Katy Waldman considers the deeper significance of Instagram users’ obsession with sunset photos:
The genre has turned into a commonplace—a grab at easy beauty. My friend, an amateur photographer, likened shooting sunset pictures to “eating Lucky Charms for breakfast.” “What do you mean,” I pressed, speaking as someone who faults Lucky Charms only insofar as they aren’t Fruit Loops. She elaborated: “They’re sweet and anodyne. The effect is like a sugar rush that disappears.”
Buried in her objection is the hoary philosophical distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, between prettiness that doesn’t challenge us and sights that fill us with awe and terror. Romantic writers expressed a preference for sublimity over attractiveness in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Edmund Burke wrote, “For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent … beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.”
The experience of watching a sunset usually counts as sublime. The scene unfolds on a grand scale, loud with color and radiance; you get a shivery feeling of time passing as you sip your G&T; death draws just a bit nearer. Sunset pictures, though, reduce and tame that sublimity. Instead of your mortality rising to meet you, you see pretty colors, locked in a small and tidy moment.
The photographer of this sunset writes:
Sunsets are such a cliche. [But] how can you resist the temptation to run and get the camera before the light fades? The impulse of trying to hold onto the moment just takes over. It’s an illusion – all you hold onto is a picture, not a sunset – but it’s a powerful one. I plead guilty.
(Instagram of a sunset in Cobh, Ireland from BlackieWarner)