Tired of Perfection

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons by David34 Comments

This is a little bit all over the place, and it’s raw. But that’s the point of this whole thing. I could do with a little more raw right now.

I’m tired of perfection.

My morning scroll though Instagram just wears me down more every day, with image after image post-processed into plasticity, over-sharpness, and the obliteration of shadows. I’m not even talking about the so-called lifestyle accounts which no longer even pretend to inspire us to wonder, just to baser emotions like envy, or jealousy. I’m talking about the apparent global competition to out-saturate, out-sharpen, and out-technique the rest of us.

In search of this perfection we’re losing the poetic. The grit. The nuance. I see less and less story. Less humanity. I’m all in on beauty, but that’s not even what I’m seeing. It’s all just so damn saccharine. My god, all the shiny, happy – perfect – people. It must be exhausting trying to be all that all the time.

I worry that the desire for perfection is killing the spontaneity and the life in our photographs, never mind the honesty in them.

I worry that we’re becoming so obsessed with the public sharing of our work, and the fear that someone might spot a flaw, that we’re going to work ourselves into such a neurotic lather over sharing our work that making the work (deeper, stronger work) becomes secondary.

It’s already happening. So few people seem willing to just sit on their work and let it mature before flinging it into the world. I feel the pressure the moment I’ve created something to share it. “See,” I feel I need to testify, “I’m still doing good work. I did something today. Don’t forget I’m out here!” And in so doing I share the work before it’s printed, before I have a chance to let it speak to me, suggest an edit, or find a better home for it than the too-temporary gallery walls of social media. Hell, not even temporary, more like ephemeral. A vapour that disappears at the end of a trail of Likes.

How did it happen that Likes have become the highest response to art?

In fact, how did it happen that we have come to refer to what we make – our photographs, our writing, whatever it is – as “content”? As though there’s a bucket out there and our highest calling is to keep the damn thing filled with…anything. Just keep it filled. Content is king, after all.

F*ck the king.

No one longs for “content.” We want connection. We want hope. We want wonder. We want to look at something and feel something deeper than whatever it is that moves my finger to click the Like button.

I don’t want to “like” your art. I want to be moved by it. I want it to make me think. To make me uncomfortable. I want it to raise questions. Or stir me to wonder. And I want my own art to do the same. It’s a lofty goal. Some might say a pretentious goal. Whatever. The heart wants what the heart wants and I want more.

I started down the road of this craft because I encountered photographs as a teenager that grabbed me, that made me tear them from magazines and put them on my wall. I revered those images. I lived with them and thought about them for months. I knew the names of the men and women that made these incredible images and I wondered what it would take to be like them. It never occurred to me to ask what lens they used because I suspected deep down that whatever it took to makes those images was so much more a part of the artists themselves than the particular gear. It had something to do with determination, grit, a stubborn, patient, refusal to do anything but whatever it took to make the photograph. I wonder if they got to their best work because they were busy doing it, not posting their initial successes on Instagram instead of digging deeper. Instead of taking the long slow road to mastering a craft.

I read something somewhere recently, or maybe I heard it in a video or, God help me, a tweet. It was suggested that we are not teaching people to revere our work. That one line grabbed something in my heart and mind and hasn’t let go. Of course we aren’t. We’re putting it so quickly into the world and it’s forgotten almost as fast. We’re treating it as though it’s disposable. Shoot. Share. Move on. And in that context no wonder the movement is toward the perfect. The shiny. The eye-candy. There is so little room on those particular walls for depth. Vulnerability. Imperfection. Connected bodies of work. Narrative. Symbolism.

This isn’t a rant against social media. It’s a plea that we transcend social media and do something more with our work. That we encourage people to revere it by revering it, and honouring it, ourselves. It’s a plea to print our work, and live with it, and be slow to sign it. It’s a plea to put it in books or in places we can thoughtfully react to it, not merely consume it. It’s a plea that – for the love of Ernst Haas and all the saints, we think of our work as more than just “content.”

Most of all, as so much of what I write is, this is just a reminder to myself that in the flood of all these perfect images and lifestyle accounts, I am not required to be perfect. Flawless. I’m reminding myself and anyone that’ll listen to me that the flaws, and the cracks – thank you, Leonard Cohen – are where the light gets in. You are not required to be perfect, just present. It’s important we curate our work, but it’s probably best that we feel no need to curate ourselves, to be anything more than we are.



  1. This post is more relevant today than ever before! I wish more people could read it, but I’m afraid the new world order has ingrained itself too deep in our photographic psyche.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Scott. There’s still hope in individuals desperate for more. We always swing from one pole to another, some people stop off in the middle now and then. That’s the hope.

  2. I am reading this 2 years later and I am so burned out. Posting my work to websites, Instagram, Fine Art America had left me without the energy to enjoy the imperfect photography I learned in my high school camera club. Trying to keep up with the “no noise (or grain), super sharpness, anti blur, don’t block up those shadows” finger waggers, is exhausting. I have recently started following the brilliant photographer Ted Vieira, his love of black and white, contrasty, full of feeling photography has been a breath of fresh air.
    Thanks David for your gift of truth and wisdom.

    1. Author

      You’re welcome, Nigel. I think burnout happens so quickly these days. Might be time to find new, and fewer, influences, create some margins for yourself and get back to just doing what you love. Give yourself a break. I haven’t picked up a camera for any significant work in months and it has been so refreshing. The same is true when I fast from online media and start putting real books in my hands again. This will pass, if you give yourself some breathing room, Nigel.

  3. I agree with 90% of what you said here, and have some follow-up thoughts that I’ve been grappling with for a while. A little bit rambling and a little bit raw and not fully baked.

    It is my belief that this social media “perfection” is a byproduct of the branding of the self. People are curating their stories online, sharing what speaks to how they wish to be seen by others. When social media like MySpace and Facebook came out, the only largely public examples of expressing a “self” through media was with the brand agencies for corporations. The mark of success for an individual was getting sponsored or getting selected as a “brand ambassador”. Taking a cue from corporate branding, and with the added incentivization of becoming “insta-famous” with real monetary value, a site like Instagram rewards “perfect” looking feeds and a large number of followers.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your frustration at not finding the real, the grit, and life imperfect on social media. Social media has not incentivized that (see Corey Doctorow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAGjNe1YhMA ). In “Blade Runner: 2049” one of the most beautiful cinematography’s I’ve ever seen, one of the characters says “we’re all just looking out for something real” – in the context of that movie, a dystopian world where every pleasure can be manufactured and the line between human and something else is incredibly blurry, the audience is challenged to question “what is real”.

    Which leads to my conflict with Instagram in this particular moment. In the past, you’ve recommended curating our own Instagram feeds, being selective about what to post and perhaps refraining from using it as a “digital sketchbook”. Granted, I believe you were talking about people looking to move towards more paid work. Yet, this highly curated slow burn curation seems to lead to the very imperfect series I’m missing out on. For now, my Instagram is a kind of digital sketchbook, some of my better photos mixed with some of my less well done. Not all of my photos are great, nor do they all deserve to be printed. One of my hopes with my feed is that people see the good photos mixed in with the good and the so-so. My tiny audience of 84 Instagram followers can watch me succeed and fail as it happens and they see that my life isn’t some unreal fantasy.

    “We’re all just looking for something real”, and I believe we’re all looking for connection and human interaction or the evidence of it. Social media is a poor substitute for human connection, a junk-food version. Sure, you can probably live off of snickers and diet coke, but not very well. We need more hugs in this world and hugs can’t be delivered over WiFi.

    1. I’ve had some more time to reflect on this subject, it’s one I think about often. The word “essay” means “to try”, to have a go at it, an attempt. I generally view anything I write that’s not a fact-based report (like I do for work) as an essay, an attempt. My previous post should definitely be considered an attempt.

      After more thought, I think that 10% I disagree with has more to do with my own personal style than anything else. My personal style is heavily influenced by the tradition of photojournalism and conflict photography. Because of that, I probably feel more willing to publish a post-shoot “dispatch” or “this is what’s happening on the field of life today” kind of post on my feed – which coincidentally is my own type of curation.

      I can definitely understand how others who have a different style or way of telling their story might publish more slowly, with more consideration, and more selectivity. No so much to create a “perfect” feed, but to have a consistent narrative.

  4. A nice article, really inspiring. Thanks David. God bless you mightily.

  5. YES YES YES! And it’s part of the reason I joined Instagram (for instance) and then quickly deleted my account. It’s why I never just “like” an image (wherever it is) but take the time to consider it and leave a message (of any sort). I could write a whole litany of things concurring and head nodding with what you’ve written. I’ll spare you having to read it and simply say, Yes and thank you for writing what is in your heart — for all of us.

  6. Your article is capable to soothe someones bewildered insta-mind 😉
    Thank you in the name of literal “amateur”photography.

  7. Time to change who you follow? Vote with your feet. If you don’t subsidize plastic work, the world will make less of it. Of course, there’s no stopping the forces of the basic people who live adventure through inspirational platitude memes and Pinterests full of perfect scenes of places they’d rather be if only they had lives half as interesting as they want you to believe they have.

  8. David

    Never did nor will do the social media thing … my needs are met in a very different sphere.

    I had a colleague … a distinguished neurosurgeon who has a favorite pithy comment on work : “Nothing is perfection but this can be just this side of excellence” … his work and life demonstrated that ethic.

    Want raw?

    Micah 5:2

    Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

    Revelation 19:9

    Just to say all of the present culture, ethic and politic is evanescent …

    Enjoy the Season and rejoice in the Grace afforded in it.

  9. Thank you David! Perfection is over-rated. We have to sometimes remind ourselves that there really is no such thing.

  10. David, there’s no doubt that a crime has been committed and the Culprit starts with the letter “i”… With the push of a single button
    and then another click or two it’s an instant-presto-glitzo-magic-trick. This is the work of Sir Jonathan Ive and his Apple Crew. According to Sir Jony: “So much of our manufactured environment testifies to carelessness. Things are developed to be different, not better.” Really??? I don’t think you were being critical or complaining but have made it your mantra in the guise of being cool…different not better…Thanks Mr. Ive!

  11. This is something I’ve been thinking about so much. I’ve always held the belief that the greatest purpose of art is more than inspiring brief admiration. Art should be so.much.more than admired – it should be experienced. I want so much for the work I create to be like someone’s favorite song; that they come back to it over and over again because of how it makes them feel. Because art is, at its barest and most primal core, the call to the world of, “This is what I feel. I need it outside of me.” And, sometimes, “I want you to feel it alongside me, too.”

    But how can we experience a work of art, I mean really get inside of a photograph, when the symphony of the creation is reduced to little more than a muffled white noise sound bite suffocated by a social media feed? How can we stop and listen when everything else is coruscating wildly in a flood of overly-polished, synthetic presentations that are yanking the proverbial headphones out of our ears?

    Like your words, mine aren’t at all meant to jadedly disparage social media. But, my goodness, how beautiful it is to hold a photograph. How phenomenal a thing it is to step to an image pressed onto paper and feel it against your fingertips and feel its tangible presence in the world and not barred by a screen with notifications flaring up like little flames trying to burn away at our attention span . How tremendous and extraordinary it is to take the time to stop and to listen to what another photographer was trying to say and then feel what they were feeling.

    We often lose the warmth and glow of intimacy in favor of the cold machine of convenience. We aim for the reaction instead of the response. Somehow, in trying so hard to connect with everyone, we lose the greatest connector of all: vulnerability. We want to appeal to everyone – we want to get the likes and the followers. We want, so much, to be validated. Putting a piece of art we made into the world is like exposing ourselves, and this can be absolutely terrifying. And how awful it feels when we aim to be true and it feels as though someone doesn’t like our work or it isn’t popular – they must not like *us*, then. But if we see that X person and Y person do things a certain way and so many people respond positively, and that the trend is good…well…it’s less scary to go with the proven methods. And so we rebuke the authenticity of the different sound for the conventional, the auto-tune.

    We’ve forsaken the sacred and the wild, the misunderstood and untamed for the formulas and the widely-accepted. Let’s strive for the courage in imperfect vulnerability instead of the fearful perfectionism. Let’s create wildly. Let’s remain untamed.

    Excuse the flurry of thoughts. To quote Plath they’re probably, “feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside me so long.”

    Thanks so very much for your post.

  12. I have felt so dissatisfied on IG lately, for so many of the reasons you describe. It feels flat. It lacks emotion. It looks like more advertisement than art. I see people posting that they capture their everyday with elaborate setups. It is fine if that is what you enjoy but it reminds me of hollow in person interactions offline- where people seem more obsessed with the Jones and things than the more important connections in our lives. I too long for more so I have unfollowed many people- and I’m trying to embrace the imperfections in my own work. Thank you for this post. I feel some days like it is a popularity contest like high school whereI will never come out ahead as my photographs tend to be honest and real to my every day. This is a good reminder to do this for me though and not the likes.

  13. Thanks David.
    So far I have resisted to join facebook, instagram an so on , and while reading your article I know that this was not a bad decision.

  14. This has been my greatest frustration these days

    Honestly, I’d rather spend a whole year shooting and come back with a single photo that really moves me than settle for lots of photos that don’t.

  15. Let’s not forget all the photo rags and software sellers out there peddling “perfection.” Not to mention hardware providers. “Tack Sharp” has become a buzword, in fact I can’t even count the times I’ve read the words, “we all want
    our images to be tack sharp.” Hardly anyone, except, perhaps myself 😉 ever mentions spontaneity. Some of my very best images were there for a short moment, if I had stopped to think, they would have been long gone. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to continue to improve one’s craft, but after working in clay for nearly 40 years, I can say I never created a “perfect” pot technically. Most people could not see the flaws, but to a mature artist, they were visible, yet thought very so called “flaws” are what made the work alive and not sterile like a machine made pot. The same is true with images. I feel I have been fortunate enough to capture some great ones, but no “perfect” ones. I am not, and do not wish to be a machine. I am human, and things made by human hands will always contain some, even if
    small imperfection, but hey, that where the spirit enter the piece. Soulfulness and joy, reaching high and sometimes falling low, these are the true realms of art, if you want technical perfection, perhap you might want to stive to become an engineer, but even there is will never be totally obtainable…

  16. I love what you’re saying. I’m conflicted by the idea of being and acting as a professional in the Stephen Pressfield way and the idea that my photographs need to “look professional.” What is that anyways? Looking like other professionals? I recently started a staff job and had to shoot some photos with a Nikon D3300 while we waited for our Sony A7riii to come in. I was at an event where someone had a 5dmkiii and I kept thinking, “I should tell him we’re waiting for my gear to come in.” But I didn’t. And I love some of the grainy images this thing shoots indoors. I think it was Miles Davis who said, “in art there are no mistakes.” I like the idea of being a professional willing to be raw and dare I say sometimes out of focus
    . Thanks! – sal

  17. Your “pep talks, rants, and sermons” are always so timely, David, and this one is no exception! You’ve eloquently stated thoughts and concerns that have been on my mind of late. Printing this and hanging it in my studio. Thank you for your insights and inspiration…they’re a gift.

  18. I agree with you, David. When I got my X100T, I didn’t expect photography to become such a strong hobby to me. But, surprisingly, I found myself taking 3000 pictures a month. I mostly take candid pictures of people whom I know and concert pictures. My main criteria is, if the people on the pictures will be happy that the pictures where made.

    I soon found out that people taking pictures often have entirely different criteria for good pictures, than people not taking pictures. I challenge myself by trying to not get too hung up on the photographer’s criteria. Sure, I do my best to make the picture as good as I can, but I will use a technically shitty picture, if it serves the person on the picture.

    One and a half month ago, I made my first presentation about photography. The photo club I am associated with got a last minute cancellation, and the head of the board asked me if I could do something. I really didn’t have the time, but I liked the challenge. I choose to talk about the relevance of photography. During the presentation, I thought upon your “visual mass” and from there, I went on about “emotional mass”. I ended the presentation by showing one of the pictures I am the most proud of. I took it late at night in one of the darkest corners of a bar. 1/6th of a second. ISO 6400 pushed 4 stops in capture one with the contrast slider at max. I is so noisy, I cannot even see if it is in focus. But his mood is all there with expressive body language. Later, when my friend saw it, he said it was the first picture of him, that he liked, and for more than a year, it was his Facebook profile picture.

    I do recognise that I as an amateur have the privilege of accepting a lower technical standard for the sake of expression. Too bad, it is that way. On the other hand, I’ve had one paid photo job – a wedding – and I was hired based on an ISO ~ 10000 photo series from a roller derby match.

    And that really is my point. There are so many people who are actually happy about technically way imperfect pictures, because the pictures move them. If they ever go to a photosite, they may be impressed, but those are rarely the pictures they’ve got hanging in their living rooms. That spot is reserved for their friends and families. And most of those pictures will not come from a photo studio.

    Thanks for loads of inspiration, David. I’ve got yet a pile your books waiting for me to make time for them.


  19. Really enjoyed this article. I’m now going to let it sit at the back of my mind for a while for it to jump out when I really need it. My mind takes it’s time to work through things, but when they’re needed out they pop. Thanks.

  20. Thank you for putting these points so eloquently, yet bluntly, into words. These truths cannot be overstated. Sitting at the edge of my desk is a stack of books I’ve had for years by my favorite photographers and 20-30 year old NatGeos. Many, if not all, of the images in those books have never been plopped out onto a Facebook or instagram feed. They are what inspired me to pick up a camera in the first place. They are still my source of learning and inspiration. I guess I could curl up on the couch with a nice dram and scroll through the instagram feed instead, but that’s just not the same!

  21. In the end analysis it is yourself you have to please. A tidal wave of dreck is created every day; I have no idea where my photos fall on the bell curve from bad to amazing as assessed by others. All I know is some of my work pleases me, some I am proud of and some appalls me. (The latter are sent to die by command /delete)

    Hopefully I improve with each new culling process. Technical perfection seems to become less important as a criterion though,

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