I am going to show you a picture and chances are that you will like it. It has a few elements that people tend to find aesthetically pleasing: bright colors, slight desaturation, a soft blur and a subtle fade of the foreground. Look: It is pretty.
During one of our lunch breaks, Max and I were browsing through a row of publications at a fancy magazine shop close our work. It is a place that smells good, sells trendy tote bags, hardcover books in pastel colors and tons of coffee table magazines. I am talking about the kinds of publications conceived to essentially lay around, look good, and (most of all!) make you seem like a better, more interesting person. Leafing through the titles, I noticed that people who make those magazined also seem to love the effect I described above – countless pages featured photography with a similar look. “Do you think we will ever get tired of this style?”, I asked Max. He shook his head “Why would we? It looks great!”
It really does. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder where our conviction comes from. After all, there are countless ways to treat an image, countless angles to photograph a given subject. And yet, faced with that kind of striking similarity, Max and I weren’t bored – we both loved it.
What if our agreement is the root of that shared sentiment? Taste seems personal, but perhaps it is a just another social norm.
Look no further than Instagram: Often decried as a social network full of cat pictures with vintage filters, Instagram is actually a place with some really great photography from around the world. Image locations range from my very own street to forlorn corners of North Korea. A few days ago, I stumbled upon a user from Transylvania – which seemed incredibly exotic. But low and behold: Many of the pictures she had taken in the woods in Romania had actually been processed in the same style I have come to get used to from the photographers of Berlin: There were beautiful desaturations, subtle fades, glowing skin tones – you get the idea. It’s a universal aesthetic.
Within the subgroup of people I follow and whose images I enjoy, there are a number of principles that seem to guide many of the photographers. It isn’t color and hue alone – the motifs often have a similar look, as reflected by popular hashtags: #straightfacade, a flat view of a building front (not only popular because it rhymes). #sundaycarpic, an image of a vintage car (it eludes me why that has to be posted on Sundays). #peoplebikingpastwalls. Or the ever-popular #theworldneedsmorespiralstaircases. These tags summarize motifs that work, pictures that will garner a lot of likes – despite of them having become mere Instagram clichés.
Clichés, of course, are something else we have agreed on: Something that used to be popular but somehow reached a tipping point, making it no longer desirable. It is a fact of life for much we consider aesthetic: Just look at architecture that once seemed cutting-edge and now feels misguided. Spiral staircases are great, but you can take only so many pictures of them before they become repetitive. The hashtag alone nevertheless has thousands of entries. That is because spiral staircases work: Visually, they may be a cliché, but one that people generally like.
What we find pretty, what color combination we prefer, what kind of lighting we value the most – that is not something intrinsic but something we have acquired over the years. I mentioned Instagram because it most obviously demonstrates how that process works. Something people enjoy garners many likes and positive responses, which encourages the photographer to take more images of the same subject and to give it a similar treatment. The more of such images are around, the more likely they are to be emulated. Magazines that strike a reader’s chord with their selection of photography are no different. To speak more generally: As photographers we are all like them, supplying the market with images that we believe work, that others will enjoy. It is a virtual echo chamber we find ourselves in, which perpetuates a similar aesthetic.
I am not writing this down because I am any different from the rest of people. Emulation is easy and I have certainly engaged in it, both consciously and subconsciously. I have been influenced by certain looks and color schemes that have defined my taste. But that realization is somewhat depressing: We are consciously limiting our options in order to bow to the principles of style. How about an early New Year’s resolution then? Take less photos with an accepted aesthetic and more that break out of those norms. In the best case, that will make my pictures more genuine.