In praise of imperfect photographs

I’ve always found the most interesting photographers to be those who go out of their way to deliberately manipulate the inherent physical properties of the medium.  Yes, I know, it’s an unfashionable modernist view that’s been sidelined by the art world’s promotion of post-modern conceptualists (a.k.a ‘artists working with photography’). However, I do think John Szarkowski was correct in expounding an “essentialist” view of photography (see). Not that I agree with what he saw as its essential properties.

The conscious manipulation of photography’s inherent properties, over decades, generated the ‘language’ of photography. The language expanded and sub-divided into ‘dialects’ or genres each with its characteristic ‘style’ or ‘aesthetic’. In effect, its visual conventions.

Like all languages, photography’s continues to grow and evolve. We may not like what this process throws up at times, but our right to pursue our own preferred imagery entails a responsibility to defend others’ right to do likewise.

Two of the medium’s inherent qualities that can add a special magic to photographs are blur and defocus.  These qualities are used across many genres to suggest movement and/or energy. But it is their potential to impart mystery or strangeness to a photograph that interests me. Often it manifests itself as a sense of energy or imminent action.

The look they bring to images seems to leave more space as a challenge to the viewer’s imagination. Depending on your taste, these images might be deemed technically imperfect but, to me it is their ‘imperfections’ which makes them so interesting. It was the work of Austrian photographer Ernst Haas (1921-1986) that showed me the possibilities. His breadth as a photographer was extraordinary.  He is equally famous for his world class photojournalism (black and white), his movie set photography, his abstract colour images and, especially, his pioneering motion blur colour photography. The latter is incredibly lyrical and evocative. Edward Steichen famously said of Haas: “He is a free spirit, untrammelled by tradition and theory, who has gone out and found beauty unparalleled in photography.”

There are grittier variations on this type of imagery. Notable exponents include Robert Frank, William Klein and Daido Moriyama. It is a style that has been popular with Japanese photographers for decades (many influenced by William Klein) and is a key element in that countries post-war realist movement (lead by Ken Domon).

It is an approach to image making that is very hard to control precisely.  This is because the methods that get the desired results are a departure from what is considered – by conventional standards – ‘good’ technique. That is not to say the images are all a matter of chance, rather that the photographer needs to work in ways that increase the likelihood of getting the desired result while accepting that the ‘hit rate’ may be low due to criteria being applied to evaluate the resulting images (many of the images being perfectly acceptable as straight/sharp images).

Here is a selection of my own efforts to achieve this type of image.

Cyclist in the rain. Bac Ha, Vietnam 2012.

Cyclist in the rain. Bac Ha, Vietnam 2012.

Dance. Marrakech, 2014.

Dance. Marrakech, 2014.

Girl on a bike. Saigon, 2014.

Girl on a bike. Saigon, 2014.

Shopper. Marrakech, 2014.

Shopper. Marrakech, 2014.

Shadey. Vietnam 2014.

Shadey. Vietnam 2014.

Street vendor. Hanoi, 2012.

Street vendor. Hanoi, 2012.

Ticket seller. Cho Lon district of Saigon, 2014.

Ticket seller. Cho Lon district of Saigon, 2014.

Walker Art Gallery. Liverpool, 2014.

Walker Art Gallery. Liverpool, 2014.

Man with tree. Marrakech, 2014.

Man with tree. Marrakech, 2014.

Rain catcher Bac Ha. Vietnam, 2012.

Rain catcher Bac Ha. Vietnam, 2012.

Early morning in Hanoi. Vietnam, 2012.

Early morning in Hanoi. Vietnam, 2012.

To learn more about some of the photographers named in this post a good starting point is the Artsy web site (https://www.artsy.net). Specifically, the individual photographer’s pages at:

Robert Frank: https://www.artsy.net/artist/robert-frank

William Klein: https://www.artsy.net/artist/william-klein

Daido Moriyama: https://www.artsy.net/artist/daido-moriyama

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5 thoughts on “In praise of imperfect photographs

  1. Thanks for a really interesting piece and some stunning images. Funny enough I was thinking about this very subject yesterday when I was out walking my dogs.

    I have not actually tried the techniques yet but it is definitely something I want to try out.

  2. Interesting thoughts and good interpretation of the idea. I will put it on my list of little projects, maybe one day I can show a set of images like you did here.

    Enjoy the weekend,
    Vinc

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