Poetry & Imperfection

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Craft, The Life Creative by David22 Comments

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.


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  1. what a beautiful article from a photographer with the heart of a poet! your observations are remarkable mr. duchemin. i have many photographer-friends here in the philippines and i can’t help but observe the many cameras, bags, and gadgets slung around their bodies as they do a shoot. i’m a simple photographer who once used a nikon autofocus for my pictures when i was in denmark. i guess i just wanted to point and click, not wasting time on technicalities, lest i miss the magic of the moment. i figure, what i lack in knowledge, i can make up with my intuition — a deep knowledge of composition. thank you for a great article and stay safe in your travels!

  2. Pingback: Studying from Images Masters, Sharing and Reflecting | TiaMart Blog

  3. This reminds of many photos i have deleted for not having the message i wanted them to send. sometime you can look at art work and consider it deserted or somehow lonely but others show live

  4. I appreciate this post, David. I’m make my living photographing families now. On many occasions I hesitate to give them certain photographs due to technical blunders – horrible exposure and stuff like that. Yet, the moment portrayed in the photograph is so strong I just have to give it to the family. Without fail, the family would post the photos on FB and print them for their walls. What I thought was my worst work, was exactly the most valuable to them. Believe me, I strive for photos that are technically great – but the moment that is portrayed in the photograph always trumps technical imperfection. Thank you for the encouragement 🙂

  5. Well said, as always, David. Just adding a +1 to this philosophy.

    When I hand my camera to my 4-year-old, she finds interest and art and meaning and purpose in every little thing she points the camera at.

    A little “beginner’s mind” goes a long way.

  6. Funny, I’m sailing to Prince Edward Island, David, so I hope the bears and nature restore you. Guess I am lucky, with students. They are learning beyond the camera.

    You’ve written about poetry in photography so often, I have to ask you if you are a haiga, haiku reader. Haiku photography lends itself both to instagram, and to contemplative photo teaching.

    All the best to ya. Jim

  7. hi, I must say that I agree most heartily, but do you not find it a bit easier to fulfill your mantra when you have the capability to travel around the world, so much at will? Or do you feel that’s it is just as easy to follow the “rules” of “follow your heart” in your own backyard? Not everyone can find those life filled photos on a regular basis, especially without the luxury of flying around the world. My point is, just as hard as it maybe to find life pumping photos when your focus is on the technical, can it not be as equally hard as when your only stomping grounds is your own backyard? I’ve noticed many in your portfolio as being from the opposite side of the world. Do you think your portfolio could be as thrilling as if they were taken in your home town? Just wondering. I know, who am I to challenge you, to do a huge life giving portfolio of your home town, But I do.

    1. It’s a fair question, and I think the answer is yes, if home was a place I wanted to photograph. For me photographing at home means landscapes and wilderness and diving. City life in North America doesn’t fire me up, generally. It takes as much skill to make a compelling photograph in Venice or Delhi as it does to do so in NYC or Vancouver or wherever home is. Good photographs are not good merely because they are made somewhere else. It’s a little like asking if a portrait photographer was any good could they not also make great landscapes. Maybe yes, maybe no. The skill is there, but is the inclination, the vision?

    2. Doug, I’ve struggled with these same thoughts. Especially when I see great images from some place in SE Asia that I would love to go to. I think the problem with home is that it is familiar. I live in Nth America and in a beautiful location, but I see it all the time. When I go somewhere exotic, I’m not only seeing that place for the first time, but it is also a culture that I’m not used to so everything stands out. That’s not the case in our home places. And that’s the vision I’m trying to develop at the moment—seeing the life in the familiar. Just the other night I made an image that I am very pleased with. I was downtown with my camera and some friends creating some special moments. I was looking, and wondering, and trying, and there it was. The image is at 10,000 ISO so its grainy and not sharp, but I think it really captures the emotion of moment. Even in the digital age, the old saying of “f/8 and be there” holds true.

      So, I’m not trying to tell you what a great photographer I am but that we just need to keep looking until we see. I think thats what David is talking about.

      1. I like the mindset that David and Andrew describe. Location work is about many things. To me it’s about the intrigue and tension of arriving somewhere you’ve never been before, seeing the charm of the place and documenting it in a way that others will appreciate. As you say Andrew, it may not be technically perfect however it will communicate that first impression that you gained. Great work guys

    3. I started out in the Midwest, as a landscape photographer, roughly 20 years ago. On one of my regional photography trips, I traveled up to Minnesota’s North Shore & Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and stopped at Jim Brandenburg’s gallery, in Ely. Jim was a world-renowned National Geographic photographer, who had spent over 3/4s of his adult life photographing remote regions around the world, for extended periods of time. But after shooting thousands of rolls of film each year, he realized there was an emptiness to his constant travels. So he moved back home and focused on regional photography.
      In 2005, I moved from the Midwest to Alaska, with the idea that “a grander region would make me a better, grander photographer”. While I wouldn’t change my choices or my move, I’ve come to realize that creativity & vision are not location dependent. I used to joke that “I needed a latitude adjustment”. If you are having difficulty making compelling art locally, a change of venues isn’t the solution. What I really needed was an attitude adjustment.
      It’s very easy to make impressive photographs in impressive locations. But making compelling photographs, making art, near your home is where real creativity and self-satisfaction come from. If you have difficulty with creativity at home, an exotic, foreign land isn’t going to solve that core issue.

      1. Couldn’t agree more, I have a number of images I’m proud of that were captured in my backyard when the light and subject all happened to come together.

    1. Agree with you Robin. I’ve been deleting other photography feeds and sticking with this one. Also, he’s Canadian! (like me).

      I’ll also add that I’ve been trying to develop a unique style and came upon this quote somewhere…

      “Mixing up your style a little can be a good thing – you don’t want to become a prisoner of your own style!”

      but I think you could replace the work “style” with “perfection” and it fits right in with what David’s saying.

  8. What is imperfection, imperfection in what one creates in someone’s else view, we are brought up at a very young age that in what ever we do, there are rules, in art, how you should dress and act, etc, no matter what you do or say, there’s that – your not following the rules, well rules are to be broken, everything to pc nowadays, bubble wrap everyone, someone might hurt them selves or their mind, today people expect perfection with the tools they use, but for me, for photography, the blown highlights, the shadows , the imperfect compo, it adds to the capture, and steeping back, image the thoughts the the person who captured that moment in time, keep up the path you are traveling david, it’s refreshing to read, and hear your thoughts

  9. It is so refreshing to hear a voice not afraid to be different. I know it sounds like profuse praise being said over and over but it is a truth as well.

    I do appreciate the technicals that I’ve learned and continue to learn. But I appreciate even more those who love the experimentation of taking frames that speak more than just technical language; a language that is unafraid of usurping the status quo. Thanks, David, for continuing to be a voice that encourages “beautiful anarchy” for those of us that don’t have the “clout” that you do.

  10. Yes please, Hi to the Bears fro me! 😉

    I was lucky to learn daily early in my life, from studying the work of early Japanese artists and craftsmen the beauty contained in both the imperfect and in simplicity.

    If you look carefully at nature, as these people did, you see that almost nothing is perfect. A tree is not perfectly symmetrical, the moon not perfectly round, yet their beauty is undeniable.

    have a great trip, be safe, I know you will have fun.

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