Photography Blog

On The Undeniable Beauty of Sunsets

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I’ve always loved taking photographs of sunsets. For this, I am constantly criticized and chastised. Those that do not understand photography have always complimented me on what I have felt was my worst work by saying “Oh..it looks ‘just like a postcard'”. I’d smile and nod, but inside, I’d be cringing. They like my shit, yet my “masterpieces” go unnoticed. Except for the sunsets. On these, we could agree. So, what does this say about sunset photographs? That the photographically untrained ignorant uncultured masses like them, so they must be crap? It’s disturbing to me, because I’m addicted to sunsets and taking sunset photographs. I love a good sunset photo (though not as much as I love experiencing a real sunset), and I think I have somewhat discriminating taste when it comes to photography. That the general attitude by artistic photographers toward sunset photos and those that take them is so dismissive and disdainful, just bums me out, man.

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“A large drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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As photography blogger and instructor David Peterson has expressed: “It seems like every photography forum you join has this inherent bias against sunset photos”. It’s always the same charge too. Sunsets are overdone. They’re “cliché.”

So what is that supposed to mean? Now we can’t enjoy photographing this particular subject because a few people are tired of it? It doesn’t make any sense to me. After all, there’s a reason so many people take pictures of sunsets and sunrises. They’re one of the most colorful and beautiful things you can photograph. Can you honestly tell me what else has such elegant orange and purple hues? What else is as subtle and warm as the sun fading into the distance? Nothing. Literally nothing on this Earth compares, and yet there are those of us who want to condemn people for finding something beautiful and having fun capturing it and presenting it to others.

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Sunsets are everywhere. Nightly they appear, vast and humbling, orange, pink and purple. Like snowflakes, it is said that every single one is different. Natural, ephemeral and beautiful, they constitute exactly the kind of subject that causes people to reach for a camera: the fleeting spectacle that photography seems made to capture; the momentary vision that deserves immortalizing.

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Susan Sontag, in her famous book, On Photography, complained: ‘Photographs create the beautiful and – over generations of picture-taking – use it up. Certain glories of nature… have been all but abandoned to the indefatigable attentions of amateur camera buffs. The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.’

Sontag here, in part, blames photographic mass-production for the loss of wonder, but she also positions sunset photographs as the products of the aesthetically naive.

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Sunset photographs are widely considered to symbolize the most predictable, culturally devalued and banal of image-making practices. Critics dismiss them as ‘chocolate box’ or ‘picture postcard’; they are seen as clichés. The beauty of a sunset can be transformed, in a photograph, into something cloying. Their very ubiquity is what seems to repel; photography has tainted what it sought to cherish through overuse. It miniaturizes natural grandeur and renders it kitsch. 

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Sunset photographs have somehow come to represent a low cultural status: they are characterized as sentimental visual confectionary indicative of limited aesthetic vision and an undeveloped practice.

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“The less cultured you are, the more you require from nature before you can be roused for reciprocity. Uncultured people require blazing sunsets, awe-inspiring mountains, astonishing waterfalls, masses of gorgeous flowers, portentious signs in the heavens, exceptional weather on earth, before their sensibility is stirred to a response. Cultured people are thrilled through and through by the shadow of a few waving grass-blades upon a little flat stone.”

-John Cooper Powys – Meaning of Culture 1930

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As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has so persuasively argued, categories of taste are grounded in ingrained and stratified social and cultural experience and may be utilized to reinforce distinctions between different social groups. For Bourdieu, this is nowhere more clearly visible than in practices such as photography, which, because they are “accessible to everyone” and also “not fully consecrated” like other more legitimated cultural forms, lack a fixed and explicit coding system for judgement. This consequent flexibility of interpretation, he believes, means that the subjective meanings that different groups attribute to photography betrays their social dispositions.

In Bourdieu’s research in the 1960s, in which he examined taste as means of social distinction, he initiated discussions about aesthetic value with a range of people from different educational and occupational backgrounds, in relation to particular cultural objects including, tellingly, a photograph of a sunset. For, despite sunset photographs’ apparent mass-produced sameness, not all photographs of sunsets are equally received; they divide opinion.

Bourdieu found that the higher the level of education, the greater is the proportion who, when asked whether a series of objects would make beautiful photographs, refuse the ordinary objects of popular admiration, i.e., a first communion, a sunset or a landscape,  as ‘vulgar’ or ‘ugly’, or reject them as ‘trivial’.

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Yet, his conclusion is not simply that sunsets appeal most to the uneducated. Bourdieu extends the stratification and explains that the proportion who declare that a sunset can make a beautiful photo is greatest at the lowest educational level, declines at intermediate levels, and grows strongly again among those who have completed several years of higher education and who tend to consider that anything is suitable for beautiful photography.

Neatly encapsulating photographic hierarchies, then, sunsets are the kind of subject that can be variously adored, despised or tolerated depending on aesthetic outlook and social background.

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In photography’s earliest decades, photographs were expected to be idealized images. This is still the aim of most amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful, like a woman, a sunset. In commodified camera culture, everyone takes photos of similar things; in sunset photographs, then, it seems, every single one is the same.

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Sunset photographs may all look the same, but the meaning changes with each one. As Richard Dyer has argued about stereotypes: they “are a very simple, striking, easily-grasped form of representation but are none the less capable of condensing a great deal of complex information and a host of connotations”. Even stereotypes and clichés carry complexities and nuances. Just like sunsets, then, every sunset photograph is different.

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I say photograph what you want, and never allow the critical opinions of others to interfere with the way of enjoying your passion. Life is too short to listen to art critics who can’t appreciate simple beauty. There is no such thing as too many sunset photographs.

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“The setting sun burned the sky pink and orange in the same bright hues as surfers’ bathing suits. It was beautiful deception, Bosch thought, as he drove north on the Hollywood Freeway to home. Sunsets did that here. Made you forget it was the smog that made their colors so brilliant, that behind every pretty picture there could be an ugly story.”
―Michael Connely, The Black Echosandiego-night-2-005-copy-2

Much of the credit for the expressions of thought with respect to the idea of “sunsets as cliché”, is attributable to Dr. Annebella Pollen, Lecturer in Art History and Design (University of Brighton), from her essay:
When Is a Cliché Not a Cliché? Reconsidering Mass-Produced Sunsets