Poetry & Imperfection
The third in a trilogy of opinionated editorial articles about getting past the craft in order to express vision. I’m heading back to the Khutzeymateen this weekend and have 3 days with the grizzly bears and the wilderness and with any luck the bee in my bonnet will take his leave and I’ll return with a renewed calm. This article comes, not from frustration at the industry (a rather vague entity) but from seeing the frustrations of my students, and the hesitance they exhibit in their work because they’re not sure they’re allowed to do the things they want to do. It is the tyranny of technical perfection and it’s killing our art.
Poetry is not found in perfection. I’m not sure where I read that but it sticks beautifully to my thoughts about our addiction to technique. It is not that I’m saying we should abandon technique (I’m saying we need to go beyond it), but when it’s so relatively easy to get a photograph in focus and suitably exposed (compared to, say, learning to play the guitar with some competence, or learning to paint with oils) the question begs to be asked: where now?
You know how use your tools with greater and greater skill. But use them for what? What can I say to a student who shows me a truly perfect photograph that has no soul? This: now it’s time to breathe life into your work.
Now it’s time to change the question from, “How’s my my focus?” to “Is it alive?”
Sure, my colour temperature is perfect. But would less accuracy and more warmth make a stronger emotional connection?
Yes, I’ve managed to get rid of all the lens flare, but have I also rid the photograph of some intangible luminous spontaneity?
Has all that screwing around with buttons and dials brought me only to a perfect image of a missed moment?
You’re right, not a blown highlight to be seen, but have we gained detail that now only pulls the viewer’s eyes from the subject and towards something that does nothing but detract and dilute?
Our shadows are full of detail and for those who get excited about dynamic range, hurray! But have we lost the mystery? The pure form and abstraction of silhouette?
Our bokeh is gorgeous, so blurry and out-of-focussy and stuff, but have we lost (for example) the groom’s face in all that and rendered him an unimportant detail? Are we un-aware that we’ve come to rely on cheap parlour tricks?
I’m holding my breath, waiting for the noise to stop, for the collective head of the popular photograpy world, particularly those of us who teach, to emerge from our collective ass and to begin serving our students something they can can thrive on. The platitudes and simplistic rules aren’t doing it. So while I go blue in the face waiting for a change I don’t see coming down the tracks any time soon, to my students and friends, and anyone that wants to make a photograph that’s so much more than perfect: learn your craft, and then get past it. It’s there to serve you so long as it fits, not the other way around. It is a paint brush, and the practiced way you move it. That’s all. The painting is in your soul, your heart, your mind, not your camera bag.
The histogram is not a god. Your camera isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. And all the technical advice in the world is only worth the breath it took to say it if it creates an image that connects with me, that tells a story or sings a song, that is alive and makes you feel alive too. Chase emotion and life and mystery and joy and those things for which you first picked up a camera. The world is full of perfect photographs. Instagram is full of them. The world gets it, we have cool toys that paint with light. Now let’s make something full of life, something that is not only a record of an experience, but the gift of an experience. And that, friends, is found beyond the brand of the camera, the shape of the histogram, the size of your aperture, and whether some ding-dong on FB thinks your image doesn’t quite align to the rule of thirds grid.
Have a great weekend. I’ll say hi to the bears for you.