Perfection

For an artist, I believe perfection is a false goal. It can lead us to spend our energy in the wrong places. This seems especially true for photographers. Our technology-based art can lead us to believe technical perfection makes good art. It doesn’t. At least, not by itself.

An absolute

I am a recovering Engineer. I know a lot about specs and technical details and I am naturally drawn to “perfection”, whatever that is. As photographers, we tend to be pulled this direction. Are there any overexposed highlights? Do the shadows contain some information and very low noise? Did the lens and sensor resolve every bit of detail that could be used? Was “proper” technique used to maintain total sharpness and low noise? Did it follow the “rules” of composition?

More and more I am convinced these things are relatively unimportant compared to the impact of the image on the viewer.

Normal people view and enjoy prints at a distance of about 1 1/2 times the diagonal measure. Photographers tend to press their nose right against the print to try to see any imperfections. Yes, I do too at times. But this is not realistic or very important for normal viewers.

One of the themes I enjoy at times is images that have super high detail. Images about complexity and texture and the details of the material. I have good equipment and I am OK at using it, so I can do that whenever I want. Some subjects seem to lend themselves to it. But I don’t think I have any images that I consider great solely because of their technical perfection.

A moving goal

And what is “perfection”? Who defines it? Is such a thing achievable?

Our technology is constantly improving and pushing the boundaries back. The camera I use now is vastly better than the one I used 10 years ago. It has higher resolution, lower noise, and wonderful new features like live histogram view. These things let us achieve ever better results with our craft.

Likewise with printers, drop sizes get smaller, allowing for sharper prints, inks get better permanence, and printers get larger. Along with that software technologies improve all the time. We can upscale and sharpen images with much less artifacts. New algorithms can reduce noise without materially damaging sharpness. It’s a great time to be a photographer.

Is this perfection? Sure, a photographer can put his nose up to a large print and see “perfect” detail, low noise, great edge sharpness, and smooth tonal gradation. Is that what perfection is?

So is perfection the absence of any artifacts and a hyper-realism that looks sharper than real life? That is nice, for some images, but I do not believe it is what perfection is.

Why perfection?

Before I attempt to get in over my head, I will ask why we need perfection? Does it make better art?

I have seen prints by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Stiglitz, and many others. Many are stunning and have amazing presence, but not all are technically perfect. At least, by today’s standards. I have also seen many paintings by Monet, da Vinci, Rembrandt, PIcasso, O’Keeffe, etc. Again, I would say that the great ones may not be because of perfection in the sense I have been discussing it.

Craft trumps perfection

Take Ansel Adams for example. He shot mostly 8×10 negatives and spent many hours producing a print. But, the film technology he had was arguably not as good as modern high-end medium format sensors. And his lenses were not particularly good compared to modern designs. Some of his prints are not as technically “perfect” as many artists at their studio today making a print on their Epson or Canon printers.

But there is something else that overrides the technical limits. There is a magic in what he brought out in the printing process. He was a marvelous craftsman. He knew how to work an image until it changed from an average original to a stunning final print. “Moonrise, Hernandez” is a classic example of that. He shot it quickly because he was losing the light. So quickly that he couldn’t find his exposure meter, so he had to guess. Because the negative was badly exposed, it was very difficult to print. It required many hours of work in the darkroom to create a rendition of it. But it became one of his masterpieces. The final print is far superior to the original capture.

As he himself said

A photograph is not an accident it is a concept. It exists at, or before, the moment of exposure of the negative. From that moment on to the final print, the process is chiefly one of craft; the previsualized photograph is rendered in terms of the final print by a series of processes peculiar to the medium.

Ansel Adams

Adams was very good at all the aspects of photography. But in my opinion, it was his craftsmanship that made him rise above most everyone else. He would work a print until it glowed and had a life in it. The tones and contrasts and lighting were amazing. The results he created went far beyond considerations of technical perfection.

Story trumps perfection

I include story here because I believe it is powerful. But in general I struggle some with the concept. In a sense, story happens automatically. If you pause to examine a print for more than a couple of seconds it is natural to build a story. Humans naturally seek meaning and story. Guiding the viewer into seeing a more interesting story is a plus, both for the viewer and artist.

I do prints. Generally single images, meant to hang on a wall. To me, it is difficult to tell an extensive story with one isolated image. Not that it can’t be done, but I don’t see it happen as much as critics and some artists want us to believe. Probably the Engineer in me is still too literal.

But I see examples sometimes that make me wrong. A great one is Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Place de l’Europe, Gare Saint Lazare, Paris“. Long name, but you’ve seen it:

Place de l’Europe, Gare Saint Lazare, Paris

I think this is a great story captured at, what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment”. As you look at it, you tell yourself a story about what is happening, why he is doing this, what he is thinking, what happens next. It is still a memorable image today, even though it is under exposed, the subject is slightly blurry, and, depending on your notion of proper composition, the guy being about to disappear out of the right frame can be a problem.

It is a great and famous and beloved image. Being technically perfect would not have improved it at all.

Emotion trumps perfection

Emotion is something I have struggled with for a long time. I now believe that if I can’t make you feel something about my print, it is cold and sterile. I believe it so much that I feel that emotion far outweighs technical perfection. This is one reason I have been doing more ICM (intentional camera motion) projects lately. It throws out all notions of sharpness and detail and focuses mainly on capturing a feeling or impression.

Emotion in art has been written about a lot lately, but let me repeat and reinforce it. If I can’t make you feel something of what I felt when I made the image, I have probably failed.

There are techniques for creating an emotional response, but I am not concerned with them here. The fact is, we have to do it. As an artist, I have to share my feelings in an image or there is not much interest for the viewer.

Sharing and being transparent is a challenge for some of us (me). I am learning. The results are apparent to me. An image with a depth of feeling has more impact and staying power. Sigh. I will just have to force myself.

But the point is that an image that touches you emotionally is more meaningful than one that is just technically perfect.

Table stakes

So perfection, mostly technical perfection. Where does it fit? Am I saying it is not important? No. A technically perfect image may be excellent, but not just because it was perfect. It also has to embody emotion and story and excellent craft. Perfection is a table stake. It has to be there in order to get in the game. It is not the game itself. Art has to go beyond technical measures.

Today’s image

Earlier I mentioned ICM as a tactic I have been using occasionally to break away from the feeling I needed technical perfection. This image is an example of that. It is from a series I did called Speeding Trains. The intent is to capture the sight and feeling and power of a huge train speeding by. I hope you like it. Read the artist statement and see the rest on my web site.

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