I have often wondered why I take photographs. I have come to realise that there is a big dose of self-help and remedy involved.

I would expect to find evolutionary reasons (i.e. practical reasons?) for our interest in aesthetics and art, but, despite being a student of biology, I find such explanations overly simplistic.

Whether we look to theories of sexual selection to explain our preference for beauty as an indicator of quality 1, or we subscribe to the view that traits and preferences co-evolve but are independent in some Fisherian runway view of evolution, 2, aesthetics seems to play a role in shaping what we prefer to see. And perhaps what we prefer to see, we prefer to photograph., which might be the reason why so many photographs are quite alike and indeed, why it is so difficult to photograph in a new way.

Take the Savanna hypothesis: apparently we are more disposed to prefer savanna-like landscapes, than, say, Russian taiga countryside 3, because, the argument goes, the human brain largely evolved in the African plains . Although overly simplistic as a theory, I would say that photographers prefer scenes where objects can be picked out from a busy background. The signal to noise ratio is higher in simple scenes. We are more easily able to look at the photograph and make sense of it.

Experimental evidence shows some correlation between viewing preferences and some range of aesthetic values, such as simplicity, harmony, symmetry and so on – ‘form’ for short. So it is easy to see how form has had a role in what we like to look at. Some forms are easy to make sense of; other forms not so. Beautiful forms, (i.e. beautiful stimuli) are processed efficiently. 4

But such arguments can be pushed too far. Doubtless, aesthetic appreciation was born from necessity but social evolution does not run down the narrow-gauge tracks of ‘chance and necessity’. Whereas our early hominid ancestors learnt aesthetic appreciation by scanning the Savanna horizon, probably from left to right, just as most of us look at pictures, there is something deeper at work when we look intently at a scene or a photograph. I expect this was the case for our early hominid ancestors too. For a brief moment we experience a continuity of consciousness, almost like ‘time standing still’. In the next moment it is lost as our chattering minds continue their internal cacophonies.

Such experiences are one of the main objectives in some arts. For example, Traditional Japanese arts such as Iado or the Japanese tea ceremony hold great stock in cultivating a continuity of consciousness. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the cult of tranquility that underpins such arts arises from the continuity of consciousness that these arts require for success.

I think we would do well to think on this. Wittgenstein made a big thing about the remedial virtues of philosophy. Photography also has the capacity to instill a quietism if practiced in the right way.

© Tony Cearns, Berlin
  1. See for example Thornhill R (2003) Darwinian aesthetics informs traditional aesthetics. In: Voland E, Grammer K (eds) Evolutionary aesthetics. Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg, pp 9–35
  2. Fisher RA (1915) The evolution of sexual preference. Eugenics Rev 7:184–191
  3. see Kaplan R, Kaplan S (1989) The experience of nature: a psychological perspective. Cambridge
    University Press, New York
  4. For example: It has been shown in a study that people responded more quickly to symmetric and rounded shapes and subjectively qualified them easier to process – see Reber R, Schwarz N, Winkielman P (2004) Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience? Pers Soc Psychol Rev 8:364–382