Over 2300 years ago, Aristotle observed the optic laws that make a pinhole camera possible. But it took until the 1820s for humans to figure out how to combine these laws with chemical processes to create modern photography.
A friend was in town visiting over Labor Day weekend and while she was here, we went to SF MOMA to see two exhibitions. The first was a Georgia O’Keeffe/Ansel Adams show titled Natural Affinities. The pieces were displayed to illustrate how each artist captured the natural world—often the same part of it—in their work.
I particularly enjoyed seeing so much of O’Keeffe’s work in person. Her paintings are even more alluring when you can distinguish individual brushstrokes and experience the vibrancy of color that no print can reproduce. It’s also easy to see photography’s influence on her work in the way she magnified her subjects—much like a close-up lens—to bring out their simple beauty.
This magnified beauty had a parallel in the work of the third genius on display—Richard Avedon. The retrospective of work from his entire career (1946–2004) featured his renowned fashion photography, as well as political and celebrity portraits. But the pieces we all found to be the most powerful were those of everyday people that he photographed in the late 70s, early 80s.
Enlarged to mural-size, these portraits of coal miners, carny workers, homeless and others seemed to radiate the very essence of these people. The epic proportions drew my eye to the tousled hair, dirt-encrusted fingernails and freckles that looked like paint spatters. I remember one photo in particular where the wrinkles under the man’s eyes resembled a river tributary system.
There was something about this magnification that made me realize these portraits were not powerful despite the people’s flaws, but because of them. The ordinary became extraordinary. The “ugly” became intriguing, at times endearing. I saw that, viewed through the right lens, anything is beautiful.
I left the museum with a strange elation that took me a few days to crystallize. What I experienced that day was the knowledge that bringing our limitations to light doesn’t make us less attractive, only more human. And our common, everyday humanity can be exquisite.
This has given me the courage to begin writing about my life, knowing that this will put my imperfections on display. You may view these as flaws. Or just what makes me, me. It’s a matter of perspective.
Something I’m sure Aristotle figured out 2300 years ago.