Posted by: gatheringwater | 2009/05/06

Improbable Beauty vs. The Ugly Truth


I first started carrying a camera because I hoped it would help me to see. I used to have a vague sense that world might not be as bad as I thought if only I could gain a better sense of perspective. Now, I am always looking for beauty and I have found it in some unlikely places. This picture, for example, was taken beside the dumpsters behind Subway on Water Street.

Although I don’t call myself an artist or photographer, carrying a camera has helped me to better understand why photography is an artistic pursuit. Photographers have to select what they share to be seen. They have to make a creative decision about what to keep and what to crop. Sometimes, these seem to me like moral decisions.

Is it right, for example, to have cut away the dumpsters from this photograph? Part of me feels as if I am lying. Another part of me thinks that, lying or not, it is worth looking for, finding, and sharing the beauty observed in a place not considered worth being seen. This view is obscured by a strip mall-type of construction, all bricks and metal and big windows facing the road. It has rarely been fully occupied.

I don’t object to this rectangle of a building being built at all–I do shop, after all, at the Radio Shack and Subway located within it–but I am sorry it is so ugly and has so little relationship with its location. In the spring, numerous swallows make nests in the bluff and fill the air with whistles and wings. Placid deer wander up and down the slope. Wildflowers find unlikely purchase among the rocks in summer. What would that building have been like if it had a courtyard open to the bluff? Or even just a few windows facing it?

So often, moral problems seem to arise because of the distance between our actions and consequences. But what if it wasn’t that way? What if public spaces in everyday life, not just blogs on the Internet, had a comment feature? What would I want to tell the architect of this building? Perhaps something like, “When I was a child, I dreamed of being an architect, but buildings like this changed my mind.”

I know this wouldn’t be fair to say, but the desire to say it was what made me crop the dumpsters from the photo. “Look what is here. Just here, hidden behind your storefront. Look. Look.”



  1. Thank you for these thoughtful words and photos. A friend of mine, at, recently discovered your blog and shared it with me. I’m glad she did!

  2. Point wonderfully made, Matthew. By composing the photo as you did you were able to isolate the beauty. A wonderful show might be made of photos like this alongside the “whole” image, including the dumpsters!

    And I have to say, if YOU were an architect, you wouldn’t design such a building.

  3. I think your show idea is a good one, Deb.

    If I were to build a home, I’d like to try the method Christopher Alexander described in “A Pattern Language”.

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