Sentimentality in a Photograph

Part of my work for this project involves reviewing chapters in Feeling Photography by Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu. I thought that it was best to begin at the beginning with the Introduction and Chapter 1. These sections discuss something that is familiar to me, and that is the belief that ‘feeling’ is considered a hindrance to an analytical approach to photography (Brown 2014, 2).

In order to understand the stigma of ‘feeling’ in photography, it is important to know that there is a special language surrounding art. I learned the trickiness of this language in studio classes during my BFA when I learned that words have different context and meaning inside the studio than they do outside of it. I found out that there were special swear words for artists. ‘Pretty’, ‘nice’, and ‘good’ were near the top of the list of the worst things you could say about a work of art, but the worst of all was ‘sentimental’.

Anyone accused of sentimentality was considered not worthy of being taken seriously as an artist. Most of us did not throw that word around easily because of the hurt it would cause; other artists used it specifically to get a rise out of someone. The following photograph was accused of sentimentality because it was taken during twilight and the air balloon in the background linked back to Victorian times. The soft colours and the haze caused by light and cloud made the image look romantic and dreamy. I told the person where to go.



Bath in Early Evening, Bath England, Summer 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Sentimentality is a complicated feeling, that is neither happy nor sad, but falls somewhere along the lines of bittersweet. It is a feeling associated with reminiscing about the past, and even if the memories are joyous, the fact that they are the past tinges them with the feeling of loss. The reason why it has such a bad reputation in ‘Art’ (with a capital A) is because it is considered a self-indulgent emotion, one that makes people stop and remember instead of inspiring them to act. As a student, I learned that art is meant to evoke feelings, but not this particular one.

While even people without a Fine Arts degree can understand why sentimentality causes some to roll their eyes, it is difficult to understand where it falls in Photography. In Chapter 1 “Photography Between Desire and Grief: Roland Barthes and F. Holland Day,” Shawn Michelle Smith discusses Barthes’ theories on photography and feeling. Smith proposes a queer theory on photography based on how feelings open up the possibility of critical contemplation; that is, how people feel first, and then think about the image (Smith 2004, 29). Barthes and Smith are in agreement that photography is based in the feelings of grief and desire. This grief comes from the capturing of something lost, and the desire from knowing that there is always that memento of the past. A photograph of a person captures them in time; there is no future for the subject and this implies a form of death, but there is also a form of immortality for the moment of the image and the subject captured.


Beach Day, Lahaina Maui, Winter 2011, taken by Tanya Nielsen

We take pictures of places that we have been, people we have known and moments we have shared. These images exist long after we have gone home, moved on, or lost others. They connect us to those moments and to who we were when those photos were taken. This is the sentimentality of this genre of art.

While some may claim that family photographs are not considered ‘art’, and that the sentimental nature of these images should not be applied to the art of photography, what is this genre if not the capturing of a present moment in time to be reviewed again at a later date? Even Susan Sontag goes so far as to say that “Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art” (Sontag 1977, 21).

Not all photographs will fall under the purview of sentimentality but maybe it is time to stop connecting the word with a lesser form of art, as something common and everyday. After all, the ‘everyday’ moments – such as Warhol’s soup cans – have been a popular topic for art since at least the mid-twentieth century.


Brown, Elspeth and Thy Phu, eds. Feeling Photography. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Smith, Shawn Michelle. “Photography Between Desire and Grief: Roland Barthes and F. Holland Day.” In Feeling Photography. Edited by Elspeth Brown and Thy Phu. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977.

© Tanya Nielsen (,  2016


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