On Sharpness – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE 192

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

Sharpness is an intellectual and artistic ‘dead-end’. There is only one small part of our retina which is capable of hugely detailed vision. The fovea is 0.3mm across – the size of the tip of a fine pen. Indeed half of all nerve cells in the eye are directed at the fovea but radiating out from this central ‘pit’ is the macular which offers less distinct vision and then the retina which allows us to see in the dark and gives us a sense of what is around us but no acuity at all – our brains have to sort through this visual sloop to make sense of it. By contrast a camera is all fovea. There isn’t a gradual dissemination of acuity its just 100% sharp from edge to edge. I am going to argue here that our addiction to sharpness and resolution is a distraction from the most important aspect of seeing and that it is ‘sensation’ or the engagement of our subconscious mind with what we see rather than evenly spread high acutance vision which provides us with the best route to artistic expression.

What we ‘see’ is nothing more than a very clever portrayal of reality constructed by our brain from various stimuli. This visual construction, which relies on our conscious and subconscious minds, seems perfect to us but in reality, when tested, is nothing more than a very sophisticated story telling mechanism. Because the brain has surprisingly little information to go on the processes that make sense of the world visually rely on many parts of the brain invoking deep levels of thought and personality and which we access when creating or are faced with works of art. In other words it is the story telling part of our brain which helps us see, helps us think and helps us derive meaning from abstraction.

When we look at a photograph (on screen or print) what we see is a mechanical reproduction of a physical scenario reproduced according to the capabilities of mechanical means. This degree of ‘reproductive perfection’ did not exist before photography was born. The photograph depicts life but not in human terms. What we see when looking at a photograph is a machine’s eye view – never the vision of a human. In other words concepts of sharpness and dynamic range are machine concepts and not to be compared with our own aquatically evolved, hyper contextualized and multilayered sense of vision.

Since photography’s inception its uses as a medium of record and its adoption by the art world has driven camera makers to produce ever better optics and mechanics so that photographs are easier to make and imperfections increasingly excluded. If technical brilliance continues to dominate the direction the medium takes then our humanity will be subsumed within the increasingly perfectionist mechanism. It is true that there are certain fields of photography which benefit from an increase in technical capability; photojournalists can throw focus from front to back so that present and future generations will gain so much evidential detail from their images and, optically inversely, sports photography can benefit from advanced onboard computing that places a fast moving object in pin sharp focus removing the subject from the background so that we can feel the thrill of frozen action.

But the ever increasing power of technology can be a hindrance to substance. As a professional printer of photography I often find myself talking about such arcane subjects as DPI, colour gamut and Dmax for example. Whilst these and many other technical considerations are all relevant subjects to the technical aspect of ‘best practice’ in photography they can easily distract us from more important discussions about the nature of an image and its relevance to the story a photographer is trying to tell. It is of little importance that a camera is noise-free at 6400 iso if the shots in question are derivative and offer us nothing new, nothing to excite or overwhelm us. Furthermore, in my experience, the more accomplished the photographer the less critical they are of the technical aspect of their work preferring, instead, to concentrate on a print’s ability to convey their ideas as powerfully as possible. Technical excellence is a given and mastery of the medium a must – this is no peon to the shambolic or unskilled – but beyond a certain point we need to take technical excellence for granted and spend our energy on shooting, editing and selecting the best shots.

Much of this obsession with sharpness can be traced back to the legendary ‘Group f64’. Formed in 1931 in San Francisco these photographers including Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham set themselves against Alfred Steiglitz’s antiquated New York school of ‘pictorialism’ and dedicated themselves to ‘the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image’. They reveled in new optics, films and techniques and in doing so set a very high bar for technical competence. However our collective way of seeing has moved on from those deliberately sharp images. Though still revered the f64 ‘dogma’ belongs in the past. We have mastered the technical aspect of photography. Technological advances have decoupled our cameras from the restraints of the medium. It is no longer fettered to the earth by chains and we need pay no heed to earthly considerations such as light intensity and focus. Lets recognize the greatness of our forefathers but we must move on leaving their obsession with clarity and focus behind.

As Henri Cartier Bresson said so magnificently, “Sharpness is a bourgeois concept”. Perhaps we can adapt HCB’s famous sentence by saying that sharpness is a small part of the whole story – we shouldn’t allow it or its lack to become a distraction from the innate human truth of representation by photographic means. Sharpness is a commodity easily sold and easily achieved but which rarely adds substance on its own. For photographs to live in all parts of our minds they must reflect what is relevant to their viewers. It will always be hard to warm to cold, mechanical perfection. Photographers must reflect real life for what it is; occasionally sharp but more often a mess of blurs, half-truths and fallibilities.

Alex Schneideman, May 2016, London

My thanks to Mr Nabeel Malik MBBS FRCOphth FRCSEd (Ophth)
Consultant Ophthalmologist
Chelsea & Westminster Hospital

PICTURE NOTES
The photographs shown here work despite their lack of focus or sharpness. Despite these ‘defects’ they are still photographs, doing the work of a photograph by bringing our attention to a new experience.

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