Have we hit the point where photographs don't have to be sharp?

This image started life as a kind of accident. That was part of the beauty of film, sometimes you made mistakes and discovered that you liked the look of the mistake more than the initial intention.

When photography started to be practiced in earnest it allowed painters to stop trying to accurately reproduce subjects.  The need for verisimilitude vanished, taken over by the new medium. Now that stock photography can provide for straightforward documentation of just about any subject under the sun does that free photographic artists to transmute their reality to correspond to a new aesthetic? A new mindset of creation?

There's so much I love about the photo above. The obscuring of the right side of her face, the bold, graphic, black shadows that run at diagonal through the frame. The look of surprise and disbelief on the subject's face.  The belt buckle echoing here lone visible eye.  The way one side of the subject's blouse is lighter than the tone of the background while the other side is much darker.  And finally, the undulation of tones across the otherwise flat background.

The photograph seems to pose a question with no answers.  It works not as an information conduit but as an freestanding object where the graphic patterns and contrasts are at least as important as an inventory of the content.

Harder to define.  More fun to look at.  All this image needs is a manifesto....


  1. Heck yeah!! I like where you're going with your thoughts and the photo.

  2. In the recently opened photography gallery in the Victoria & Albert museum there are several Julia Margaret Cameron photographs. The focus is "off" in some of them. This was deliberate according to the curator. She evidently wrote that as she composed an image she searched for the correct focus for that picture - this to her mind was not always the focus that produced the sharpest image.

  3. The story is a mystery. This photograph tells it well.

  4. This looks like the sort of image you'd get from a pin-hole camera, though the lighting suggests it wasn't. But I agree with your celebrating the mystery and contrasts in this photo. Very nice.

  5. Sarah Moon. That's what I thought of when the page opened

  6. I struggle a bit with this idea. There certainly are images that gain a certain feel and ambiance from softness or motion blur - maybe because it adds an element of abstractness that helps us see the image instead of what is being photographed? But I have to add that for me, the overwhelming majority of images that i see that are out of focus are....................just out of focus! But for me this image does have the qualities you attribute to it - i'm drawn mostly to the soft shadow line of her crooked nose.


  7. yes, please, i hope we have indeed!

    there should be no general rule that dictates that unless a picture is 'sharp' it is no good ... it is the sort of nonsense preached all day long by the internet 'experts' who can evaluate a camera just by reading the technical specifications list, and can also 'judge' the value of an image by how many pixels are in focus.

    thankfully there are still sane people out there!

  8. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!

    The Internet

  9. Very nice work, Kirk. I love how some of the best aspects of this image are precisely the sorts of things that know-nothings in online photo forums would say are "wrong" -- blocked shadows, blown highlights, not sharp, yadda yadda yadda.

    As for a manifesto, may I suggest the title "Back to Pictorialism"? You can go on for pages about the incalculable damage done to the art of photography by technical perfectionists like Ansel Adams... ;-)

  10. Pictorialism worked for the philosophy that underlaid it, as did the style of Group f/64. Both have been done, so we are free to pick and choose to fit the purposes of the statement we want to make today.

  11. Yes, Uta Barth has been there for some time and has created some very moving photographs.

  12. I guess it does start to explain one of my favourite large format portraits...



  13. Just come from another site where all the posters blab on about is how a photo with blown highlights and/or lack of sharpness is a load of old crap. Oh look, that was the sound of their argument dripping away. I feel so many people get far too taken with "technical" aspects of a photograph instead of actually looking at the damn thing and deciding upon whether or not it is simply a good photograph or not.

  14. This reminds me of your fellow Texan photographer, Keith Carter. He once said that to him, unsharpness in a photograph was every bit as natural as sharpness. A statement that was a real eye opener to me, as I'd up until then been - like most other photographers - been obsessing over technical perfection in my photographs, not least sharpness.

    I guess we tend to fret over parameters like sharpness, colour, exposure so much because these allow us to talk about photography in technical terms - which is a hell of a lot easier than talking photography in emotional, artistic, sensory terms. Requires less investment of personal, private thoughts and perspectives.

  15. Kirk, at first I was lukewarn to this one, but after looking at it a few seconds, the magic happened, and it worked for me.
    I think you could start posting blurry monochromatic squares, and I'd still love them, lol.
    Your blog is such a healthy, fulfilling, peaceful photographic place to be, as opposed to the madness that runs the mainstream photo board out there, visiting it is like oxygen to the smothered.
    I truly wish you would allow a parralel section to develop, that would not interfere with your content, but where authorized members were allowed to post images. One would need to qualify through some sample pics.
    But I suppose that would be too time consuming for you ?
    Anyway on the topic of sharpness I'm *totally* comfortable with a slightly off focus image, unfortunately that goes beyong the aesthetic understanding skills of most people, not even mentioning gearheads. Blur has artistic properties and meaning in itself, whether it's intentional or not, and I've sometimes found that out of a series, the best capture happens to be the unsharp one (that our formatted minds tell us to discard). I wouldn't be too surprised more than one work of true art got trashed due to this great equalizer...

    1. Claire, several things: First, I love the phrase "formatted minds." I'm stealing that one. Thanks for all the good feedback about the blog. I'm not going to do a gallery, not because it's not a good idea but because I'd have to do it in a different venue as Blogger is pretty rigidly formatted. There is a flickr site called, The Visual Science Lab, which I try to keep up with.

      You can share images there. I can't bite off anymore stuff without cutting into my swimming time, my running with Ben and my quiet evenings on the back porch enjoying a glass of wine with Belinda.

      It makes me happy to know that so many people get something out of the blog. Thanks.

    2. Thanks Kirk, I'm gonna check that out now !

  16. I'd like to leave a link to this interesting documentary entitle "Why beauty matters". This is part 1 but the subsequent parts load automatically. I've watched part 1 and it is very interesting, giving me a lot to think about.

    I see a lot of connections between what you are saying Kirk and the image you posted for us.


  17. One of my favorite photos I've done is one that I purposely shot wide open and out of focus to tell the story I wanted to. It's the header image on my old blog here: http://davewolanski.blogspot.com/2009/12/joy-photos-with-story.html

    The lack of sharpness is one of the reasons I love shooting with my Holgas too!

  18. I'm tired of sharp and colorful. I'm rejuvenated by black and white and more emotion, less technical. Glad to hear I'm not alone.

  19. i think there is an iPhone app that takes blurred photos.... :)


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