Paris Street in 1978. Blurry. Grainy. Not Perfect.
When I look at images I like in 2016 and compare them with my favorite image from my earlier years (circa 1978) I see some similarities. I love movement and gesture in the images. I like visual assemblages that feel plucked from real life and which have no need for perfectionism.
In the images above (the top two) I shot with a smaller sensor format camera than my Sony A7rii. I was using the long zoom range to grab snippets or vignettes that caught my eye. Images of the moment. The quality of the frames was, in my mind, much less important to me than the quickly captured content.
Now, I have the technical know how and the tools to have created those images in a way that would satisfy the most exacting critics of the craft. We could have spent hours hanging large soft boxes from speed rail, lining up the shots on a 30 inch monitor, hitting the actors with full make-up, creating exact motions for them to rehearse over and over again. And then we could have set up the A7Rii to shoot at ISO 100 with a shutter speed of 1/250th to freeze all movement and guarantee a noiseless and highly detailed file. I can outfit the camera with lenses that resolve the highest levels of detail. Finally, after painstakingly going over every frame that resulted from the shoot I could have sent the best frame along to a retouching facility in NYC and spent thousands of dollars having every square centimeter of the frame meticulously retouched. But to what end? Would the technical prowess trump the authenticity and realism of the captured moments as rendered above? The more interesting question is: whether the obsession with technique would augment the frame or ruin it? If I were to conjecture I would say that the obsessive-compulsive fixation with technical perfection would have instantly sucked any life out of the images that they might have had and left us with well exposed and well processed ersatz copies of life that only emulate the moment instead of truly capturing it. In essence the pursuit of perfection morphs "recognition" of an image into kitsch.
In my early photographic career I was obsessed with technical qualities. As an electrical engineering student at UT Austin I shared the misguided belief that everything could be measured and everything measured could be controlled. It's a mindset that doesn't allow for a chance gesture of a moment, captured in the blink of an eye. I was good at producing sterile and lifeless images of things that didn't move or change. Those subjects were ones that were easiest to overlay with the trappings of quantification and the crassness of showing off my newly acquired skill sets. This obsession was rampant in the day. It was expressed in a never ending showcase of images shot by photographers on big sheet film. But not just any sheet film, rather 4x5 pieces of Agfapan 25; an ISO 25 black and white film with almost non-existent grain and nose bleed sharpness. Never were the ruins of old gas stations or the gears and cogs of historic industry so well documented. All from the safety and necessity of of stout tripods. Never before were so many boring images shown on large prints. Shown not to celebrate the content of the prints but as vehicles to show off mastery. These prints still mark the apex of that style and focus. The images made by today's self appointed experts, using Zeiss Otus lenses and high Megapixel cameras continue to pale in comparison and, in a direct side by side evaluation, would probably cause today's puffed up "masters" to head home with their tails between their legs and their prints shoved back into a flat file somewhere never to see the light of day again.
That still objects such as cityscapes, soaring buildings, urban architecture, clouds and landscapes and man made details dominate the "portfolios" of bloggers who write about gear, and photographers hellbent on proving that their mastery of techniques, and their ready access to the "ultimate" in gear, is so prevalent is sad. These unmoving and completely cooperative subjects provide a blank canvas that is easy to cover with crass and one dimensional images of imagined technical perfectionism. But each frame comes at the cost of impetuous and profound recognition of endless unfolding dramas. They come at the cost of real, emotional connection with the subjects being photographed. They are stop watches and race cars but never a nice drive in the country with a picnic basket, a bottle of Champagne and an attractive companion.
The bottom image of the three above was taken on a fun and frenetic trip to Paris back in the days before there was a McDonalds, a Starbucks, a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Gap littering the streets. It was a time when cigarette smoke flavored the air and people walked with style and purpose. I was carrying a cheap, little rangefinder camera loaded with Tri-X film and I looked up and saw this woman with her portfolio tucked under her arm. I raised the camera, made a rough and immediate composition and fired one frame. I have savored the feel and look of this image for thirty eight years. When I initially printed it I was still locked into the ignorant idea that everything we shot NEEDED to be sharp and exacting. Grainless and archly composed. But the image wore me down. I kept printing it and then putting the prints aside. They kept coming back and whispering to me. I finally had the light bulb over my head moment and realized that the authentic immediacy of the image, and its visually implied motion, were powerful to me and instantly put me in mind of that particular second of awareness. They more accurately reflected the scene in front of me on that Autumn morning...
That image represented a salvation for me as a photographer. It took off the handcuffs of needing to fit into a technical, cookie cutter, slot as a photographer. A slot that demanded we look at the miracle of grainlessness and eye cutting sharpness. This image is the one that gave me permission to change the priorities of my own pursuit of art; elevating the recognition of a moment and scene over the trappings of the medium's dictatorial embrace of technique for the sake of technique, and replacing those constraints with an appreciation for the energy that instant image satori can bring.
Sharpness for the sake of sharpness = yawn. The thing that makes an image work is seeing something honestly and immediately wanting to capture and share that tiny, finite moment. All the other stuff is the trappings and lace of a boring complicity with the demands of herd-approved structure. And it's these "approved structures" of how something is "supposed" to be done that kill most art.
Don't tell me my image has motion blur. I don't need bi-focals to see these perceived "mistakes." I'm too busy enjoying the slices of special time that photography keeps giving me.