Growing up, there was a framed photo on our wall of a sunset silhouetting a helicopter and some kind of rocky outcrop in the ocean.
As a kid, the photo baffled me. I would tell friends who visited that it was a picture of some kind of sea dragon. That rock there? A California Loch Ness Monster. That’s why they took the photo, of course. It was evidence.
An alternative theory was that the helicopter was something special. Some kind of robo-helicopter, or a spy helicopter that had never been captured on film before.
The truth never crossed my mind: it was just a photo of a sunset and a helicopter and a rock. This never crossed my mind because I was under the impression that a photo had to show something. Something intentional and informative. It wasn’t enough to just convey beauty or a moment in time. I didn’t realize not all stories had climactic, bring-it-back-around endings, and not all photos were about making me understand something new. Sometimes, they just were.
Eventually I learned that lesson. I think a great many writers and painters and creatives do, as well. Some work is descriptive rather than informative. Put another way, it informs, but only about a moment. A feeling. Something intangible and not terribly useful outside of a larger story, but beautiful for what it is. Words that are beautiful words because of the order they’re put in. Paintbrush strokes that are beautiful paintbrush strokes, not because of what they depict, but because they simply are.
Learning this was important, but it also eventually led me right back to where I started. Telling stories, I’ve found, whether it’s verbally at a party with a drink in my hand, or told in a book using letters and punctuation, are better with meaning. We’ve all sat and listened as a friend meanders endlessly through a tale of something that happened to them only to find there’s no payoff at the end. And we’ve all hated that friend a little for building something up only to bring it home with an awkward smile and no punch line.
Of course, there’s a place for flowery descriptions of places and people, painterly strokes of the brush the exist to be beautiful, but that place, in most cases, is within a larger story; a larger painting. Because ideally beauty is extracted from life and presented, not just for the sake of beauty, but to express that there is beauty to begin with. That there’s something worth exploring in the mundanity, and as a result, something worth sharing.
A photo of nothing can be a photo of something, so long as you’re willing to step back and take in the bigger picture.
Update: April 9, 2017
I’m not sure I still agree with the thesis of this essay.
I do believe there are some works that are written or composed or painted for the sake of the quality of the work, in terms of the beautiful language or ideal construction, rather than because there’s a larger story to tell, beyond the story of that near-perfection.
I also think there’s work that’s produced to be good, in the sense of its words and composition and such, but that the real payoff is in the artistry, rather than the technique. This might mean the story the words describe in the book, or the subject matter captured by the brush strokes.
Sometimes you take in a work that’s both: a beautiful written science fiction story, for instance. Sometimes you engage with a work that’s neither: little technical payoff, nor much in the way of novelty, insight, or anything else.
But very often different people and sects of society see one or the other as the real prize, and that shapes the way we view creative work, but also create it.
I think there’s a hint of that in this essay, but it’s not addressed clearly enough.