my aesthetics of joy

In Film, Fine Art Photography, Uncategorized
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I recently read a book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, that I found not only fascinating, but also specifically useful in helping me to better understand my own photographic impulses  – the subjects I am drawn to photograph and the techniques I employ to make my photos.

The author, Ingrid Fetel Lee, has studied joy from a design perspective and has determined that the images and experiences that elicit joy – that almost involuntary surge of delight  – are surprisingly universal. The aesthetics of joy transcend age, language, culture, and gender, and may well have their roots woven deeply into our DNA. She details the aesthetics of Energy, Abundance, Freedom, Harmony, Play, Surprise. Transcendence, Magic, Celebration and Renewal. And as I read, I realized that a number of these include themes I revisit with almost every roll I shoot.

Our early ancestors lives, for instance, were characterized by an almost constant search for Energy, and as Fetel Lee writes, “color is energy made visible.” In fruits and plants color isn’t surface, it goes all the way through and can signify the difference between ripeness, freshness, or toxicity. Brilliant color just makes most of us happy. It certainly does for me.

We find joy in Harmony because picking out a pattern offers our subconscious comfort in the face of the chaos of our lives. I don’t think there’s any greater joy for me while shooting than when I see a pattern resolve itself from many independent moving parts in my viewfinder,  as if my camera were a kaleidoscope and the world in front of me those tiny shifting baubles . . . aligned for just one fraction of a second . . . then shifted. The joy I get is in noticing the pattern, and when I get my film back, there’s joy again in having proof of that fleeting moment of synchronicity and in being able to share it.

Fetel Lee writes that, “Magic is like a surprise below the surface of everyday experience.” We see magic in optical illusions, in the iridescence of a butterfly’s wing or a peacock feather, seemingly two colors at once, in prismatic glass or all manner of light bending devices. Even when we understand the science behind the phenomena, it still has the power to hold us rapt as if the visual stimuli are too great that the eyes temporarily block out our reason. When I play with reflections, I think magic is at the heart of what I’m trying to tap into. The way you can use a sheet of plate glass to see in and through, and by shifting this way and that make worlds of your own design right in the middle of a busy sidewalk – worlds that aren’t visible to anyone else. It’s not much of a stretch to see the metaphor of magic made under the surface of everyday experience on a storefront window.

We see Transcendence in bubbles, butterflies, balloons and paper lanterns. Things that float above, that raise our gaze and elevate our spirits. Fetel Lee says we must distance ourselves from the world to see it more clearly, and this is exactly the sensation I feel I channel when I make multiple exposures. As though by seeing the scene in multiple layers, I am seeing some more real version of reality. I often wonder if any of that sensation translates to the viewer or if the transcendent experience is simply mine in the making.

But the particulars of which levers I pull, aside, it’s quite clear to me that joy is the reason I move through the world with a camera. I’ve waged a pretty long internal struggle with myself about it too, because Fine Art is Serious, Shocking, frequently Ugly and often not terribly joyful. By contrast that which delights is surface, or saccharine – at best mere decoration.

The real beauty of Fetel Lee’s book for me, then, was understanding that Joy is essential and important. If I can hold joy in a frame, and if I can pass it along, I’m doing my own good work. That is enough.

Any idea what makes up your personal aesthetics of joy? I’d certainly love to hear . . . or better yet, see.

Keep your eyes wide open,


  1. Hi Deb, Not only do I find your pictures fascinating, I appreciate your wisdom in sharing this thoughtful book on joy. I’m deep in work on a personal project and some days these pictures seem ugly or weird or anything but pretty. But looking at my work through this framework of joy, I see now that there really is joy in every image. I find this comforting – that even when I making pictures so far from my own comfort zone, my joyful view is still there. Thanks so much for showing and sharing your work!

  2. I think it’s so fascinating that each person finds joy in unique things. One photo of mine might spark deep joy in me, but not really move someone else. Also, it’s interesting that we are usually not quite aware of what it is in particular moves us to make that photograph, what exactly it is that produces that joy. For me, some of that has come from studying the images I’ve made over the years, to discover what it is that moves me – interplay of light and shadows, etc. It’s all so mysterious, and I love it! Thanks for sharing, Debbie.

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