Photographing The Ugly

Photographing The Ugly

It’s easy to get caught up photographing subjects that are classically beautiful. Colorful sunsets, a brand-new baby, the dew on a fresh spring flower — everyone loves pictures that capture or enhance attractive qualities, but there’s something to be said for photographs that might be described as ugly, desolate, or even scary. Pictures of trash heaps, a burned up forest — subjects that aren’t classically beautiful can be just as moving and poignant as a crystal clear ocean, and often, elicit more emotion. As famed photographer William Eggelsston said, “I am at war with the obvious.” In this series we examine the value, and subtle beauty, behind what most people would describe as ugly or mundane.

First, a bit of history: there might not be any photographer more well known for capturing the banal, the boring, and the ugly, as William Eggleston. His New York gallery show in 1976 was “the most hated show of the year,” as it featured work that viewers saw as having little to no value. But what Eggleston became known for (and what he was initially ostracized over) was capturing beauty and interest in pictures that others overlooked.

It’s difficult to extract meaning or significance from a bottle of ketchup on a diner counter, or a freezer stuffed to the gills with ice cream and old meats, but Eggleston’s revolutionary use of color and his eye for composition sparked a phenomenon in photography that forced viewers to look a little deeper. Eggleston’s work is uneasy, and could easily be described as dark, but what he brought to the field of photography was an invitation to see the significance — the beauty — behind the ugliness in our everyday lives. Suddenly, the ketchup bottle on the diner counter had a Ansel Adams like greatness, and it became obvious that the objects of our everyday lives — the food in our freezers — was filled with a richness and a significance that shouldn’t be ignored. He is the perfect example of taking an ugly image, and through composition, color, and context, giving it value and significance.

Whether your preference is to capture the gritty reality of a dirty city street or the undeniable grandeur of a beachside sunset, think about the emotional core of what you’re seeing and aim to capture that in your picture. It is in this way that Eggleston was able to elevate boring everyday subjects into the objects of our affection. Photography isn’t about seeing what is beautiful, but about capturing what is valuable about the subject. Think about the idea of an emotional core and the next time you see a plastic bag caught on tree branch or chewing gum stuck to your shoe, try to capture the power behind that moment, even if it is something that you’d initially describe as ugly or useless. There might be a powerful photo behind the moment.

For more inspiration, check out our gallery on the lost and the forgotten, an inspirational series of pictures on subjects that you might otherwise overlook.