Saturday, July 02, 2011

In search of the perfect image

I’ve avoided posting on matters photographic, partly because I will show myself up as a newbie, partly because I don’t want to be seen to be jumping on the latest band-wagon (it annoys me that everyone seems to be a “photographer” these days), and partly because I’m still deciding what I want to be when I grow up.

Photography is like any of the arts. It’s hard to compare, but it’s the same as abstract painting, sculpture, or dance. It’s a method of expression. And often, the “artist” is driven by a simple yet elusive goal: to create that perfect piece of art, whether it’s a painting, and clay shape, a pirouette, or an image of a moment captured in time or one beautifully constructed.

With regard to photography, there are hundreds of millions, probably hundreds of billions of photographs in existence. Probably millions/billions more are blood on the floor.

How, then, can one (such as me) ever hope to create something perfect. If it hasn’t been done already, it’s never going to happen.

But the subjectivity of art allows for some room to move. I’ve been cruising Flickr since shortly after it began. I’ve probably viewed a million photos. Very possibly more. I might say that much of the viewing has been to catch a glimpse of the perfect photograph, wondering if it really exiasts. 50% of Flickr photos are really good; 20% of those are excellent; 5% of those are exceptional; 1% of those are “perfect”. And then there are millions more photos online that are not on Flickr.

It became obvious quite quickly that “perfect” is probably an impossible notion, in that there is no one “perfect” photo. There are many many exceptionally excellent beautiful photos.

Which is at the same time inspiring and depressing.

Art is selfish. So it is easier to ascribe perfection to something that I, and perhaps only I, find alluring. That photograph I consider “perfect” may have others thinking huh?

The first photo I remember being mesmerised by was this one.

Eddie Adams - Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla (1968)

I have no idea where or when I saw it, but I was quite young. I don’t think it inspired me to want to be a photographer, but I do remember it having a significant impact on me.

The desire to take photographs kind of evolved. I remember my dad had an old box brownie in the wardrobe that I knew was something special. When I finally got hold of an Instamatic (126 I think, in the early 70s?), the first photo I ever took was of some condensation gathered on my bedroom window.

Ever since, I’ve dabbled in photography.

Jump forward to 2011 and the proverbial search for the perfect photo has evolved into taking the perfect photo.

Why? I have no idea. And deep down, whether it’s my psychology or my intuition, I despair that such a notion is pie-in-the-sky.

Robert Capa - Death of a Loyalist Soldier
Surely the perfect photo will be a number of things. It may or may not be technically correct. There is much debate about technically correct photos. I tend to think technical aspects are subordinate to content. What many consider to be the most influential photograph of all time is far from what might be called technically perfect today.

It seems to me, then, that content is king. But it also seems that content is evolving and, like in so many things, the boundaries are being continually extended as to what is possible. And acceptable.

The perfect photo will be of something never before done. The virgin in a condom was new. Edgy. Controversial. It wasn’t a photograph, and some would deny it was art. But it had never been done before, at least in concept.

Piss Christ was a photograph and it contained several similar aspects. It was edgy, raw, offensive (to many), and conceptually had never been done before. But can you just piss in a jar, put a crucifix in it and call it ground-breaking?


Is that all it takes? Sounds easy. But that’s the way it is with so much art. It may be something incredibly simple, but if nobody’s ever thought of sticking a frame round it and calling it art, it suddenly becomes incredibly complex and deep.

Some may stand in the gallery and say: “Umm…it’s just a circle.” Or: “It’s a what? A toilet that brays like a donkey? I don’t get it.”

So the challenge in my mind is to take a photograph of something that has never been photographed before. Of course, it could be argued that every photograph is one that has never been taken before. But that doesn’t make it “unique”. There are a billion photos of cute children in some pose; models sprawled across a bed or couch; or bridges silhouetted against a sunset. They may be good photos, but… yawn.

In a world where everyone is now a photographer, perhaps many many really good photos are being overshadowed by what is simply popular. Stanley Greene railed against the popularity of photos of Britney’s crotch while photos of the conflict in Chechnya are rejected by the mainstream media because they believe nobody wants to see those sorts of photos.

My inspiration lately has come from Walker Evans. His FSA photos are as iconic as any of that period, but when he stepped into the New York subway with a camera hidden in his coat he pushed the notion of candid photography up a notch. Maybe it had been done before (who knows), but he was the first to publish it as art (I think).

Part of the allure may have been the anonymity of both photographer and subject. Is all photography voyeurism?

You don’t have to look far before under the banner of “photography” you find naked bodies. Of course, photography didn’t invent “the nude”, but it’s certainly advanced its cause. Many of the unrivalled greatest works of art involve nudity. Most photographers sooner or later get around to taking nudes. They distinguish it from “porn” by calling it “fine art” (if such distinctions are desirable). Fine indeed.

And in the spirit of pushing boundaries, photos that would make Larry Flint blush are commonplace now. Sure, they’re edgy, controversial, raw and offensive. But are they art? You have to say they are, or else if you start drawing lines what’s to stop the Christian right from drawing lines, the feminist oligarchy from drawing lines, or, god forbid, the judiciary from drawing lines - even though they’re all trying really hard to.

So does the perfect photo need to be controversial, offensive, sexually deviant, and a pusher of ever-expanding boundaries? Geez I hope not. Though it’d be pretty easy to stick a blunted carving knife into some willing model’s vagina, sprinkle some menstrual blood around, take a photo, put “jesus” in the title and call it ground-breaking. Art.

Maybe just taking a photograph I can look at and say “that looks good” would suffice. For now. As with so many things, often it’s the least constructed shots that appeal. I love this photo of Josh. It was snapped one day while in a McDonalds. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s one I can look at and think it’s a good photo.

It’s one of about three such photos in my library.

So the quest goes on. I don’t know where the essence of the perfect photo lies. I’m almost certain it will involve a person. But not a portrait. And not just anybody. The perfect person. But who is that? Male? Female? Nude? Clothed? It will have to be edgy

I judged a photo competition recently. And three other judges and I by and large come up with the same entries that made up the top 5. To be fair, none of the photos inspired me. But in order to get to my decision I set up some criteria, which must have been somewhere in the ballpark given the similarity in our choices.

Hence, I feel I’m able to walk that fine line between objective and subjective. And perhaps tomorrow I will feel differently, but for now it may or may not be surprising that, according to a detailed set of criteria, I think this may be the most perfect photo I’ve yet to see. Sadly, it’s not one of mine.


Tracey Edwardes said...

Thank you for demystifying all my questions about what is a good photo, who is a photographer, and what a good photographer is ultimately trying to do etc - it has complexed the hell out of me for ages.
Your synopsis make sense (personified perfectly by that example you posted). Now I know you liked my photo of clothes pegs and helicopter, compared to the flowers and helicopter. Edgy, composition, in-congruency, whilst milking the technology of the moment is the order of the day - not the cuteness of the kitten's smile.

Anonymous said...

What makes a perfect image? I think would be the question of all good photographers. I doubt however, that any photographer will take or create the perfect image... in his eyes. I actually googled "what makes a perfect image", interesting list appears. But two stood out. One was a blog "behind the lens" (similar to your blog, but not as eloquently well written) and the other was a flickr discussion on "what makes a picture perfect".
I feel if a photographer said he had taken the perfect image, he would have an amazing ego! A good photo sure, a favourite photo, sure! but the perfect photo..nope! I am talking here from a photographers perspective.
To me the perfect photo, is one that the moment I see it, I see perfection, I see emotion, the picture moves me in ways that cant be described. It would be a photo that I would pay thousands for just to have and drool over.
I notice you are tending to take photos of people more and you have done and are doing weddings, model shoots, families, theatre, babies, gatherings etc. I could possibly guarantee that within each of those sets that you have been asked to photograph, there is one, where the person who asked for the photos to be taken have extolled your photographic ability and said a particular photo is the absolutely perfect image.
Another question - is the perfect photo/image one that requires nothing more than photoshoping, no fancy elements added?
Every one is individual in what they like or see as the perfect photo. I saw one a while ago and yes, it hangs on my wall and creates a lot of comment from friends and visitors.
Art is selfish and as you say what totally appeals to one doesnt necessarily appeal to another. Even a photo that appeals to the photographer that took it, might not appeal to anyone else.
Is the perfect image out there... I say yes, it most definately is, but I am not a photographer.
Have you ever taken the perfect image.. I would say yes again.
Have you ever taken the perfect image in your eyes. I would say probably not. You are the consummate professional. You would or could no doubt always find a flaw in every photo you ever took.
I would love to see your first ever photo taken - condensation on bedroom window. Only you would see that as a photo. Mine, was a photo of Dad holding a wheelbarrow with my sister sitting in it. I was 10. Dad was a photographer.. I never followed in his footsteps.

Tirzah said...

Personally I don't really care about finding the perfect photograph. I just care about being happy with what I produce in the end. Sure there are a lot of pictures I've found that have moved me and there are a lot that I've wished I'd taken, but in the grand scheme of things, you can't define perfect. It's like asking someone what love is...for everyone it has it's own meaning. I've learned not to strive for "perfection," I'll take satisfied instead.