On the Relativity of Quality

Photography specifically, and Art in general, have always struggled with the tension of "quality" (being the subjective technical quality of the process) vs "A quality" (being the viewers acceptance of the artists attempt at communicating their message).

Photography suffers doubly in this argument due to its heavier reliance on technical needs. Every painter knows their medium, but the technique they develop is very personal, limited only in vision and practice, where the photographer has to effectively "break" regular photography to get outside of the limitations of the process. In many ways these two processes are no different, but in reality the preconceptions of their practitioners are. Photographers are forced to comply to rules that seem more numerous and limiting than a paint palette and brush. Any child can draw, but when handed a complicated camera they are more likely to damage the tool than produce art (or the beginnings of art before even more complicated processing). Conversely, a camera promises much, where the paint palette needs all of its magic extracted from something very basic.

 "Magnolia Silk" Canon 1Ds mk2 100mm macro

"Magnolia Silk" Canon 1Ds mk2 100mm macro

These technical constraints can overshadow the simple needs of the image, to simply please the viewer. I believe many photographers create their images with other photographers as their "bar" of quality. Indeed many blogs and forums are servicing other camera lovers who should make up a minority of their viewers, not the vast majority.

How different would a photo blog (this one for instance) be if the only audience was the regular person, not the "photo blog surfer/photographer". We all look to the things we are interested in for inspiration and entertainment, but does this cause a closed loop of thinking?

The photo below is a favourite of my family and visitors to our house. A version of it (slightly different composition) hangs on our wall, a privilege few of my photographs get, but it very nearly did not make it past its first viewing as the "technical" quality is quite poor. Hand held Canon SLR almost 10 years old with no stabiliser, poor (by current standards) high ISO capability with a good but not great lens used wide open and heavy cropping conspired to create a shot at the very edge of "OK" and not at all satisfying in processing. The reality though, when I moan to my wife or take positive comments with a half hearted response from well meaning friends is that I diminish the value of the photo. The value is in the simple viewing, no more, no less.

 Canon 450D 35mm "L" lens

Canon 450D 35mm "L" lens

What would have happened if I could recreate the same conditions with a newer, more capable camera now or even every five years and compare. I would be more satisfied with the processing and close inspection would reveal less in the way of "nasties", but to everyone else, the result would be the same. They would like it or not.

The whole camera industry is hoping that the perpetual motion of upgrades will continue for ever, but the reality is we have in many ways passed the point of need and are now just running on want. Recently I dug up some old Camera & Darkroom mags (90's-2000's- old...really...ouch) and discovered something quite unsettling. The adds for film and camera/lens quality and the articles showing great works of the recent and past masters were not diminished by the aged equipment used or dated print presentation (indeed Camera & Darkroom was a high point in magazine presentation, rarely matched today and no over sharpening to be seen). The only thing that dated the magazine was the liberal use of the word "film". It's a reality that most of the master photographer's retrospective books feature film work.

When I started using digital equipment I knew that the quality was not there in some ways, but it had conveniences that re energised photography for me. At some point from then to now we have forgotten that for much of its history, the content was all important and the means secondary. I am as guilty of that as anyone.