This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 194, October 2016
There is nothing so dull, so exclusive, so cold as apparent perfection. Photography, being a largely technical medium, has always had a tendency towards perfectionism. Enslavement to a technical cause is distracting us from the the real purpose of photography; to communicate the inner life of the human experience, albeit through mechanical means.
Perfection is often found where ideas are not. It is much easier to invest in equipment and create technically perfect images than to take an instinctive leap into the unknown. Perfectionism rules out instinct. And it is this quality when joined with learning and experience that provides the foundation for new ways of seeing.
Online discussions about photography are mostly technical and centred on camera bodies and lenses with various properties that can be compared the one against the other. Which lens has the greatest accutance at f2? Which body starts to exhibit noise at just 6400 which when compared with X brand which can get the same effects at 12800! The discussions go on and on and all of them are, without question, stupefying and completely miss the point of what it means to own and use a camera.
Absent from these message boards are discussions about ideas and abstract concepts which these sophisticated optical machines were created to capture. It could be said that this technical obsession is a displacement activity from the hard work of coming up with good work. We are all challenged by the existence of good cameras; indeed by owning one these machines and expressing an interest in photography we are putting it about that we are artists.
But the work of an artist is hard and sometimes we know that our own work falls short of the standard set (or so we believe) by the greats whose work we admire so we spend time and concentration on what really doesn’t matter i.e. technical perfection. Of course, this thesis is a generalism but it is broadly true that technical perfection becomes ever easier at a rate that is independent of and outstrips the creation of new visual languages that only photography can give birth to. This last point represents the true work of artists – the drive to depict the world in new ways.
‘Wabi-sabi’ is a Japanese term with which you are no doubt familiar. If you are new to it it means the aesthetic acceptance of transient imperfection. It is said that “if an object or expression can bring about within us a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.” Another good way to look at this condition “is to acknowledge that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.” One aspect of wabi-sabi that pertains to photography is the acceptance of imperfection due to the limitations of the medium. Looked at another way it could be said that in order to love something or to fully engage with it there must be imperfection for us to gain tenure on that object. I prefer to think of wabi-sabi as being the way we can see our own imperfect selves in objects of art and in this way contemplate our own existence.
Already photographers are building imperfection back into their images by using filters and software like SilverFX. These programs emulate the vagaries and imperfections of film with all their strange reciprocities and colour biases. Other photographers use Polaroid, Holgas and Lomos to harness the wabi-sabi that comes with film and all its practical challenges. This approach could be considered as a pastiche of photography as it tries to emulate the perceived ‘warmth’ and approachability of ‘wet’ methods of photographic reproduction in an increasingly digitally ‘perfect’ age.
We photographers are like Odysseus sailing passed the Sirens (the Sirens here are played by mechanical perfectionism). We must strap ourselves to the mast and sail on by ignoring the seductive promises of optical perfection. If we heed the Sirens’ call they will enslave us and exploit us for their own banal purposes. Like Odysseus we will find that truth and beauty lie not in how others would have us view the world but in the knowledge of our own hearts and living according to our own creative light.
There has to be a balance; on the one hand we cannot take a reactionary, Luddite stand against the benefits of developing technology, nor can we place all our trust in the latest technical gems in the hope that these will help us create automatic ‘wonder’. Perfectionism is the voice in your head that can speak only of quantities and parameters. New languages and ways of communicating the language of existence can only be found in human experience that resists perfection. Artists must reach out with their hearts and leave perfection to those who would rather count than feel.
NOTES ON THE PICTURES ACCOMPANYING THIS ARTICLE
These pictures were shot on 13th April 2012 on a flight to New York. The plane passed over Newfoundland on a crystal clear day. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I watched the frozen wastes pass below. Such beauty! Such loneliness. Unimaginable to a born and bred and very much city bound Londoner. My cameras were in the hold but I had my phone so I just took some pictures for fun. I had had a vodka and tonic and, for some reason, the combination of flight and alcohol always gives me the urge to make something; sometimes I write, sometimes I take pictures. With time on my hands I reduced the images to almost pure tones of black and white. I haven’t looked at them since. I probably can’t even find the originals. I never take ‘selfies’ but I must have wanted to record the moment for some reason – can’t remember, will never know why but I quite like it now that I’m looking at it again. These pictures are very much a record of my reaction to a memorable experience and resplendent in their lack of so-called perfection.