My sense of visual aesthetics relating to photography is relatively simple: The camera gives me the ability to arrange and capture line, shape, color, and light. While you could use other words to describe the elements of a photograph, my "line, shape, color and light" do the job for me. Sometimes these four elements arrange themselves for me; sometimes I have to move around, fiddle with lenses and otherwise use my tools to get what I want. With four factors at work, the balance of power between them shifts - In some images, the light predominates, in some it's the lines or shapes, etc.
The opportunities to find and compose those four elements are almost infinite. But there is another essential element that contributes real power and drama to images. Call it the "subject." That fifth element, the subject, can trump the other four. You can compose a remarkably interesting image of a highway guardrail, for example, using line, shape, color and light. But when the subject of the image isn't a guardrail, but the columns of the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps, or the Great Wall of China, the power and meaning of the photograph is greatly enhanced.
"Subject" is the element of photography that makes photojournalism so compelling; it's the element that makes baby pictures irresistible (most of the time!). Line, shape, color and light are inconsequential if the subject of the image is powerful enough. "Subject" lets me, as the photographer - and you, as the observer - contribute all of the social, personal, psychological and cultural cues that are swimming around in our consciousnesses.
Some people would argue that photography is the quintessential visual medium, documenting (here we go again) line, shape, color and light with undeniable clarity and accuracy, and that our cultural biases simply shouldn't be included in our appreciation of photographs. But we, as human beings, simply can't divorce ourselves from all of that psychological baggage.
Thank goodness for that, I say. The best photos pull out all the stops and use all the tricks. Great pictures use all five elements to engage us both visually and emotionally.
What do you think? Share your thoughts!