A perfect argument that has been raging in photography for 200 years
Want perfect photos? If so, then maybe you have the wrong tree. In your quest for perfection, you lose an essential element of your images.
Strict rules were put in place by the first experimenters from the very beginning of photography. When Nicéphore Niépce, the French inventor of photography, said his goal was to “copy nature in all its veracity”, precision was at the forefront of his mind. He wrote to his brother in 1816 about his successes in creating negative prints using a camera obscura, saying he needed to sharpen the depiction of subjects. Sound familiar?
This was an early indication of the attitude towards perfection during the period the French now call La Belle Époque. Perfection through precision was the driving force behind the early growth of photography with this scientific approach considered more important than artistic expression. This is an attitude that dominates today.
At the same time, photography became the democratizing force behind the portrait. Whereas previously oil painted portraits were extremely expensive and reserved for the aristocracy, portraits suddenly became widely available.
Although these early images were very well composed, the poses were generally stiff and unnatural. This was partly due to the length of the exposure which required people to hold a still pose. These early photographs are often seen as formal and distant. However, this style corresponded well to the requirement of realism of the images.
There were those who rebelled against this approach. Julia Margaret Cameron, on her 48th birthday in 1863, received a camera from her daughter. She became prolific in the last 11 years of her life. Sometimes adopting a hazy style, his work was derided by his contemporaries, who called it shoddy. Whether the soft, dreamlike quality of his photos was deliberate or the result of an inability to achieve precision is sometimes still debated. However, I think this was deliberate as she also produced highly acclaimed portraits of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Sir John Herschel, Charles Darwin and Edgar Allan Poe. So maybe the reviews were misogynistic.
Technical imperfections in photography, though once frowned upon, have changed to become accepted or even celebrated over time.
Watch Robert Capa’s famous photographs of the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach in Normandy during World War II. Many of these images are of poor quality if judged by the technical standards of the time. Yet images blurred by camera shake add a sense of danger and desperation to the photos, conveying the dangerous atmosphere of the battlefield.
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s most famous image, Behind Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, France, 1932, is another example. The subject seems blurry, yet it is clear that it is a superb photo, a perfect illustration of its decisive moment.
Sticking to Magnum photographers, one of Classic Eve Arnold Photos Show Marilyn Monroe Doing Her Hair In A Bathroom. Technically, the image is poor. The composition is odd, the camera angle is skewed, and Monroe’s hands, left elbow, and foot are partially cropped. Yet he captures an intimate moment in the life of an iconic figure in a private moment. The subject becomes essential and the technicalities of photography are inconsequential.
If we go to the other extreme, Photos of Ansel Adam seem driven by the desire to achieve perfection. His compositions and his search for perfect sonorities are rarely criticized today. In the context of the time they were taken, when considered alongside the capabilities of contemporary technology, the flawlessness of his photos was a mark of great achievement. However, a row was brewing between the perfectionists and those with a more laid-back style.
On the one hand, Frank was praised for his laid-back style and lack of interest in achieving the same tonal precision as Adams. His work highlighted the dark lives of ordinary American people, and his disregard for technical excellence worked well with this subject matter. But this style was also criticized by the photographic establishment. Frank’s images were condemned by the editor of Popular Photography magazine as comprising “meaningless blur, graininess, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and a general lack of rigor”.
Meanwhile, photographer Elliott Erwitt said Frank’s work was far superior to that of Adams, whose images he said had “postcard quality”. Maybe he was right, on the shelves above my desk is a little book called “Ansel Adams.” Winter photographs. A postcard folio book.
Here lies a dichotomy. First, we have images that are difficult in telling their stories. They are technically flawed, but that flaw is part of the story. Then we have the precision-made photographs that are pleasing to the eye. However, they lack the same immediacy and intimacy. They ask little of the viewer. In the perfect photos, we are seduced by the beauty of the photograph and not by the subject itself.
Currently, the photographic community is influenced towards technical perfection. That’s partly because perfect pictures are easier to like and don’t necessarily require academic ability to appreciate them. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, most professional photographers shoot to please clients – clients want that technical perfection – and enthusiasts try to please Instagram. Additionally, photo contest judges focus on the technical prowess of the photographer and rarely reward those whose photos have meaningless blur and drunken backgrounds.
The other reason for the dominance of the pursuit of perfection is due to what controls photography today: the camera manufacturers. All other arts are driven by the art itself and not by the instruments used to create it. Painters do not cling to the brushes they use but to the images they produce. Likewise, musicians love their instruments, but their driving force is their music. They are not universally fond of a single brand of piano, violin or drums in the same way that photographers are with their cameras.
It’s competition and powerful marketing from manufacturers behind the zealous extremism towards camera brands. They encourage a following with cult-like fervor, and just as surely as people are drawn to high-demand fundamentalist religions, people are getting addicted to camera brands. These manufacturers promise ever-higher resolution heaven and tell photographers they need to upgrade to achieve perfection.
My proof for this? If I write an article on a camera, it will attract thousands more readers than my articles on the use of artistic techniques in photography. If I dare criticize any of the big three brands, I’m guaranteed to get trolled and my inbox will receive hate messages. I wish they would put as much passion into their photography as they do when worshiping their camera gods, then they would take much better pictures. Unfortunately, many photographers are far more concerned with the camera they use than the art they create.
There is room to explore both extremes. Some of the best photographers do just that. They mix their carefully constructed photos with spontaneous shots that care little for technical details. Their aesthetically pleasing and well-composed images are a delight for the masses and photo club judges alike. Meanwhile, artists and collectors are engrossed in those images that are more interesting and less likely to have widespread appeal.
I hope that we will see a shift from this search for perfection towards the most interesting. Why? Perfection gets boring. There are so many similarities with everyone trying to make the same product. Photography has become a sausage machine. It would be great to see more spontaneous, unique and imperfect images alongside perfection.
Finally, very rarely, there are outstanding photos that were taken spontaneously, but are also perfectly composed and exposed, and stunningly sharp in all the right places. Do you have any in your wallet?
What is your photographic style? Are you driven towards perfection? Do you get hot under the collar if someone criticizes the brand of your camera? Or do you explore the world without worrying about the rules and expectations of the establishment? It would be great to hear your thoughts.