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Which phrasing should I use, and when?

The article includes a beautiful photo of a waterfall

or

The article includes a photo of a beautiful waterfall

Both wordings get hits in google ngrams, and on an ordinary google search.

My initial thoughts were "A photo can't be intrinsically beautiful, can it?", and therefore "A beautiful photo" doesn't make sense.

However, I suspect that using "Beautiful photo" means that the entire scene is beautiful, whereas "Beautiful waterfall" could mean that the waterfall is beautiful, whereas the rest of the photo might be ugly.

What differences are there in the two phrasings?

  • Have you ever seen a beautiful photograph of an unattractive subject? I hope so. Those are beautiful photos. – anongoodnurse May 29 '14 at 10:08
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    Why can a photo not be intrinsically beautiful? There are photos that are beautiful works of art, even though the thing they depict is ugly or horrible (think that photo of the girl running from napalm attacks in My Lai, for example). – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 29 '14 at 10:09
  • @JanusBahsJacquet the napalm attack was in Trang Bang. My Lai was the site of a massacre. – Andrew Grimm May 29 '14 at 13:17
  • You’re right—my mistake. That was the girl I was talking about. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 29 '14 at 13:22
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    @JanusBahsJacquet not sure I'd class that photo reportage as being beautiful; dramatic; poignant; tragic; and powerful perhaps. But fine art photography is always Art with a capital letter, certain photos by Cunningham Imogen are stunning. – Mari-Lou A May 29 '14 at 19:37
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The article includes a beautiful photo of a waterfall

In this sentence the adjective beautiful modifies the noun photo. This could either have the meaning given in the OP's question, whereby the entire scene is beautiful, or that of the photo itself being beautiful (contrary the OP's suggestion that a photograph cannot be intrinsically beautiful). Remember that photographs are composed and produced, and may done so well or poorly. A photograph of a beautiful waterfall that is overexposed, only has half of the waterfall in frame, is grainy and is printed using old ink on low quality paper would be regarded as not-beautiful. In this situation it would be perfectly valid to underscore this disparity between subject-matter and composition by remarking that

The article includes a horrible photo of a beautiful waterfall

In the second given example, beautiful is embellishing the noun waterfall:

The article includes a photo of a beautiful waterfall

As the OP has rightly suggested, this simply means that a photograph features a waterfall that is in itself regarded as beautiful. No information is supplied as to the quality or beauty of the photo.

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A beautiful photo of a waterfall means that the photograph itself is a work of art. Some (original) photographs are worth a lot of money and may certainly be considered 'intrinsically beautiful'; they often appear in prestigious displays. There is a strong suggestion that the original subject (the waterfall) is also intrinsically beautiful; at least, it can be photographed (and / or smudged, burned, Photoshopped ...) in such a way by a skilful photographer that it appears to be so.

A photo of a beautiful waterfall is self-explanatory. Though it may be a bad one.

  • This reminds me of Ansel Adams, who considered himself an average photographer but a wizard in the darkroom, sometimes working for days on one photograph. – anongoodnurse May 29 '14 at 10:59
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    I've amended the answer above in his honour. Mind you, he's already cost me a lot of money, and we just have to go and see Yosemite some day. (Have you seen Christopher Burkett's woodland masterpiece?) – Edwin Ashworth May 29 '14 at 11:03
  • Beautiful! Some people dream of becoming famous. I used to dream of having and using a large format camera. ') – anongoodnurse May 30 '14 at 0:03
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From the first sentence it can only be inferred that the photo is beautiful. It might be the case that the waterfall is beautiful as well, but not necessarily.

From the second one it can only be inferred that the waterfall is beautiful, but maybe we can't say the same about the photo.

As you can see, the adjective necessarily describes the noun that follows it. All the rest is just assumption.

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