Finding beauty in the mundane: a challenge

I have struggled these past few weeks to get away from paperwork and organising my year ahead to do some proper photography. There were a couple of times I was almost ready to leave, kit on my back – but my imploring kids or a warm chair drew me back in.

I like who I am when I’m being creative, that’s the basic fact. I love taking photos, just like I love having a long bike ride through the greenery of my part of London. I have to remember that these things bring me joy. And who doesn’t want a life of maximum joy?

So I am going to ask more of myself creatively this coming month. And I want to offer up a challenge to help you if, like me, you are in need of a little push.

I invite you to find and photograph the beauty in the mundane.

Why?

Firstly – because it’s easy to take amazing shots of amazingly beautiful places. Although we can always do something fresh, or unique or interesting with our subjects, you’re bound to get something awesome with, for example, a great location and a great sky.

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But to create something beautiful, or find beauty in the mundane? That’s a skill that is wonderful  to have, and worth developing, because it will help your photography as a whole. If you can make the most ordinary object look interesting, think how much more you can bring to compelling subjects or scenes?

As many of you know, learning to see, or learning to see in a deeper way, is the journey that every photographer should be on. But that can feel like an overwhelming task. This challenge will help.

Mundane is defined in the dictionary as the everyday, ordinary, or banal. So it could be things you see everyday and have lost interest in – I particularly like street signs, peeling posters, weird things I find on the floor.  Ask yourself, how can I make this interesting to me?

It could just be a boring object or scene or subject – ask yourself, what elements could I bring it to make this come alive? Interesting light, a person walking past, a different angle or maybe the way I organise the elements of the scene?

It could even be, and I am obviously stretching the definition here, photographing the slightly depressing or the ugly in a beautiful way. Finding beauty in objects or places considered ugly is a great challenge!

In this challenge I encourage you to do two things:

  • Use outside elements to bring beauty to mundane subjects/scenes (like waiting for interesting light, rain, a person etc. to come along)

  • Work to bring out the innate beauty in mundane subjects – and here we are really looking, and probing our subject. Looking at its textures, its colour, what elements it’s made up of

How this can help you:

  • If you’re a beginner or feeling a bit stuck this challenge will give you something to focus on to get started, as well as an access point on learning how to see

  • If you’re more advanced it can push you into not just going for the easy shot, but working with harder elements to create interesting photographs

And I like this challenge because it is helping us acknowledge and draw out the beauty that exists in our lives every-day and every-where.

So just dive on in, or below you’ll find some tips and examples to help you get on your way.

Breaking down the elements

Looking for interesting elements is a great way to start that process of learning to see – so instead of trying to photograph a scene as a whole, find an interesting element and then build your photo from there.

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When you see a sign like this in a scene you are usually looking at it as part of a whole scene, and it’s not very interesting when it’s part of a whole. But when you remove it from what it’s connected to it becomes fascinating.

With this sign obviously you have the hard light and contrast of the shadows which is making everything look more like the elements that they are – rather than elements in a scene.

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For me there are two interesting things in this photo below – the obvious one is the angry panda, very funny. But the second thing is the bent fence. I like how it takes on the texture of tin foil or even water.

Using light

As photographers, light is our gift from the gods. Interesting light can make anything – literally anything – wonderful to look at. I also like how you can use hard light to create shadows that contrast something hard, ugly or rough. Like here.

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Or here, in a much softer way, you have this broken down house bathed in soft blue dawn light, making the textures look and feel quite sensual. The photo wouldn’t be interesting at all without this light.

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And I love how here the bricks, also bathed in very soft blue dawn light, become almost something else. The closer you look at things, the more they seem to change, or morph even into something quite quite different.

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“The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” Henry Miller

Here are some more photos that are made interesting by light (and because I am obsessed by light I have thousands of these)

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So I realised the photos I am sharing in my posts are all of Istanbul. The city is totally obsessing me at the moment, and I like that feeling of being deeply embedded in a subject. Unfortunately I won’t be back there for a few months, so I am looking at a lot of the photos I took there last year to help me remember the thrill of being inspired – and I am using that inspiration to go out and find things here in London that I want to photograph. This photo below is the only one not of Istanbul.

I’ve used this photo before, but this sort of personifies the whole idea for me about bringing out the beauty in the mundane. The light of course makes this photo, the way it’s filtered through something and is falling over the wall. But then you have this wetness and moss which creates really interesting textures. You can feel it. I do have a love of photographing quite ugly things and so I really quite love this photo.

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Angles

Would your photo be more interesting if you moved your feet? It sounds simple, but most people I teach don’t move very much.. And don’t just move closer or to the side, move higher and lower. Climb that roof! Go down that stairwell! As Diane Arbus said – photography is a kind of licence to explore people and situations. Use that licence!

Photographing things I find on the street is a huge passion of mine, and probably why Ernst Haas is such an inspiration for me.

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In this photo above, the interestingness again comes from removing elements from their context. If the floor wasn’t mostly wet it wouldn’t be as interesting, and the bright red contrasted against the deep grey – plus I like muddy footprints – all add something.

Doesn’t this just take on a different feeling when it’s not attached to a whole scene?

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I am always on the lookout for things that are out of place – like interesting signs or words in places they aren’t usually:

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Here you have both light and leading lines.  I love using structure and organisation in my photos.

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So there are a few of my mundane subjects – I would love to know if you take up this challenge. Feel free to email me some shots and I’ll give you a quick bit of feedback. I love hearing from you – and I read every email and every comment below.

Feel free, too, to get in touch if there is anything you’d like to learn from me – and I’ll try to cover it in another post.

Until then, thanks for reading and happy photographing!

Anthony and Diana

PS – We would be super grateful if you could share this post with people you know who love photography, sharing really really helps us, so thanks!

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