Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

I have just finished a photography unit as part of my Digital Media and Communications degree. Sounds fun doesn’t it? It was, kind of. It was also not fun, and I resisted and chafed at how and what we were being taught, and questioned (in my head) the relevance of the course content to my overall degree.

But even in the middle of all that resistance, in spite of myself, I found myself changing. I started looking at the world like a photographer looks at the world. I started noticing light and shade and the interplay between the two. I started noticing beauty in unexpected places, and unusual visual perspectives I hadn’t noticed before.

For our final assessment, we had to produce eight images in a theme. I decided to focus on beauty in unexpected places, challenging our ideas about what is beautiful and what is not. I wanted to to let go of the concepts of beauty, usefulness, introduced, native, invasive, ugly, weed and any other labels and just appreciate them for what they are.

I have created four series of two photos, each series examining the concept of beauty in unexpected places. Each series utilises a long(er) shot to give context to the idea, and a macro or close-up shot to show how when we lean in, our perspectives change in the most interesting of ways.

I’ve called the first series I hate bugs. It’s a tongue-in-cheek prod at my own prejudices, because, well, I’m not a fan of bugs, beetles, insects or any other crawly, bitey thing. These two images of Echinacea flowers were taken in the herb garden in my backyard. Plants need to be hardy to survive in this garden – it gets cold in the winter and hot in the summer, and the soil is not exactly soft and friable. Some plants thrive there however: rosemary, lavender, oregano, marjoram and sage grow happily year after year; and of course, Echinacea.

I am used to insects of varying descriptions hovering around the Echinacea when in full bloom, particularly butterflies and bees. However, one morning I walked past the herb garden and saw a grasshopper gorging on nectar from the Echinacea cone, which was glowing a dusky orange in the sun. Clearly, from the nibbled state of the petals, nectar wasn’t the only thing the grasshopper was feasting on.

I hate bugs (1)
I hate bugs (2)

The next photos are my Dandelion series.

On the NSW mid-north coast where I live it has been a hot, dry summer – in fact, January of 2019 was the hottest and driest January on the Coffs Coast since records began. Thirsting as the land was for water, my partner, a horticulturalist, reduced mowing in the hope it would keep the lawn alive until it rained.

‘Lawn’ is an aspirational term for the grass that grows on our small acreage; to be accurate, it is a combination of many different types of weeds and grasses, native and introduced. When the lawn is mowed regularly its diverse nature is harder to spot, but when the grass is left to its own devices as it has been this summer, its true colours are displayed.

Mid-Summer Lawn is the essence of that hot dry summer. I couldn’t help but be cheered by their happy yellow faces as their hardy green leaves and stems faced the unending heat and dry with determined optimism – and they are a potent medicine as well.

In Death of a Dandelion the colour is pale and diffuse in comparison to the raucous palette of the Mid-Summer Lawn, and there is a sadness in this photo which speaks of endings. However, children eagerly pluck the dandelion seed-heads and blow on them to make a wish, sending the tiny seeds floating on the wind in the instinctive understanding that with every ending there is a new beginning enfolded within.

These photos are taken at the same place, about 3 weeks apart.

Mid-summer lawn
Death of a dandelion

The next images are my Lantana series.

This series of photos were taken along the roadside in the countryside where I live. I walk along this road frequently and initially I thought the road was an ugly place to walk; and in some ways it is. My daily walk is a broad sweep of exposed bitumen road which curves upward through bare farm land, and it seems to be either brutally hot or bitterly cold.

However, over the years I have discovered the road has its own kind of beauty. I usually walk the road at dawn or dusk, depending upon the time of year, and as I walk, I notice the tenacity of the roadside plants; the wattle, the lantana and the myriad of different grasses. The tiny wrens and finches appreciate the cover of fallen trees and towering grass stalks, butterflies alight gently on grass stems and flowers and the Eastern Rosellas feast on grass seeds as I walk by.

Lantana is what is called a ‘Weed of National Significance’, which means it is among elite company: 32 introduced plants are on this list and are regarded as “the worst weeds in Australia”. On my road however, where only the most hardy and resilient plants grow, small clumps of lantana provide shelter to the many tiny birds, insects and reptiles which make their home there.

Red lantana on dead wattle
Lantana up close

The final series of photos are of a roadside grass called Red Natal grass.

This pair of photos were taken on the same roadside walk as the red lantana images, this time at dawn. There are many different types of grasses along the road verge – molasses grass, paspalum and kikuyu, as well as the grass I have photographed, Red Natal Grass. I have often admired how the sun shines through the translucent seed-heads of the different types of grasses.

There may not seem to be much of significance in Roadside Delight, but there are things which stand out to me. The first thing the eye sees are the glowing silver-pink inflorescences of the Red Natal Grass clustered around a roadside reflector sign, an upright sentinel in the darkness. The blue grey road curves away towards the left, and the mist drifts along the lower ground. The light is soft, the sky is pearly, and there is a golden aura along the hills of the far horizon, signalling the imminent lift of the sun above the hilltops.

You may notice that the vegetation along the road is green and lush compared to the paddocks, which are eaten down by cows, horses and goats. The only animals which use this open stretch of road are birds, insects and reptiles – there are wallabies in the area, but this stretch of road is too exposed for them to feel safe. As you can see, the little animals are good custodians of the verge.

Roadside delight
Red Natal grass up close

When I was taking the photos of the grasses, squatting on the roadside in the dawn light with a camera around my neck, a friend drove by, dropping her husband off at work. She stopped on her way back and asked what I was doing, and I told her I was taking photos for a photography assignment called Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder. I explained how I wanted to show the beauty in unexpected places rather than stating the obvious. She grinned and said, “Go sister! What else is there to do with our time other than to make art?”

What else indeed? I crouched back down, snapped my close-up shot of the grassy inflorescence with the dawn light shining through it, then packed up my equipment and walked back home to wake up my children and get them ready for school. Beauty is in the mundane. We do not need to wait for beauty to come to us in a mind-blowing sunrise or gorgeous flower, although those are good too. Beauty is everywhere, and it cares not one bit what we think about it.

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7 comments

  1. Wonderful interpretation of the brief, photographs, and subjects… all of which are things I love. If I stopped as much as I would like to take pics of the roadside grasses, foliage etc I would never make it to town. Sometimes it takes a bit longer than jt should. I also keep secateurs & a bag in my car for when there is something to pick that catches my eye. Walks take me twice as long as they could if I didn’t have my phone camera with me.The Red Natal Grass in particular has so many beautiful variances courtesy of the light at different times of the day and season and its growth stages. I love your closing words. Beauty is there whether we see it or not, it is we who are the poorer for any lack.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautiful and well done. Photography has been my zen since I was a kid. Framing a shot, capturing more than what the eyes see, and cropping a photo to help bring in balance and focus on a subject. As much as my phone has a camera built in, I carry a small camera in my purse all the time for those unexpected moments and views. Sounds like taking this class has enlightened you. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • It has, Susan! I don’t think I’ll ever be a photographer – I feel as though the camera gets in between me and the experience I’m having – but it was very satisfying to capture and make visible something that before had only been inside my eyes and brain.

      Liked by 1 person

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