The Basque triptych: From the latter to the former

“There’s only two types of music: the good one and the bad one. I make the former”, quoted Jules. – “Armstrong, right? The trumpeter, not the astronaut”, I asked tentatively. We were sitting in the sand, and this had been our first breakthrough in a somewhat pompous discussion that had started well before sunset: was photography art? Were our photographs art?

Jules and I grew up in very different places, but we shared the same hero with all other nerdy kids from the nineties: Richard Feynman, the Nobel-winning theoretical physicist that also happened to write cracking popular science books.

One of his stories was particularly popular among kids fearful that devoting their life to science would turn them into insensitive lumps of coal. One time, Richard and a painter friend were taking a stroll through the woods and found a beautiful flower. The painter looked at it and said: “Only I as an artist can appreciate the true beauty of this flower. You scientists take it all apart and make it dull”. Richard would have nothing of that: “That’s crazy. I too have a sense of aesthetics, one that allows me to not only appreciate the beauty of these shapes and colours, but also understand the complexity of its inner workings and the way it has evolved. Knowledge only adds to that sense of awe, it never subtracts from it”.

So, ushered forward by Louis Armstrong and Richard Feynman’s words of encouragement, we proudly self-proclaimed ourselves artists. But… were we any good at it?

The next clue was delivered by Gabriel, who tripped over the tripod and sent our camera hurtling to the sand, lens first. After informing him that the repair would come out of his piggy bank, I turned to Jules. – “I’m sure we’ll leave this beach with some good-looking pictures, but what did we do besides pressing the shutter? How do you go from good-looking to good? How do you create something unique?”. Searching for uniqueness on a discussion based on quotes from others was an odd proposition, but we wouldn’t let logic get in the way of things.

After a long silence, occasionally interrupted by Gabriel’s impersonation of an excavator, Jules finally spoke. – “I think a unique photograph leaves you with a question, rather than providing you with an answer”. She picked up the camera and scrolled through its pictures. – “This one, for instance. It’s a pretty sunset, but it doesn’t add anything to the scene. It’s merely a faithful reproduction”.

We browsed through our favourite photographs and agreed that most of them spoke more than they listened. They were tidy classifieds, diligently listing all the characteristics of a second-hand car.

Some were different though. A sequence of images of Gabriel potty training, briefly looking directly into the camera before closing the bathroom door. A dew-covered little leaf, reflecting a glimpse of its surroundings.  A foggy landscape, all white except for a few indistinct shapes in the background. These very few images left us wondering about what hadn’t been captured, rather than about what had.

“There’s only two types of photographs: the good ones and the bad ones. We make the latter”, I concluded. It wasn’t a sad or frustrated statement, but a rather enthusiastic one. We now had a plan that could maybe one day take us from the latter to the former. There was hope for a couple of lumps of coal.



20 thoughts on “The Basque triptych: From the latter to the former

    1. Thank you Anne. Perhaps the true challenge is to make beautiful utilitarian photos, or photos that are beautiful despite showing mundane things. If we can’t get there, perhaps Gabriel can: a few months back we gave him an old point-and-shoot camera, and he now goes around photographing everything. The images of his favourite Legos are particularly striking 🙂

      – Verne


  1. “Knowledge only adds to that sense of awe, it never subtracts from it.” I can relate to this. Learning deeper about how ancient temples were made and about the societies that built them, among other things, really makes traveling, photography and writing even more interesting. Although sometimes this can make me feel lonely since many people seem to not bother to care. Speaking of art, I agree with Fabrizio. To me, your photos and maps are art.

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    1. Thank you Bama!

      Good point on the link between history and travelling. I particularly enjoy our discussions on 16th century events and the intersections between Indonesian and Portuguese history!

      – Verne

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  2. I’ve seen “art” that’s managed to land in art museums or galleries that I would question if it qualifies as art. Some of it, especially modern art, looks like someone randomly knocked over their trash bin and called the results artistic.

    If they can claim that’s art, even ho-hum photos should qualify too. (Although I’d argue any true piece of art should evoke emotion, albeit even a little.)

    And I agree with Richard Feynman. Maybe that’s why I like macro as well as the big landscapes.

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    1. There’s two things that remain complete mysteries to me: how to blow bubbles with gum and, indeed, how to distinguish “art” from art.

      Math is so much easier than either. A mathematical theorem is either right or wrong, there isn’t anything in the middle. The former is inherently beautiful, the latter is just an ink blob on a piece of paper.

      – Verne

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  3. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote that Newton’s binomial theorem was as beautiful as the Venus de Milo. And most mathematicians would agree that beauty is a valid criterion (if not the best) for mathematical correctness. I also fully agree with Feynman reply although I feel a bit envious for not having the capacity for that kind of quick and ruthless reaction… By the way, I’m also a macro photographer.

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  4. And yet, Fernando Pessoa stated that “Newton’s binomial theorem was as beautiful as the Venus de Milo”. Also, many mathematicians would agree on that beauty is a valid criterion (if not the best) of mathematical truth. Or rightness, if you prefer.

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  5. Fascinating train of thought, with a rather bleak upside down finish. Whereas I don’t think that turning things upside down necessarily helps, I can say that the first two photos, especially the second one, are really good. I also love Gabriel with the duck and Gabriel with Jules because they are love. ❤ But who am I to say – I don't even know who Feynman was (is?). As for art or not art – I have given up on that, those unconvincing white squares on white walls always leave me wondering who is crazy here. I would say – keep doing it with love, it comes across.

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