Appreciating Imperfection

Playing among giant hamburgers

Maybe it’s from getting older, maybe it’s from realizing more and more how imperfect I am, but I have developed a greater appreciation of imperfection. As a matter of fact, there are philosophies of “admirable imperfections”.

My friend recently made me a wooden bowl. It’s beautiful. But he pointed out a couple of small imperfections in it. That made me appreciate it even more. It has character that could not be duplicated if he made another similar one. I value it even more because of the imperfections.

Michael Freeman touched on this briefly in his book The Photographer’s Vision. Michael is a very articulate author who is excellent at communicating difficult photographic concepts. I wish I could call him a friend, but I have never met him in person. I just feel like I know him because I have read so much of his work.

Michael argues that the growth of photojournalism (think Life magazine) and the freedom brought by the 35mm camera format led to a change of attitude toward “perfection” in images. The pendulum swung over to photographers embracing an intentionally casual style of shooting. This developed into an appreciation of imperfection. Some of the leading influencers of this were Robert Frank, Elliott Erwitt, Richard Avedon, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The attitude ties into an older Japanese philosophy known as Wabi-Sabi. I will have more to say about this on another day. It is a large topic.

But where am I on this? Well, I am not to the extreme of Robert Frank or some of that group, even though I often shoot with a casual indifference to normal “rules” of composition or exposure or sharpness. If you know me you would know I treat most “rules” with a similar disdain. On the other hand, for some subjects, I LOVE achieving a crunchy crisp sharpness in a formal composition. One of the things I am most consistent about is my inconsistency. To my value system they are not at all inconsistent. But to you who are (thankfully) not in my head, it would leave you scratching your head to see my body of work.

Take the image at the top of this blog. This was a quick “grab” shot with a really lousy point-and-shoot camera. It could have been composed better. If I had time to “work” the scene I’m sure I could have improved it. But I didn’t. I love what I got. It’s grainy and blurry and you can hardly tell it is a beach with waves washing in. But it has character and it was an unplanned “once in a lifetime” moment. I’m very glad to have even gotten this and I have no apologies for the imperfections.

Perfection is overrated. It can easily become sterile and lifeless. Or it can be thrilling and inspiring. I guess I believe it really comes down to the vision and ability and intent of the photographer.