Philosophy of Aesthetics: What Makes a Photograph Ugly or Beautiful?

Something I’ve been pondering for a a long time: what makes something “beautiful” vs “ugly?” What makes a beautiful photograph, and what makes a “bad”/ugly photograph?

Applied wider: what makes certain designs appealing (car design, bag design, watch design, home design)? Are aesthetics 100% subjective or is there any objectivity in it? Is beauty based on things we’ve been socialized into believing, or is there some biological/evolutionary preference to certain aesthetics?

And taken further; how would you define “aesthetics”, and why even bother studying aesthetics, or what is the societal significance/impact of aesthetics?

Why I believe that aesthetics are both subjective and objective

So let me just stream some thoughts:

First of all, I believe that aesthetics are partly subjective and partly objective. Subjective because a lot of beauty is socialized. For example, in the 1800s in France, it was considered more beautiful for women to be plump, and men to be thin. Now in America (2010s) it is considered more beautiful for women to be thin, and men to be bigger and more muscular.

However, I don’t think that all aesthetics are purely subjective. I think there is some objectivity to aesthetics.

For example, if a human being had the physique of Jabba the Hut from Star Wars; I don’t think anyone would find that beautiful. I also believe if you saw a 500 pound person, almost everyone would find that physique as being “ugly”.

Where does the objectivity of aesthetics come from?

My theory is that a lot of our innate conceptions of beauty comes from nature and from human survival/thrivival instincts.

For example many aesthetic principles come from nature. For example the “fiboacci spiral” (or the “golden ratio”) is derived from nature. Look at the self-replicating pattern of a

conch shell, the proportions of inside a flower or even note the “fractal” pattern in which trees grow.

Smooth doesn’t (really) exist in nature

The problem with aesthetics is that a lot of modern aesthetics (like smooth surfaces, smooth and flat roads, and buildings/home design) is contrary to nature.

For example, take a walk inside a park, or preferably inside a wild forest. Do you see any flat surfaces or smooth surfaces? No. There is an infinite variety of textures, curves, shapes, forms, which is visually enriching and pleasing to the human eye. It is therefore of my belief that true beauty isn’t 100% symmetrical, isn’t totally smooth, and youth isn’t always the most beautiful thing.

For example, the most beautiful trees we are are knotted, twisted, and grow in all these assymetric patterns. Also of course, the older a tree is, the more we praise it. An older tree is a beautiful tree. Shouldn’t we apply the same philosophy to humans? (the older the human, with the more wrinkles, crevices and texture in their skin, the better and more beautiful?)


The bad trend I see in photography is that everyone tries to make their photos perfectly symmetrical. But to me, this is boring.

I think assymetric compositions are far more elegant, interesting, dynamic, and epic than static, symmetrical compositions.

For example study a beautiful bonsai tree. Note how it curves to one direction, yet is still balanced. Assymetry doesn’t mean unbalanced. Trees are assymetric, yet they are still balanced (they don’t topple over).

Taking this into a philosophical direction; perhaps humans can apply an “assymetric” lifestyle, yet still be balanced and strong!

For example, Nassim Taleb talks about the “barbell” (bimodal) strategy to life, where we embrace and thrive off extremes. But the secret is this: you can embrace the extremes in life, yet still be balanced!

Practical ideas on embracing the extremes

Things which I do which work for me:

  1. Extremes in eating: Either fast during the day (don’t eat nothing, only black coffee and water), until the evening (unlimited feasting of fatty red meats until I get full).
  2. Extremes in work/productivity: Either be insanely focused and extreme working, or do absolutely nothing at all (sleeping, resting, or taking a nap). Better than the silly “multitasking” style of working that most modern people do with getting distracted with email, and other forms of pseudo-work.
  3. Extremes in personality: 99% of the time I’m a very nice guy. But when I get really angry, I really fucking light off and explode. Better way of signaling when I’m being serious or not, and when I’m upset or not.

Modern art

Do you ever look at modern art and youbdonr “Get it?” Happens to me all the time.

Marcel Duchamp revolutionized the field of art when he turned a urinal/toilet and declared it “art”. It challenged all of us to ask ourselves,

What is art, and what is the purpose of art? Can ordinary objects be considered art?

Then you get innovators like Andy Warhol, who turns something as common and mundane as Campbell’s Tomato Soup into an art and cultural object.

Anything you decide is art, is art!

Which means this: Anything which humans consider as “art” is generally a human concept. If humans see something as art, it is art.

Also, I don’t think you need a majority consensus to validate something. For example, if you consider something as “art”: it is art! Of course it is beneficial if multiple individuals agree on something, but your own approval as your own artworks as being art is good enough.

For example, consider that a ruby is the color red. You don’t need 1,000 people to confirm this. Only one person is sufficient to quality/validate this claim.

Also even more interesting (Black Swan concept by Nassim Taleb) is that you only need 1 individual to devalidate or falfisy (Karl Popper) something. For example if for 2,000 years no human has ever seen a black swan (only have seen white swans), that doesn’t mean that black swans don’t exist. It simply means nobody has observed a black swam yet.

Therefore if you’re the person who totally goes against the grain in terms of “rules” in art, aesthetics, life, or whatever; you’re the only black swan that needs to exist, to validate a brand new concept or idea!

You have more power than you think you have!

To me this is a very exciting discovery, because it means that you, an individual of 1 person, can totally change the world, and innovate massively! You can be the “Archimedes lever” that can positively change the world for the better!

You have the power to dictate what is beautiful in your eyes!

Anyways sorry for getting off topic, to bring it back, my takeaway is this:

If you think something is beautiful or ugly in your eyes, it is.

Now, realize that you shouldn’t superimpose your own personal judgements of beauty on others. Otherwise we will become tyrants.

This means, we must be tolerant towards the views, perspectives, and opinions of everyone in society. But of course there are certain things we should have zero tolerance for; for example slavery, subjugation of women/children/elderly, and we should follow the Hippocratic oath, “Primum non nocere” (First do no harm). Which means, our viewpoints and opinions shouldn’t be used as weapons to harm or attack others.

Love yourself

Taken further, use your own opinion of yourself and your own body image as a barometer of your own self-beauty, and your own self-esteem/self-worth.

If you look at yourself in the mirror, and you love the way you look, then you are beautiful! Consider there are some bodybuilders whom no matter how muscular or low body fat percentage they get, they still don’t like what they like looking at.

Cultivate your own aesthetics

What do you find beautiful? Keep cultivating your own aesthetic vision.

Whatever you consider ugly, avoid it yourself. But if others find what you consider ugly as beautiful; let them be. Become tolerant to the aesthetic views of others; we can all live in harmony together in society, without forcing others to adopt our own views.

This is the beauty of a free, open, and democratic society. We all have the freedom, choice, and option of living a life however we desire, a life true to ourselves, without being forced to believe something else (dictatorship, slavery, tyrrany).

Be unabashedly you!

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