We Know What We Like, but We Don’t Know Why

First of all I would be remiss if I didn’t send you each a personal and heartfelt greeting on this the 4th of February. However, given the number of people following this blog, a general greeting will have to suffice. I’m glad that you’re all here and I appreciate to no end the contributions that you all make. Your commentary really does make my work better and I digest every single comment even if I don’t have time to respond. So welcome!

Today’s post centers around around the fundamental question I have about art. Succinctly spoken, why do we like what we like? One great effect of posting one’s work online is that you get a good indication of what people like and what they’re just rather blase about. I often find myself really taken by a picture, excitedly post it online, and then scratch my head when everyone gravitates towards a completely different photo altogether. Clearly we all have different senses of esthetic, but being rather a literal sort (I am a computer programmer after all) I want to get down to the nuts and bolts of what makes art really tick. Human behavior is the result of various inputs so surely those must be predictable in some way? Surely there are rules?

I would postulate that sometimes that we can connect with a work of art if we know the background. How much is our perception changed if we have a lengthy description or if someone tells us why we should appreciate it? The photo below has been one of my perennial favorites and I take the shot every time I go to the IMA. To me, this is all about composition. Wide-spread arms apparently embracing the art around her. A hug-like pose welcoming the visitor but with head bowed almost as a sign of contrition. The sculpture itself is a pretty deep piece of work all on its own. Yet this is one of those quiet sleeper photos that I’m fairly certain nobody has ever commented on anywhere that I’ve posted it.


On the other side, there’s clearly an aspect of “you had to be there” in some shots. I can blather on all day about our trip out west several months ago but no matter how much I may describe to you what we saw, I wouldn’t really expect you to necessarily appreciate our “holiday snaps.” Looking at someone else’s holiday is never nearly as entertaining as your own. There’s a long string of memories attached to every photo you take. Sometimes you just can’t appreciate the shot without that string attached.

Silent Guardian of Hoover Dam
Silent Guardian of Hoover Dam

And closing altogether on the opposite side of the coin there are those shots that other people appreciate that I really don’t. The shot below is the first of my shots that someone went ga-ga about … well, ever, and made me rather think that there might be something to this whole photography thing. Personally I’m still not especially amused by this photo but someone was when I took it. Go figure. I’m sure they have no clue the long path they sent me on when they first told me they’d snagged it for their screensaver.

Winter Ivy
Winter Ivy

So I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. What makes a photo really beautiful? Not looking for the technical so much as the esthetic.


  1. Ok, I like that third photo that everybody else went “ga-ga” over because it has (to me) a sort of sensuous quality about the smooth curving of the ivy vine down and around the tree trunk. It’s got a…well…(ok, difficult to describe)…it’s got a nice diagonal curvy line, or pattern, to it that I find soothing and beautiful. The lighting is nice, and I like the entire composition.

  2. While some are more eye-catching than others, beauty, as always, remains in the eye of the beholder..I believe, that truly all photos are beautiful to someone.. Simply because the photographer took it, for whatever reason, in the first place..

  3. i think is a bit of a stereotype…but i believe that a really beautiful photo is an image that wakes up some feelings in you. That brings some sort of feeling to surface. I wouldn’t put it to the technical or even to the aesthetics. I guess that i can not also agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but on the other side…there are many general aspects of beauty. …(i guess this can be a long debate…but i will stop here…)

    • Hrm. Well, since everyone has different feelings, it makes it rather impossible to predict much of anything. Guess I’ll just keep shooting anything and everything and let the chips fall where they may. Thanks for chiming in here!

  4. self seeing, we natural see our selfs in everything though some seem to create a pause before the mind natural kicks in own what was seen.
    In my case the 3rd photo ( winter ivy) did the trick. cheers from here

  5. Wow, you asked a complex question. Aesthetics has a base that most everyone agrees on whether they know it or not. It has to do with the structure of the photo, the content, the principles and elements of design language, and the background the viewer brings to the photo. I am not particularly drawn to the photo of “Embrace”. I wonder if it’s because it’s a photo of someone else’s art presented in a rather straightforward way. The “essence” of the piece was not captured in that photo. As to “Silent Guardian…” you’ve captured an archetypal image that speaks to the soul. The angel’s wings plus the flagpole all point to heaven. The “Winter Ivy” is full of texture and lines and curves. Plus it’s a juxtaposition of nature against a man-made object and therefore brings in contrast. Add the very fluid, shallow depth-of-field in the background and you have another contrast element. These are all elements of design that intrigue the viewer.

    I love this post. I love that you explored your photos and then asked us to explore them with you. Thank you!

  6. Definitely it’s in the eye of the beholder. A single photo is a compilation of so many things, and at times it’s hard to determine what makes it beautiful to each of us.
    I will say, though, that it is nice to get commentary on one’s posted photo(s) rather than just a click on the Like button leaving you wondering why the person liked it, what it is they saw that drew them in.
    I think I like the simplicity of the Winter Ivy photo. The Hoover Dam angel is dynamic….not so sure about the Embrace, but that might look different if I saw it in the entire room.

  7. The mind is such a complex thing. In providing therapy, I never know starting out what the person’s learning style is or their dominant perceptive leanings (visual? auditory? tactile etc.). How best to lead someone through a feelings-thoughts-behaviors mind-altering change is a toss-up at best, and is only accomplished after careful assessment and then tailoring interventions which best and most expeditiously facilitate their capacity to change. And sometimes it’s just plain intuitive/hunch, a “see-if-this-fits” approach. Now digital brain scans and PETs are showing that people develop actual favored patterns of processing information; an image or situation given to them to perceive will yield patterns of which side of the brain and what areas of it they favor in processing information. The same stimuli often produces very different activity in two different brains.

    I am supposing such is the same for the arts, why one gravitates toward one image and not another, and behind it may lie a complex mishmash of past experiences (both positive – love, nurturing, fun; and negative – shame, pain, anger) contributing to one’s leanings, color and shading preferences (conscious or subconscious), neurological processing patterns and habits, and even current frame of mind affecting one’s preference. If I’m in a hurry, my adrenaline is heightened and I’ll be in more fight or flight mode – this could make the difference between whether I’m attracted to an image which is busy or calming, thrown in with whether or not I have the time to chill out. If I do have the time, I’d go for the more peaceful image; if not, I might lean toward the one that compliments and/or justifies my thoughts/feelings/needs at the moment. I find that art therapy is one of the most powerful interventions for all ages, because it addresses those very things in a most personal way, exposing one’s raw feelings in a way that is apart (the art as a reflection separate from but representative of the person) and perhaps less threatening/more comfortable to process difficult thoughts/feelings. Art moves us…moves our soul, and moves us through things and forward.

    Very interesting, thought-provoking post! Thank you for encouraging us to contemplate this. Apologies for the ramble.

  8. I like all 3. As for what ppl like.. Damned if I know. I often post a few photos and the one I didn’t like as much or wasn’t going to post is the one everyone always seems to like… lol

    But we all see the world differently. πŸ™‚

  9. One of your post tags – “photography as art” – might say it all. With art comes your own preferences to what draws you in. Sure, the photography rules we learn about exposure, depth of field, when to fill the frame (and not), portrait vs. landscape, and “thirds” have an influence in our subconscious like/unlike decision. But the difference between my like and yours might be more of what my granddad’s wisdom for an impressionable kid so many years ago said: “…if we all liked the same thing, we’d all want to marry the same lady”. Thanks for your “artful photography” – great question!

    • Thanks for stopping by. And yeah, I suppose so, it does boil down to the artistic aspect but it still doesn’t stop me wanting to dissect it and understand it in a mechanical manner. πŸ™‚

  10. Insightful reflection, Rob. Your description of the figure in your photo, Embrace, seems just the way you experience art: very personal, sacred, and intimate. I see in the image just what you describe. You describe the second photo, Silent Guardian of Hoover Dam, as one of those photos “with strings attached,” a phrase I find charmingly disturbing– I think the extreme-angle of this shot is amazing & gives a sense of Larger-than-life (I’m reminded of the huge statues on either side of the river in LOTR The Fellowship of the Ring…)such that doesn’t really require qualification. The shot says it all. It may just be that the photos people remain silent about are the ones which touch a place in their heart/mind/soul/spirit that defies critique.

    BTW– I love ivy. I’m swiping your image, Winter Ivy, for my desktop. Thanks, dude! πŸ™‚

  11. Wow, lots to say here. I may out-do Southern Sea Muse in length. First, I rated this excellent on the title alone, before I’d read any further. “We Know What We Like, but We Don’t Know Why” is a deep and profound truth. (the post improved from there)

    “Human behavior is the result of various inputs so surely those must be predictable in some way? Surely there are rules?” — that my friend is the question/assertion at the root of the entire fields of psychology and sociology, and look at the mixed success they’ve had at it over the past century. Marketing may have had the most success with it actually — there’s a dubious note.

    “I would postulate that sometimes that we can connect with a work of art if we know the background” — absolutely. That is definitely what it takes sometimes. Case in point: Lygia Pape’s Livro do Tempo, Brazilian, 1961-63. When I first saw it I thought, “huh. That’s pretty cool, lots of cool little stuff.” But then when I watched this analysis by Adrian Searle… Whoa. I was like “OMG!! That is frickin’ Awesome!! Wow! It’s soooo cool!! I’m out of superlatives!” And btw, that video is definitely worth the 7.5 minutes and will get you further in fathoming art in general. So yes Rob — if you’re posting a photo that means a lot to you, absolutely tell us a little or a lot about why!! I cannot encourage you more strongly to do this!!

    Another case in point — now that you’ve told us a little about your photo of that sculpture in the IMA, I want to comment on it! First, which gallery is that in? I really want to take another, closer look at it now. I always thought she was pushing the walls or the world away. Forcing a space for herself.

    I disagree that that photo of the Hoover Dam Guardian has the aspect of “you had to be there”, though yes, sometimes that is a factor with photos. Your photo here is very artfully composed. I had not seen this before — where can I snag a full size version of this for my screen saver? πŸ™‚ Beautiful elegant sculpture, beautiful stone and sky, very artful angle and composition on your part! One of your best imo.

    The winter ivy photo has two aspects of simple elegance to it — the simple elegances that only (#1) ivy, and (#2) old wood can express. Your rule-of-thirds composition much enhances the simple elegance.

    Ok, I got a scroll bar on my comment, so time to post!

    • Well, OK, so since there’s so much study devoted to it we should be able to boil it down to a few simple rules, right? πŸ˜‰

      Not sure which gallery Embrace is in. It may not actually be up any longer. I thought it was on the on the first floor somewhere. Your interpretation might very well be better than mine. Either way, it’s a nice piece o’ metal.

      Original hoover dam is here:


      How could you miss even one of my photos though?!?!?!? I’m so offended! There are only thousands! πŸ™‚

      • Don’t let me stop you from getting another degree in sociology then! πŸ™‚

        Nice piece of metal indeed. But if it’s actually called “Embrace”, your interpretation may be closer to the artist’s intent I think. Clearly I’ve never taken as good a look at it as I should have. If it’s not currently on display, they may still bring it out again in the future…

        Yeah, there were several years there where I lacked an effective way of keeping up with the blogs I wanted to. πŸ™‚ Now I’ve got a complicated system of subscriptions and gmail filters that enables me to know that I’m currently only 46 posts in arrears on your blogs. πŸ™‚

  12. I reckon good photography puts someone else in the same place.
    Think the problem with sculpture is that it can be tricky to communicate the tactile 3D quality of the original if the lighting isn’t right, but your hoover dam shot says it all.
    Brilliant post, this.

  13. When I look at photos, I find that I’m drawn to color and composition primarily, and my emotions toward it also play.

    All three you posted are great shots, and my personal favorite is Winter Ivy, it’s simple yet elegant. I love the browns and greens in it.

  14. For me, knowing the background is not needed to appreciate art. However, I know that in some cases, the artwork is the piece along with its history. I also agree that knowing the background can add to the experience.

    Of the three I like the photo of the sculpture “Embrace” the most. I purposefully did not read what you had to say about it before I took a moment to really look at it. I’m not going to give an analysis other than to say it invoked strong feelings.

    By writing this article, it was as if you tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Look at this. Seriously, take a moment and look”. Without that, if I had seen this on the web I would have passed it by with only a cursory look. I wouldn’t have seen it.

    I think once you’ve taken the moment to appreciate a piece of art, you then have an opportunity to learn how others see it. That process of discovery can be just as rewarding as the art’s impression on the sole viewer. I prefer to let the art talk to me first, otherwise my experience will be influenced by other opinions.

    I’m no art expert, but then again who is really qualified to tell another what is or isn’t art.

  15. First of all thank you for stopping by my blog and registering a “like”. I enjoyed your real-life-as-it-is-happening photos of life in Indianapolis as Super Bowl Sunday took hold.
    Then I read this post and was intrigued by the tree photo. I have a category in my blog called ART IS WHERE YOU FIND IT and it is chock full of photos of ordinary objects and places that take on the look of art in the photographs. I personally am not the photographer but rather a friend of mine who is a fantastic photographer and with Manhattan as his canvas he gets great shots of people, parades, architecture, kids, flora and fauna. Please take a look and I am going to send him your link.

  16. A photograph is communicating something, be it an idea, concept, feeling, thought or whatever, to a total stranger so I can see why people don’t “get” the photo “Embrace”. To me, the sculpture is beautiful but it seems to be fighting the two paintings for presence in the photo. I enjoy the sculpture but I also want to know about the paintings. I’m not sure what to focus on.

    With the “Silent Guardian” I feel it is structurally sound . It is the broad underlying colors, shapes and contrasts between light and dark upon whose structure all the other far less important details lie. You got my attention, and I wanted to step further into the photo and look for details.

    The ivy is simple. Not in a bad boring way. Simple ideas are stronger. Expressing them more simply makes them clearer. Simple composition delivers these ideas more strongly. I like the quote from Ansel Adams – “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept”.

    Sorry to ramble on, just my 2 cents worth so to speak. I really do enjoy your blog!

  17. Being an abstractionist I find a lot of people will only like what they understand, what they recognise, but it’s that other group of people that like it because it feels right. I am here because you “liked” my blog, maybe wordpress should introduce a “it feels right” widget. By the way I like your writing, your photos, your blog and it definitely feels right.Cheers Sue

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