I have been reading (ok more accurately skimming) The Photographer’s Playbook: 307 Assignments and Ideas. It’s a collection of photography assignments aimed to get you thinking about photography. Each assignment is created by a photographer or photography professional designed to help you explore the medium of photography.

Most of the exercises will take you well outside your comfort zone and make you think about photography in new ways, regardless of your skill level. It’s a wonderful book for both beginning photographers and seasoned professionals alike

One exercise by Eileen Cowen, that caught my eye, is simply titled:


1. Photograph something beautiful. 
2. Make a beautiful photograph. 

The simplicity of this assignment intrigues me. What is beautiful? What make a photograph beautiful? Is it ok to make a beautiful photograph in our modern day world where shock and irony are the currency of the day?

When I think about these questions in relationship to toy photography I wonder if it is possible to make a photo of a LEGO mini figure that is anything but beautiful. Can you make a toy photograph that is confrontational? One that contains cultural criticism?

I think it’s fair to say my work tends towards beauty rather than irony or realism. I like my vivid colors and my simple compositions. I like to make pretty things that people can hang on their walls and enjoy. (It’s ok, you can judge me.)

But I always wonder “Is it enough?” When we are confronted by a world that is rapidly changing before our very eyes, is it enough to make beautiful photographs? Or should I follow down the footsteps of the inimitable Legojacker and combine LEGO with social commentary? Or create photos like the amazing Brian McCarty and his War-Toys project? Or simply create an alternate gritty LEGO universe like @tobiatchi?

Questions lead to more questions.

One way to judge the success of a photograph is the viewers emotional reaction. Is it possible to connect with your viewer in a deep meaningful way with a beautiful photograph, even one that deals with socially difficult topics? Boris talked earlier about how we are hardwired to view / see in a particular way. I wonder if we are also socially programmed to view imagery in a similar way. Images that are gritty, dark, overtly confrontational are automatically considered to be more serious.

Thinking about beauty is a slippery slope indeed.

There are no neat and tidy answers to any of these questions. Personal preference and history will inform how you think about these topics. But I am grateful to books like the Photographer’s Playbook that help me to step back from my camera and take a larger view of photography and what message I might be sending with my photographs.

Moving forward I will think about the question of beauty and photography: should I photograph something beautiful or take beautiful photographs? Or is beauty only skin deep?

~ xxSJC

What kind of photos do you like to take? Photos of beautiful things or beautiful photos?

The Killing Fields
The Killing Fields
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8 years ago

A truly hard question. I find it hard to see behind beauty and realize that the reality can be hard, and cruel. Thanks for share the tip about that book, I have to look it up.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann
8 years ago

FWIW, I love @tobiatchi’s photos and appreciate your calling his work to my attention! And I’m a fan of @legojacker for the social commentary as well. But I think the gritty alternate LEGO universe appeals to me as a writer of realistic fiction.

8 years ago

Just an immediate reaction without to much thinking to this great post. “should I photograph something beautiful or take beautiful photographs?” I don’t think there are really things that are beautiful. Something can look beautiful but is not beautiful by nature. When we say that something is beautiful it’s actually because we look at it in a certain way, thus I believe things are not beautiful but look beautiful. It may just be a matter of words, but it means that potentially everything is beautiful as long as we know how to look at it. It also means that anything… Read more »

8 years ago
Reply to  Shelly

I’m actually on both. Initially I was only on Flickr but I recently started using Instagram when I realized how much toy photography I was missing. Normally there is a link to my website on my profile that itself should link to all places where I more or less active.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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