“Sharpness is over-rated. No one has ever looked at the best photographs of this century and been moved emotionally because it was tack sharp or because the histogram was perfect. We suffer, not from a lack of technical ability, but from a lack of visual literacy, imagination, and the willingness to connect emotionally – and vulnerably – with our subjects.”
That’s what I wrote yesterday. It’s not new thinking for me, and if you come by here more than once in a blue moon, you know it’s old hat. Hell, it’s not even new thinking in the photography world. It’s a sermon that’s been preached for generations. What confounds me is that this always gets taken as a shot across the bow by a predictably small but vocal group who seem to have taken on the role of defending the pixel, lens, and sensor. Put the torches down, friends, I’m not starting a reformation, and I’m not denouncing your craft, though you might be holding it a little too tightly for your own good.
“There are plenty of genres in photography where sharpness, even the pixel itself, isn’t remotely a consideration. Those words don’t even enter into the vocabulary. We could stand to be a little less precious about it.”
The need for craft and technique is assumed. The need to use focus, exposure, and every other tool of the craft to make your photograph is assumed. It’s a starting point. It shouldn’t even need to be said. That’s why I don’t get bent out of shape about it. But it’s been assumed since we started this whole goofy process of painting with light. And tied to what is possible, and therefore to what some would call technical excellence, is the constant advancement of the technology itself. And that’s a good thing. But listen, in this context, it’s a means to an end. Nothing more. And it’s not even the only means to that end. There are plenty of genres in photography where sharpness, even the pixel itself, isn’t remotely a consideration. Those words don’t even enter into the vocabulary. We could stand to be a little less precious about it.
“The need to use focus, exposure, and every other tool of the craft to make your photograph is assumed. It’s a starting point. It shouldn’t even need to be said.”
Here’s what I wonder: could it be that those fastest to jump on the need for technical perfection (whatever the hell that means) are those for whom technical perfection is all they have? When we have nothing interesting or important to say with our photographs, and I’m talking in broad strokes as a community in this particular place in time, all we have left is “look how good my camera is.” I’m not sure the folks at Canon and Nikon squeal with conspiratorial delight when we say those things, but they sure don’t mind it and they love to quote us when we do. It keeps us distracted and addicted. Addicted to hope, the hope that the next camera will be sharper, bigger, faster, and that – abracadabra – our photographs will be better.
When we have nothing interesting or important to say with our photographs, and I’m talking in broad strokes as a community in this particular place in time, all we have left is “look how good my camera is.”
Better. I love that word. I love seeing people touted by others or their own PR, as “the best landscape photographer” or some version of the same. Better than you. Better than me. Nothing makes me want to drink gin from the cat bowl more than hearing about so and so who made this years best photographs in such and such a category. Move over, Fluffy, I’m draining this drink and calling for more, and then I’m going to figure out whether Monet was better than Picasso, whether U2 is better than Bob Dylan, and whether butterflies are better than birds, and pasta is better than pizza. Somewhere out there, right now, two nerds are gathered in their parents’ basement arguing about whether a tribble is better than an ewok. And you know who cares? Exactly.
Yes, clients want sharper and sharper images. Yes, the histogram matters, and no, we don’t want noise in our images either. But to a large degree these things don’t – they can’t – define what makes a good photograph, and I feel nothing but sadness for those for whom they do. Because they will never make a good photograph. Ever. Because the target keeps moving, and at a rate we can’t hope to keep up with. And so the image that’s good today will be too noisy, not sharp enough, not large enough, tomorrow. And the collection of images that were good today will become a collection of images that gets worse with time. And so they’ll buy bigger and sharper cameras, bankrolling the hope that the next one will be the quantum leap forward. And they’ll keep making sharper, larger, cleaner images. And that will be the best thing we can say about them. And you know who will care?
“Humanity doesn’t need more sharpness. That is not one of the things for which we hunger. We hunger for beauty, and meaning, for stories, and for love.”
Make your art with the tool you have. Use a Polaroid or a RED camera. Use film or digital. Use Leica lenses or Lensbabies. Create abstracts and impressionistic studies of shape and colour, or stunning landscapes that are tack-sharp @ 400%, but don’t kid yourself – it’s not sharpness that makes it great. It never has been. Humanity doesn’t need more sharpness. That is not one of the things for which we hunger. We hunger for beauty, and meaning, for stories, and for love – among other things, things that are communicated visually through light and composition – through our use of balance and tension and movement and scale and colour and a hundred other things that you can’t buy in the B&H catalog, and won’t be found in the manual of your new camera, no matter how much money you spend, no matter how much better your camera is than mine. We get it. Hell, every one of us has, right now, at least one camera that’s better than what every photographer who created a truly iconic image before the year 2000 ever had. You can make sharper, larger, cleaner images than any of them, together, ever made. And you know who cares?
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