is another way of seeing, he says, which is not looking, but “a true sauntering of the eye.” The Viennese photographer, Ernst Haas, said, “There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” Haas was one of the pioneers of colour photography, known for experimenting with depth of field, selective focus, and blur. There’s a photograph of his to which I keep returning. It’s New York City in the 60s, a display of men’s footwear in a store – there’s a mirror at the back of the display which reflects both the footwear and part of the street. Inside the store a man leans with his back against the wall where the display is, and we only see the back, top of his head, his ears, his lightly thinning hair. Tucked behind the shoes, a sign advertising the presence of a notary public. There’s something about the way the light catches the back of the man’s ears, the tops of the shoes. And the way the mirror reflects both the heels of the shoes, and then the green-grey of the sidewalk outside. The lines, and the drainage grills. I can’t help thinking about the hundreds of people who probably walked by that very scene. Maybe the man wasn’t always sitting in the window with his back to passers-by. But there he was when Haas took his photo.
We’ve all seen those tourists who hardly look up from their camera to see or to feel where it is they are. They go home to look at all those things they only saw through the lens. But I think the best photographers are those who allow their eyes to saunter, who allow all their senses to be a grand and joyful part of the seeing. I agree with Haas, what we see is what we are, but it’s also, how we see that makes us who we are. It’s our approach to seeing. We need to let our eyes saunter, to see those unique configurations and compositions and reflections. To see things up close and from a distance. In a museum you can often spot the artist because they’re the ones who are going up close to a painting, and then circling back and looking at it from across the room, or from a strange angle or from a distant corner.
“The world is full of magic things,” says the poet W.B. Yeats, “patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” And it’s this process of looking keenly at those things from my everyday life and trying to come to them through the experience of light, sometimes with a pared down vision, and also through this urgent and at times frenzied desire for beauty, that I am once in a while, once in a blue moon, approaching the magical in my photographs.
Elaine Scarry writes in her book, On Beauty and Being Just, that: “The surfaces of the world are aesthetically uneven. You come around a bend in the road and the world suddenly falls open. When we come upon beautiful things . . . they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space.” If we learn this habit of letting our eyes saunter, though the surfaces of the world are uneven, we might periodically and always surprisingly find ourselves in this vaster space, in this moment of unfamiliarity. We hardly know ourselves then.
And once we’ve been pulled through into this space, let’s call it the presence of beauty, it changes our seeing. We become more expert at spotting the tears, more expert at sauntering toward them, into them, and through.