Emma Howell

Art Talk: Finding Beauty in Boring

Emma Howell
10 August, 2017

Make your own mark


A few prerequisite thoughts:

Have you ever looked at a piece of art, a photograph or even out of your window and thought- that’s so boring?

Look again and find another word to describe what you’re looking at.



So, I’m not just fanatical about drawing and painting; I’m also a huge fan of documentary and street photography. So much so, my final year dissertation title was this:

“Black & White Photography: An Examination of the Role of Documentary Photography in the Ending of South Africa’s Apartheid”

Did you fall asleep a little bit whilst reading that? If you did, don’t go anywhere- continue reading because I’m going to talk a little bit about how stereotypically ‘boring’ things can be the most beautiful things.

When I typed into Google ‘beautiful photograph’, it came up with things like eerie forests, skylines of New York and camels walking across the desert. Don’t get me wrong, these photographs are incredible and I’d have any one of them hanging on my walls at home. However, why are there no photographs that fall under the category of street or documentary photography showing up on my Google search? Because many people find them boring.

I must admit, even I sometimes doubt everyday surroundings as being beautiful. Occasionally, I resist taking my camera out and about with me around my hometown because I have in my head that I’ll just be seeing the same things as usual and won’t find anything to photograph- also, carrying a camera around will just be ‘another thing to carry’.

This is so wrong of me – I will elaborate further on.



Check out this photograph by the great Henri Cartier Bresson:


Cartier Bresson, Henri. (1928). Hyères, France.


Can you see why this photograph would be considered beautiful? Or do you just see it as a boring, black and white photograph of some stairs and a cyclist?

It might seem funny to some, but this photograph is actually used quite a lot in books about great photographs. Obviously, there will always be the ‘everything is subjective’ argument and what’s beautiful to one person, is ugly to the next yada yada. However, what I’m trying to do is to open up the minds of those who would consider a photograph like this as only boring and not beautiful. You know what, it is boring- the subject matter that is. But look at the photograph again and see what it does to your eyes; where do they go? Look at the lines, the angles and the geometry of the stairs, the railings and the road below.

Photographs like this fascinate me because to capture something so ordinary, the things we see in our everyday lives- stairs, bikes, bricks etc. and to frame them in a way that shows both stillness and movement, horizontals and verticals, blacks and greys- it’s fricking cool. It might be worth mentioning here that apparently, Henri Cartier Bresson spent hours uncomfortably crouched on the stairs waiting for the right moment to shoot this. This definitely adds to the photograph’s iconic status. What do you think of his photograph?



See below a photograph taken by Garry Winogrand, who was considered a “giant” and a “legend” of Post-War American street photography. Read the photograph- it’s like a visual story in one snapshot. The parts that are out of focus/in focus, the shadows, the lines and the movement make this a beautiful photograph- forget the subject matter. Although, this completely goes against the purpose of this series of photographs by Winogrand, which was about photographing the beauty of women. Nonetheless, this still would not show up in my ‘beautiful photograph’ Google search- but why?


Winogrand, Garry. (1975). Women Are Beautiful.


“Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.” – Garry Winogrand.

I think what Winogrand means by this is that one should forget about the thing that’s being photographed – whether it’s a staircase, a man sat selling pretzels in the street or a woman wth a handbag standing on the pavement. The subject matter can be as ‘boring’ as you like- but how it’s framed is what makes it beautiful.

These words from Garry have opened up my mind to the idea that the everyday isn’t as boring as I once thought. If you can see past the subject matter and instead, take into account colour, angles, lines, shapes and movement- surely, you can find beauty in most of the ordinary things around you, right?

I’m not saying that anyone can take a beautiful photograph whenever, wherever- it’s possible – but quite rare. High quality camera equipment, a certain artistic eye and a bit of stamina can come in handy to take a great photograph.  Then again, there are millions of incredible photographs out there taken on iPhones- so, you never know.



Similar to what I was talking about in my last post “Being an artist: Soaking up the world“, I’m basically trying to tell you, whether you’re an artist or not, to look up and around in the places you call everyday and see more than ‘boring’. Look at them- try and not view them as a dustbin, a brick wall or a man sat on a bench, see them as colour, lines and shapes. Even use all of your senses. No, I’m not saying to go and smell or touch the dustbin or the man sat on the bench, perhaps not with those types of things (I’m talking about leaves, walls, fabrics, road signs etc). If you’re a non-artist, it makes going for walks a lot more interesting and if you’re an artist, it opens up your mind to new ways of seeing things and new ways of creating things. This means, I will be making an extra effort to bring my camera or sketchbook out with me every time I leave the house (apart from maybe the supermarket).



When it comes to art, in my opinion, beautiful art isn’t necessarily complicated art. It’s also not necessarily realistic art. It can be simple, monochrome, intimidating, boring–  but still beautiful. For non-artists, see the artwork of Mark Rothko, and Yves Klein. Let me know what you think.

What makes something aesthetically pleasing to you?


I’ve found myself thinking about this a lot lately.


N.B. The photograph in the header image is “Humdrum”. I took this in New York City in 2014 after being drawn in by this man’s stillness. In the midst of such a hustling, noisy and crowded city, he continued to sit in peace selling his pretzels. As I stared at this image on my laptop screen later on, all of the other quirks in the image came to me, especially the creases in his shirt.


Thank you for reading. If you have any opinions or you’d like to ask me something related to this, message me here. You can also follow my adventures and studio practice on Instagram.