Note: This ‘final version’ of assignment one includes additional work and changes based on tutor feedback.
Beauty and The Sublime
What is ‘The Sublime’? To me, it is the personal perception of what the mind considers ‘beautiful’. I hope to use this assignment to explore the distinction between beauty and ‘The Sublime’- to me, ‘things’ (views, objects, places) can be objectified as beautiful regardless of context. For example, a ‘beautiful’ sunset can be admired in person, in video or still image. ‘The Sublime’ is far less tangible; a strong emotional response to an experience.
I began by considering the definition of beauty:
noun plural -ties
- the combination of all the qualities of a person or thing that delight the senses and please the mind (Collins, 2016)
Arguably, beauty is subjective. For me, beauty is found in darkness. The concentration needed to find detail, the hidden quantities of space within shadows- it is the unknown quality of the night that pleases my mind. I have always found landscapes to be quite empty and depressing- it’s likely the endless quality of the space mixed with the lack of human life. Beauty for me has always existed outside of the classic ‘rolling hills’ vistas, and instead focused on the abandoned places and things that humans have left behind. I also considered the dictionary definition of ‘the Sublime’:
- of high moral, aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual value; noble; exalted
- inspiring deep veneration, awe, or uplifting emotion because of its beauty, nobility, grandeur, or immensity
- unparalleled; supreme ⇒ a sublime compliment
- something that is sublime
- the ultimate degree or perfect example ⇒ the sublime of folly (Collins, 2016)
There are strong descriptive words that differ from the definition of ‘beauty’. Whilst that definition expressed ‘delight’ and pleasing of the mind, ‘the Sublime’ is described by words such as ‘deep’, ‘grandeur’ and ‘immensity’. There’s a weight and substance to the description that beauty misses.
A BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘A History of Ideas’ summed-up philosopher Edmund Burke’s thoughts on the differences between the beauty and the sublime. “The sublime moves us more profoundly than the beautiful” it begins, going on to say, “beautiful things produce pleasurable feelings, sublime ones overwhelm us.” (BBC, 2014)
The University of Chicago summarises the two as, “being pleasing to the senses … (beautiful), … evoking an overwhelming loftiness or vastness… (sublime).” (Smith, 2003)
I wondered how to pick a subject that could reflect both beauty and ‘The Sublime’. The idea that I came up with was to capture myself capturing each photograph. This would end up as two sets of six photographs, with one set consisting of ‘beauty-shots’ of the location, and the other of me taking those very photographs.
I settled on Cowdray Ruins in Midhurst, the remains of an old manor long since abandoned. Due to my idea being divided into two separate parts I felt that it would be important to constrain myself to one location. This should allow for the ‘cohesion’ that’s needed that may be missing otherwise.
To me, the ruin symbolises beauty but also has qualities of ‘The Sublime’ which evoke a strong emotional response. Capturing the beauty of the place would be easy, attempting to ‘prove’ The Sublime would be difficult.
“the sublime does not exist independently of the subject, but is rather the result of a perception of an object running up against the mind’s transcendental limits of understanding” (Coyne, 2013)
If we take the above quote as the central theme for this collection, I’d like to provide a playful critique of the central concept of The Sublime. Art critic James Elkins said,
“saying something is sublime doesn’t make it art, or bring it closer to the artworld … or result in much understanding.” (Elkins, 2009)
I want the viewer to have a sense of the reality behind the photograph. The set as a whole will provide an exploration of just how close I can get them to feel like I did.
There are no such things as ‘sublime objects’, but when something triggers a psychoactive response in an individual … then you are in the presence of the sublime. (Prettejohn, 2005)
Capturing The Sublime in the future
In considering how to capture the ‘sense’ of a place, it occurred to me that the mind has to be stimulated in such a way as to record every sensation that is present. It became clear to me that an interactive experience of some sort would be required to fake the environmental conditions I encountered – the cold, moisture in the air, an unsettling quiet. There was an eeriness that I’m not sure could be replicated by exterior means.
I thought about how technology could be used to ‘create’ a ‘sublime’ experience. With the onset of virtual reality headsets, experiences are being created that immerse the user in another world. This could potentially be used to deposit the user within a pre-programmed scene designed to provoke emotional response. At the very least, a three-dimensional plane that could be traversed would vastly increase the likelihood of a response. If touch and smell could be implemented also, that would likely be the closest artificial feeling we could invoke.
However, I still don’t believe that the original, pure emotional response by the artist/designer/what-have-you could be replicated.
Why is nighttime pleasing to me?
There is a difficulty to working without much natural light that makes every trip out after dark a new experience. There isn’t a catch-all setting that works in every situation, and this constant rethinking from moment to moment keeps me on my toes.
There’s also such a different feeling to scenes at night. There’s often a sense of mystery too. Shadows are deep and colours muted.We experience most places in the daytime, from morning to evening and photographing at night produces a completely different shot than any of those usual times.
What is it about the trace of people that pleases me?
I’ve previously mentioned that I find entirely-natural scenes ’empty’. Where there are buildings or cars- any signs of life, really- I am able to make a connection. There’s a quick and accessible journey of thought when there’s a single aspect to human life within shot. Who built it? What is its purpose? There are many things to ponder.
Cowdray Ruins, Midhurst
People in their photos
The “Rückenfigur” (or ‘figure from the back’ in English) is a 19th Century term created by the German Romanticism Movement. The painter Caspar David Friedrich popularised the theme which involves a figure seen from behind within the scene they are looking upon.
In the majority of my ‘secondary’ photographs, I took myself from front-on, mostly to capture my proximity to shadow and pressing myself into the building to hide. In the final shot, I had the space behind myself to capture the exact scene I was taking with me as the subject.
It has been described as the “simplest of devices for representing aesthetic experience … centered quite literally on the observing subject.” 4 By using an individual in the scene, it is easier for the viewer to ‘step into their shoes’ and so accentuate the emotional response to the artwork.
Space, landscape, context- any and all aspects of life through my eyes are entirely unique to me; a collection of experiences over the course of a lifetime that create an opinion of the world. As such, I found myself wondering, “even by perfectly replicating the world as I experience it, is it possible to capture the feeling of my personal reaction?” The answer to this is simple: “No.” Only I can ever experience what is ‘sublime’ to me. The ruins in Midhurst are a clear example of that; excitement and fear in exploration, a sense of freedom that stems from a depressed, cocooned home-life. A photographer (or any artist) could never hope to truly capture all of that context.
I began this assignment with an assumption; that the sublime simply couldn’t be captured. I’ve enjoyed experimenting with this idea, and pushing against those thoughts with considerations of technology and alternative viewpoints.
I’m happy with the photographic set that I have created even though I would consider the attempt that I made to capture a feeling of sublime failed. I had assumed that I wouldn’t be able to capture ‘The Sublime’. My attempt involved trying to give a sense of perspective- if it wasn’t possible to show my point of view, I could give the viewpoint of the person experiencing the place with me.
In trying this though, I made fakes- those secondary photographs I’ve taken now couldn’t be further from what I set out to capture. There’s a total lack of authenticity that comes from posing myself deliberately. Whilst the ‘beauty’ shots are all true to life, I couldn’t take two photographs at once. As such, in the photographs with myself as a subject, I had to pretend I was taking those originals.
Whilst I don’t believe it’s possible to capture true sublimity, this is not to say that I don’t mean The Sublime cannot be created. However, whilst I could have set out to deliberately evoke feeling from my photographs, that didn’t speak to my nature at all. Photography is deeply personal to me and being true to life and myself is of utmost importance in my work. When it comes to expressing my innermost self through my photography, I wonder if it’s possible to ever do more than document my experience, rather than truly share them with others.
Alexander, J. (2013). p.39. Photography 2 Landscape. Open College of the Arts.
BBC Radio 4. (2014). Edmund Burke on the Sublime. Online Video. 7 November 2014. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0fHjIPpR-Q. Last accessed: 11 August 2016.
Collins Dictionary. (2016). Beauty. Available: http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/beauty. Last accessed 7th July 2016.
Collins Dictionary. (2016). Sublime. Available: http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/sublime. Last accessed 10 August 2016.
Coyne, L. (2013). heidegger and the problem of the sublime.Available: http://www.pjaesthetics.org/index.php/pjaesthetics/article/view/100/140. Last accessed 7th July 2016.
Elkins, J. (2009). Against the Sublime. Available: http://www.academia.edu/163451/Against_the_Sublime. Last accessed 7th July 2016.
Prettejohn, E. (2005). Beauty and Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p54-55.
Smith, L. (2003). beautiful, sublime. Available: http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/beautifulsublime.htm. Last accessed: 8 August 2016.
Snyder, J. (1994). p.180. Territorial Photography. In Landscape and Power. University of Chicago Press.