On Beauty and Perfection

The Artistic world has always been aware that technical perfection and beauty are different animals. All art has suffered from and been strengthened by the battle with imperfection.

The woman in the image above evokes a reaction in me to want to know her story. I am interested in her hurried and busy look, her naturalness and vulnerability. I feel close to her. 

If the image was "better" technically, my attention may be drawn to other elements of the image such as clarity of certain details or colour accuracy and focus/background blur. The photographic process may overpower the content. A viewers perception of an image is very much a programmed response and photographers tend to be the most programmed.

I have noticed in myself sometimes a different "viewer", set free by imperfection.

Why do art based courses often promote the use of "toy" cameras like the Holga? It is because they set the user free from the tight limitations of technique forced on them by the technology obsessed camera industry. Perfection comes later, after a clear vision has emerged.

The modern camera is becoming increasingly capable of easy perfection. This is natural of course as the early cameras enticed us with their magic but there was plenty of room for improvement. The drive for better has been relentless until we have reached near perfection, certainly enough for our actual needs.

Some of the latest releases can make a joke of concerns such as correct focus, exposure and timing with features that literally allow you to shoot fast and loose and edit in these factors later, and that does not even count the high res video side that could (will) completely change the street photography and journalistic movements as we know them. There are cameras now that effortlessly shoot images with extremely wide exposure range (HDR) and enormous pixel counts (5Ds, A7r, Pen F). Cameras that allow focus and even capture retrospectively (G7, GX8, Lytro) or to be lifted from video (any 4/8k, large sensor model) and some that shoot so fast and quietly, you would have to point out to someone they were even being photographed (most new mirrorless).

Science fiction until recently, these features barely have time to mature before the next break through emerges. One of the ironies of the modern world is that to give us this easy perfection, cameras are becoming increasingly "fluff" laden and complicated.

True creativity rarely comes from easy perfection. If something becomes too accessible and easy, then it's preciousness is lost. Many of the greatest images of the past are great for the very same reason they are rare and unique. They were hard to take, required maximum skill with some hard earned luck, were the first or best of their kind. They often showed a level of accepted, beautiful imperfection and this became their signature.

Many of my favourite images are, in my head, near to perfection. When I revisit them, imperfections are visible. It's funny how the mind wraps the things we like in a blanket of protection. The work of Sam Abell (National Geographic Society) is a good example of film era excellence. It does not take much to find some grain, or relative softness, but at the time of their taking, they were good enough to meet our perception of "perfect" and still hold up today.

Reactions against easy technology are happening. If you look at the film movement for example. These people are deliberately making their lot harder because they want to be able to say "I used film" as a creative badge of honour. They will site a lot of reasons for their switch back to old processes, but maybe a main one is that they know respect for their work is as secure as that of the past masters, while respect for the digital shooter decreases and is always in flux.

Is skill going to be a victim of technology? Is beautiful imperfection going to have to be deliberately manufactured (VSCO and the like) or will our expectations simply change and accept it's loss. Grain was, for a long time a visual element, expertly used by some, but for digital "noise" there is little tolerance. Is this because we had no patience for it and knew that technology would remove it soon enough or was it the lack of a tactile nature so we could not relate to it. Either way, noise is anathema, grain was creative.

Olympus, faced with slightly higher noise than other, larger sensor cameras chose to make their noise more film like and workable. A similar work around to film era thinking.

The future photographer will be a master editor, story teller and presenter, rather than just a shooter, processor and printer/uploader. The taking side could be like a saturation bombing run and the real skill will be in sorting out the mess (probably an app for that). Most film familiar photographers agree that digital has the potential to make us lazy, taking 10 quick shots instead of one considered one, but maybe the next evolution will be literally what we see, rediscovered after the fact. Complete recall style photography, natural, instinctive and free.

Imagine coming home and plugging in your day to an app that will sort out usable images based on your preferences.

There is always a place for perfection in photography as in any form of art, but there is also a place for "beautiful imperfection" as originality (humanity?) may be reduced without it. In the immediate future how will we create it and in the longer term future will it even matter?