Happy Little Photographs

For readers of a certain age, The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross (currently available on Netflix, because somebody apparently thought this was a good idea) calls to mind a soft-spoken, perpetually smiling, and possibly chemically-altered white guy with an Afro that would have made the Black Panthers proud talking about “happy little trees.” This was strangely compelling television, perhaps because of the sheer lack of truly compelling television. And like most television of the era, every episode ended the same way: in this case, with a painting that looked like every other Bob Ross painting, an aesthetic popular with designers of dentist office waiting rooms and Holiday Inns. Painfully boring and relentlessly inoffensive, the Bob Ross look somehow managed to be both virtually invisible and instantly recognizable.

Fast forward to today. Bob Ross has been replaced in his role by the combination of digital photography, editing tools, and the internet. What Ross’s fevered brain singularly created has now been supplanted by a combination of the unlimited possibilities of technology and the stifling monotony of groupthink. The result, predictably, is photography that mimics almost perfectly the Bob Ross aesthetic: ubiquitous, comfortable, and utterly forgettable.

Look at the photo sharing website of your choice. Look at any publication that features photography. Look at a photography forum or two. What sort of photos are people sharing? Let me save you some time. Oversaturated wide angle landscapes. Hypersharp birds in flight. Flowers and bugs highlighted by razor thin depth-of-field. Frontal aspect portraits with too much contrast. Smooth water. Still awake? The simple fact is that any of these outlets provides you with the same soporific visual experience as standing in the middle of a Starving Artists’ Group tent sale in a mall parking lot. In spite of any technical virtuosity that might have been incidentally involved in the production, it’s all hopelessly, inescapably repetitive and dull.

The problem here is twofold. The photographers responsible are failing to question their own actions, confusing their ability to do something (a simple question) with whether or not they should (a question requiring far more introspection). Beyond that, many photographers showing their work in these ways are primarily looking for affirmation, and beyond a certain low technical threshold these sorts of photos appeal to the lowest common denominator demographic, and as such garner lots of “likes” and positive, if entirely meaningless, comments (“Nice work!” “I really like that!” “Wow!”). It’s nothing more than mutual masturbation.

Which brings us to the other side of the coin, the viewers. Most people looking at photography don’t want to question what they’re seeing, nor do they care to learn how to do so. The just want to look at what catches their eye in the moment, and that is exactly what this sort of photography does (“Great colors!” “So sharp!”). Beyond a general description of the subject, however, I doubt if any viewer could talk meaningfully about the photograph without having it in front of them. Contrast, sharpness, and saturation may catch the eye, but they make no impression, they leave no trace of their existence. Such photographs are seen and forgotten almost simultaneously. These pictures are the fast food of the photography world – it’s quick, it’s easy, and it’s briefly satisfying as long as you remain ignorant of how it’s made and what’s in it. Once you know, however, the only way to stomach it is if you can temporarily suspend the knowledge that it’s killing you.

Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As you can imagine, Tolstoy did not choose to write about a happy family; if he had, I doubt anyone would know who he was. Whether we are talking about Bob Ross’s paintings or the mass produced photography of today, the fundamental point remains consistent: these are “happy” pictures, and they are all alike.