Why We Love Bad Photography (and Celine Dion)


General Culture, General Photography

Over at A Photo Editor (thank you for the shout out!), there’s a new post entitled Why We Love Bad Photography. I’ve always wondered why people love bad photography. But joking aside, what I consider to be bad photography is just that: photography that I think is bad. Does that make it bad? I think in many cases, I can give you some reasons why I like or dislike a particular photograph or body of work. But that doesn’t necessarily make it bad. (more)

Of course, I could claim that a lot of photography only looks bad because you have to acquire a taste for it, kind of like salmon roe sushi that has a raw quail egg on it. There certainly is some truth to that, but what most people don’t realize is that this argument cuts both ways. In other words, if I think that music by Celine Dion is bad then maybe I simply haven’t been able (or willing?) to acquire a taste for it? (I’m using music as an example here because even though I certainly have some ideas which photography is good and bad I don’t want to center this post on my claim that X’s photography is bad while Y’s is good).

What is more, you can acquire the taste for something, yet still think it’s bad. Maybe conceptual photography would be a good example here. If you have never seen any of that stuff it’s very likely you’ll think it’s all bad. But once you start to learn more about it, you’ll probably start appreciating at least some of it. But there’ll still be some left that’s just bad (or, more accurately, that you think is bad).

What this means is that acquiring a taste for something certainly is a good idea. It broadens one’s mind. But it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of why people love bad music or photography or art or food or whatever.

Furthermore, I’ve always felt that bemoaning that some people have not acquired the taste - the standard narrative (cliche!) is that they simply haven’t made the effort - feels a bit too lazy, if not self congratulatory. What is gained from making claims about people who don’t like photography you deem good, but like photography you deem bad, claims that these people simply are not making the effort or have less taste than you?

Actually, this is why the book Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is so interesting, even for photographers. While to book is about Celine Dion’s music, one of its main focal points is how we decide what is good and bad, what is cool and what is not cool. It’s a book about taste, very smartly written and entertaining at the same time. It did not make me like Dion’s music, but it taught me a whole lot about its background, and it taught me why so many people like it.

The book also quotes a model (developed by Pierre Bourdieu) for why we like certain things. According to the model we like or dislike certain things not because of their very nature (not because it’s “good” or “bad” photography) but because of the social consequences of professing we like or dislike them (because it makes us look “sophisticated” or “in the know”). Needless to say, Bourdieu scholars might object to my simplistic characterization here, which, after all, is based on what I remember from reading a book that discusses him.

But if we assume that my brief synopsis is more or less correct that would make many debates about “good” this or “bad” that a lot less interesting, wouldn’t it? Put another way, there is something to be gained from claiming the people who don’t get “good” photography have no taste: It’s your own social prestige.

And that’s not such a revolutionary idea. In the area of consumption it’s something we are very familiar with. Many brands have come to rely solely on their image, which often is completely detached from the actual value of the products.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should not talk about photography and point out why we think some photography is good and some is bad. Criticism can be so valuable because it might open our eyes and help us develop or evolve our taste. But we need to realize that when we talk about photography that we can agree on is “bad” or “good” then our agreement might be based on things that have precious little to do with the photography, and a lot with how prefer to think of ourselves.