The aesthetics of non aesthetics – Jerome Arfouche


by Bellamy /

5 min read

Another strong piece by Jerome Arfouche
In a continuation of his submissions for this site, Jerome Arfouche talks to us all about the the aesthetics of non-aesthetics. Please comment and share your thoughts.

The aesthetics of non aesthetics
Today I would like to compare two very different photographs to try and explain something I’ve learned recently, something I like to call the aesthetics of non-aesthetics.

First, a photograph by Paolo Pellgrin.

Paolo Pellgrin
This is a photograph from his book Double Blind (an excellent book by the way) about the Israel-Lebanon conflict of 2006. There is no caption about this particular photograph in the book, we see a man, perhaps injured, perhaps calling for help, his extended arm and eyes ushering someone beyond the frame.
This is a modern and classic photograph at the same time. Modern in the framing and composition, but classic in aesthetics.

Now a photograph by Martin Parr

Martin Parr
This appears to be a very simple photograph, a couple sitting in the sun on a sandy beach, nothing else around them. This is a very modern photograph, both in composition and aesthetics.

Before I go through a highly uneducated critique, let me expand a bit on today’s topic.
Lately I have seen a great interest online in groups like HCSP on flickr, closeup flash street photography by Eric Kim and Charlie Kirk to name a few and the in-Public collective. I have to admit I was not particularly drawn to these photographs at first, however I made it a point to try and understand why this type of street photography generates so much interest.
My explanation is, briefly put, that these photographers were simply trying to break from another photographic tradition and this was how they showed it.

Any art form goes through periods of a certain dominant form of “accepted” aesthetics, by critics, by the public, by artists themselves. People adhere to a movement and that movement lasts until another group of people venture to propose something new and different. As creativity progresses, it becomes more daring, and it takes increasingly radical twists at every turning point trying to differentiate itself further.
It is well known that Pablo Picasso had exceptional talent for drawing very lifelike objects and reproducing scenes with a high degree of realism, yet that didn’t interest him, instead he sought novelty by challenging what was considered a well established convention, that painting had to resemble reality to some point.

“Picasso by Doisneau, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”)

Today one of the major themes of the postmodern philosophy is that everything has already been done so therefore there is no real and unreal anymore because everything is subjective. Although it is increasingly difficult to be truly original today, that vision is obviously highly intellectualized. So how does all this philosophical babble relate to photography ? Who cares about these things and why can’t we just simply continue to make what we know how to make ?

I believe the new movement of photography today is one where there is a shift in focus from aesthetics to meaning. Why, after all, does a photograph have to look pretty and appealing ? Some photographers, perhaps photojournalists or other media professionals are more interested in the communication aspect of photography rather than the visually attractive aspect.

Let’s go back to our photographs and start with Pellegrin’s photograph. The composition is a rich, multi-subject interaction, there are many things happening in the frame. But essentially we can see the classic tradition of photojournalism surface. It is a black and white image, with a strong dramatic component, in the gestures, the worried faces and the smoke in the back. The light is diffusing through the smoke falling on the man’s naked torso almost like a renaissance painting. Pellegrin’s objective is undoubtedly a dual purpose, to make a beautiful looking photograph and to document a moment in war.

Let’s look at Parr’s photograph. It is so simple he leaves no doubt as to what he wants to talk about. There is nothing in the frame to distract from the couple laying down. It is a simple centered composition, full color but with no excess, no extra aesthetic feature, what he saw is what we get, direct communication from his reality to our hands. What Parr is trying to say here is, forget beautiful aesthetics, I don’t care about pretty looking pictures, I have a more important thing to say, I have a message to get through. He wants to show us his vision of a very modern world. This photograph was taken in Spain, a common holiday destination for British tourists who have been a central subject to Parr’s work. He might be trying to say, this is what I think the British do today.

(photo here,, “Simon Paul Kossof, HCSP flickr”) on Flickr Parr is one example, when I look at photographs from the Hardcore Street Photography group for example, many are done in a similar style, full color, simple compositions, more communicative and observant than visually

stimulating. There is a new aesthetic to these photographs, a new and properly identifiable look to them, a rational aesthetic that refuses classically established conventions like traditional BW street photographs, objective documentaries, or even poetic and visually attractive photographs. These photographers also take to new tools to go down relatively unexplored territory, like flash photography or juxtapositions.

Perhaps what I’m trying to say sounds like a very complicated version of “to each his own” and to many of those who appreciate this style it probably came naturally, but it took me some time before I was able to understand some of these photographs and the idea behind them. And like I mentioned at the beginning, I have no formal background in art so I could be completely off the mark in my analysis, all comments welcome :)

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12 comments on “The aesthetics of non aesthetics – Jerome Arfouche”

    Ande February 4, 2012 at 7:53 pm / Reply

    Great article.

    Right now I’m looking at less traditionally ‘photographic’ images – or images which break ‘rules’ of composition, focus, exposure time, detail etc – for my honours dissertation and relating things like Greenbergs purely formal analysis of works to photographs which aren’t very illustrative and realistic.

    I almost think that such images should be considered as something other than a photograph, partially, at least, because of the connotations and expectations that are attached to the word.

    There’s a girl in my class doing her dissertation on ‘Photographing the Banal’ and looking at the work of the likes of Parr. It’s interesting to look at the polarization in opinion over whether it is Parr et al’s work or the stuff like calender fodder landscapes and the dreaded birds-in-flight that qualifies as banal.

    There is of course the opinion, snobbish as it may be, that one requires a degree of education to fully appreciate certain types of work

    S. Miles February 4, 2012 at 8:04 pm / Reply

    If Martin Parr isn’t the most boring-cum-mediocre-cum-over-rated photographer in the world today, I’m accepting nominations now.

    Colin Corneau February 5, 2012 at 1:00 am / Reply

    I see what you’re getting at with this article, but rejecting established aesthetics/ideas of beauty is not a rationale for banality…a trite message is still trite.

      Jerome February 5, 2012 at 11:32 am /

      Perhaps you are right and I over-analyzed this, I was only trying to understand what some people see in his work

    Dave Hendley February 5, 2012 at 2:26 am / Reply

    A few observations on what is written above
    The Pellegrin and Parr photographs exampled are talking about completely different things.
    Photography adopts many languages and a photograph is always inherently plural in its meaning. This of course is part of what makes photography so fascinating.
    The organisation of the information within a photograph, it’s design, or structure if you like, is the device by which an image establishes a channel of communication in order to transmit its meaning to its audience.
    To suggest the use of electronic flash as ‘relatively unexplored territory’ is somewhat depressing given the canonical work of Araki, Weegee, Winogrand and Katsumi Wantanabe in this area.

    Constantine Loskutnikov February 5, 2012 at 8:04 am / Reply

    Why don’t you talk about the difference, betwean the east and west photography?
    It’s very interesting to know, how Japanese photographers getting such film pictures on their dslr

    Andephotographic February 5, 2012 at 10:13 am / Reply

    @Constantine, I’m almost wishing I had done my dissertation on post war Japanese photography now. It seems like such a rich subject with a miriad of influences and reasons behind why it is what it is what it is today.

    @Dave Hendley, I like what you are saying re. the organization of info within an image but you talk about meaning as if it is intrinsic or necessary. I really like what Greenberg has to say because it suggests that an image need not have any meaning, it doesn’t need to reference a place or a time, it could just be that the dark and light areas of the image work well together.

    This is why I feel that the word ‘photograph’ sometimes doesn’t apply, because ‘photograph’ is so imbued with notions of context, of place and of time.

    I think that one of the most engaging things about photography, is the ease with which it is possible to move between being concerned with the craft of the image and the concept of the image.

    I’d also go as far as to say that as technology marches ever forwards and makes it easier and easier to master the craft, it is with the concept that we will see the most interesting progressions.

    Simon B February 5, 2012 at 10:17 am / Reply

    What I find interesting is how our knowledge of a photographer and their style can influence how we see their photos. When I first got into photography, Pellegrin and Parr were 2 of the first photographers whose work I looked at. It didn’t take long to work out that PP tries to show beautiful photos of horrific situations, and MP showed us garish “Modern life is rubbish” photos. Two very different types of photos. Swap the 2 people on sunbeds with 2 dead bodies from a middle eastern warzone and you have a similar composition but a very different meaning to the picture. Likewise, swap the man in the first picture with a Parr-esque old lady holding an ice- cream, similar composition, different message.

    Hope you get my drift…

      Jerome February 5, 2012 at 11:33 am /

      Had to read it twice but yes I got the drift :)

    Andephotographic February 5, 2012 at 10:48 am / Reply

    Really not wishing to jump to the defence of Parr (as I’m not that great a fan of his) but I don’t know that it would matter to him – or to his message, presuming he has one – if the people on the sunbeds were dead or alive.

    Other than it being very unlikely that you would find Parr photographing in a war zone or Pellgrin photographing in a context where an old lady would be holding an ice cream I really think you might find them producing much the same type of image.

    Pellgrin would try to find that moment of beauty and individual heroism as the old lady passed her icecream to someone outwith the rabble of the image and Parr would try to show the indifference which the corpses are shown and the banality, within the context of some peoples experiences, of what he saw around him.

    Jerome February 5, 2012 at 11:37 am / Reply

    Thanks for the feedback everyone ! Both points mentioned are correct, yes the two photographs are completely different, and thanks to Dave for his note about flash photographers. Like I said at the beginning, it is a highly uneducated analysis :)

    Dave Hendley February 6, 2012 at 12:59 am / Reply

    Hi Jerome, thanks for getting the ball rolling. It takes a lot more courage than people imagine to comment of photography.
    I just spent the past hour writing an elaborate response then lost the lot when I tried to submit the comment without having filled in the name/email fields.

    Anyway my main points are:

    I think what Andephotographic is talking about is perhaps imposed meaning, rather than meaningless. This abstraction of course allows us to construction our own narratives.
    But, conceptualising something totally meaningless will always be paradoxically confounded by its own premeditation.

    My understanding remains that a photograph is an object that exists within a wider structural context so it can never be totally without meaning.

    Every one looks at photographs from a unique perspective however explicit the intended meaning. We always bring along our own experience and condition.

    Provoke (Koji, Moriyama, Nakahira, Takanashi et al) provides us with the most successful post-war experiment in creating an intellectually coherent and radical new photographic language.

    I’m afraid I really like Martin Parr and have followed his career since the early 80s. His 1982 book ‘Bad Weather’ is a particular favorite of mine although obviously not as controversial as his later work.
    Sorry, but I can’t resist mentioning the use of flash in this project, and that ring-flash has consistently been an important element of Parr’s signature technique.

    Jerome, you are absolutely spot on when you say ‘to each his own.’

    Photography is one of those things from which we all take our own piece and create personal meaning. This has kept the debate around this most delinquent of mediums animated since 1839. Long may the situation continue!

    Thank you all.

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