Can you see beauty in ugliness
Or is it playing in the dirt? — Lou Reed, “Starlight”
Campbell’s Soup cans, Brillo boxes, luridly colored silk screens of Marylin Monroe… while Andy Warhol was a provocateur and self-promoter beyond comparison, it’s hard on one hand to argue that his best-known pieces broke any new ground. There was a clear debt, both conceptually and stylistically, to Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” like the infamous “Fountain,” and even to Schwitters’ use of ticket stubs and adverts in his Merz pieces.
On the other hand, Warhol’s gift (along with such other like-minded souls as Claes Oldenburg and Duane Hanson) was to take Duchamp’s readymades and put them on steriods. It was no longer just a matter of being bombarded by these images in magazines, television ads and supermarkets; now someone was putting them on canvas, forcing you not just to look, but to really see them, and to consider them as art to boot. This was realism taken to a nearly perverse extreme, but it was also a means of questioning and pushing the boundaries of what art was, or could be, in a far more accessible way than Jackson Pollack or Arshile Gorky.
Edward Weston probably isn’t someone you’d habitually lump in with Andy Warhol, but let’s give it a try, shall we? Some of his best known work is of common green peppers. In black and white. Lovingly composed and lit in a way that’d make your average Rembrandt seem shabby by comparison. Like Warhol, he wasn’t necessarily treading new ground; others had captured similarly common stuff, as if in amber, but what Weston did with those peppers* could probably have cemented his place in the photographic pantheon even if he hadn’t done all those landscapes, or the portraits of his wife and muse, Charis Wilson.
Are peppers common? Have you been to a grocery store any time recently? But Weston’s peppers also have a certain force and beauty that you don’t generally expect from vegetables. While Warhol made the ordinary and banal a stock in trade, in Weston’s case, the nudes and peppers are two sides of the same coin, with each informing the other. Put differently, those shots of Charis Wilson look the way they do because the peppers look like they do, and vice versa.
Some kinds of photography — sunsets, dogs, kids — are standbys because they’re like shooting fish in a barrel.** They’re reliable shots. Really, when’s the last time you saw an ugly sunset? I think the challenge inherent in Warhol, and in some of the best of Weston’s work, is that they take what’s so common that it might as well be invisible, and pretty much force us to see it. To my mind, that’s great practice; after all, if you can find beauty in the commonplace, or even in the downright ugly, you just might be able to see the more obviously beautiful in ways that aren’t so obvious.
A couple of weeks back, I suggested that from time to time we look beyond photography for inspiration. This is the first in an intermittent series of considerations of artists, and what I’ve learned from them as a photographer. You may draw the same lessons from different artists, or look at the same artist and draw a different lesson altogether. What’s important is that we keep looking, learning, and finding that inspiration. Each time, it’s a great way to recharge the batteries; it’s also a great reminder that no matter where you are in your art and/or craft, someone’s been there before you, and their work can light our path, even when we’re ready to blaze a trail of our own.
*By the way, the best known of Weston’s pepper photos is number 30. He shot 29 other peppers before settling on one that he liked. Think about that next time you’re frustrated ’cause you’re shooting the same subject again, trying for just the right angle and lighting.
**Incidentally, I’ve never actually tried shooting fish in a barrel… I’ll let you supply your own lens joke here.