Imperfect photographs are not necessarily less authentic than technically perfect images, and certainly not less interesting...

Blurry. Grainy. Not Perfect. (from the Zach Production of : Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The Musical). 

Paris Street in 1978. Blurry. Grainy. Not Perfect. 

When I look at images I like in 2016 and compare them with my favorite image from my earlier years (circa 1978) I see some similarities. I love movement and gesture in the images. I like visual assemblages that feel plucked from real life and which have no need for perfectionism. 

In the images above (the top two) I shot with a smaller sensor format camera than my Sony A7rii. I was using the long zoom range to grab snippets or vignettes that caught my eye. Images of the moment. The quality of the frames was, in my mind, much less important to me than the quickly captured content. 

Now, I have the technical know how and the tools to have created those images in a way that would satisfy the most exacting critics of the craft. We could have spent hours hanging large soft boxes from speed rail, lining up the shots on a 30 inch monitor, hitting the actors with full make-up, creating exact motions for them to rehearse over and over again. And then we could have set up the A7Rii to shoot at ISO 100 with a shutter speed of 1/250th to freeze all movement and guarantee a noiseless and highly detailed file. I can outfit the camera with lenses that resolve the highest levels of detail.  Finally, after painstakingly going over every frame that resulted from the shoot I could have sent the best frame along to a retouching facility in NYC and spent thousands of dollars having every square centimeter of the frame meticulously retouched. But to what end? Would the technical prowess trump the authenticity and realism of the captured moments as rendered above? The more interesting question is: whether the obsession with technique would augment the frame or ruin it?  If I were to conjecture I would say that the obsessive-compulsive fixation with technical perfection would have instantly sucked any life out of the images that they might have had and left us with well exposed and well processed ersatz copies of life that only emulate the moment instead of truly capturing it. In essence the pursuit of perfection morphs "recognition" of an image into kitsch.

In my early photographic career I was obsessed with technical qualities. As an electrical engineering student at UT Austin I shared the misguided belief that everything could be measured and everything measured could be controlled. It's a mindset that doesn't allow for a chance gesture of a moment, captured in the blink of an eye. I was good at producing sterile and lifeless images of things that didn't move or change. Those subjects were ones that were easiest to overlay with the trappings of quantification and the crassness of showing off my newly acquired skill sets. This obsession was rampant in the day. It was expressed in a never ending showcase of images shot by photographers on big sheet film. But not just any sheet film, rather 4x5 pieces of Agfapan 25; an ISO 25 black and white film with almost non-existent grain and nose bleed sharpness. Never were the ruins of old gas stations or the gears and cogs of historic industry so well documented. All from the safety and necessity of of stout tripods. Never before were so many boring images shown on large prints. Shown not to celebrate the content of the prints but as vehicles to show off mastery. These prints still mark the apex of that style and focus. The images made by today's self appointed experts, using Zeiss Otus lenses and high Megapixel cameras continue to pale in comparison and, in a direct side by side evaluation, would probably cause today's puffed up "masters" to head home with their tails between their legs and their prints shoved back into a flat file somewhere never to see the light of day again. 

That still objects such as cityscapes, soaring buildings, urban architecture, clouds and landscapes and man made details dominate the "portfolios" of bloggers who write about gear, and photographers hellbent on proving that their mastery of techniques, and their ready access to the "ultimate" in gear, is so prevalent is sad. These unmoving and completely cooperative subjects provide a blank canvas that is easy to cover with crass and one dimensional images of imagined technical perfectionism. But each frame comes at the cost of impetuous and profound recognition of endless unfolding dramas. They come at the cost of real, emotional connection with the subjects being photographed. They are stop watches and race cars but never a nice drive in the country with a picnic basket, a bottle of Champagne and an attractive companion. 

The bottom image of the three above was taken on a fun and frenetic trip to Paris back in the days before there was a McDonalds, a Starbucks, a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Gap littering the streets. It was a time when cigarette smoke flavored the air and people walked with style and purpose. I was carrying a cheap, little rangefinder camera loaded with Tri-X film and I looked up and saw this woman with her portfolio tucked under her arm. I raised the camera, made a rough and immediate composition and fired one frame. I have savored the feel and look of this image for thirty eight years. When I initially printed it I was still locked into the ignorant idea that everything we shot NEEDED to be sharp and exacting. Grainless and archly composed. But the image wore me down. I kept printing it and then putting the prints aside. They kept coming back and whispering to me. I finally had the light bulb over my head moment and realized that the authentic immediacy of the image, and its visually implied motion, were powerful to me and instantly put me in mind of that particular second of awareness. They more accurately reflected the scene in front of me on that Autumn morning...

That image represented a salvation for me as a photographer. It took off the handcuffs of needing to fit into a technical, cookie cutter, slot as a photographer. A slot that demanded we look at the miracle of grainlessness and eye cutting sharpness. This image is the one that gave me permission to change the priorities of my own pursuit of art; elevating the recognition of a moment and scene over the trappings of the medium's dictatorial embrace of technique for the sake of technique, and replacing those constraints with an appreciation for the energy that instant image satori can bring. 

Sharpness for the sake of sharpness =  yawn. The thing that makes an image work is seeing something honestly and immediately wanting to capture and share that tiny, finite moment. All the other stuff is the trappings and lace of a boring complicity with the demands of herd-approved structure. And it's these "approved structures" of how something is "supposed" to be done that kill most art. 

Don't tell me my image has motion blur. I don't need bi-focals to see these perceived "mistakes." I'm too busy enjoying the slices of special time that photography keeps giving me.


Kirk Tuck said...

In two more posts we will have reached the milestone of 3,000 posts!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At an average of 2,000 words per post that represents a lot of typing. Stay tuned.

David said...

"Sharpness is a bourgeois concept" - Henri Cartier-Bresson

Anders said...

Well written; fully agree. Really like the image of the lady even if it is a bit blurry.

HR said...

Good article and good photos. It is funny (in the sense of interesting) how we are about the same age, we overlapped as UT Austin students (probably passed each other on the Drag or walking by Painter Hall), we have both loved photography for several decades (for me it started when I was about 11 or 12), but, as you say, you were "obsessed with technical qualities" but I never was. Of course, I care, but in my case I have always cared more for the overall image than all the minute technical qualities. Of course, I have never tried to make money from photography like you do, but from your article you make clear the obsession with technical qualities pre-dated your entry into professional photography. Anyway, there is nothing wrong with either approach. It also depends a lot on what types of things one photographs, I think. You and many others would laugh about, in my case, the use of superzoom lenses for travel, not using the biggest sensor, and so on. I use what works well for me balancing all my competing and conflicting needs and desires. That is something we all do. Ultimately, we all tend to gravitate to the approach we find most compatible with our personalities, I guess.

Anonymous said...
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Kirk Tuck said...
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Kirk Tuck said...

Just a reminder that I don't like to be patronized or told how or what to write on my blog. I also don't tolerate veiled threats or lectures that feel like they come from someone's from middle management. I am not an employee. If you have a difference of opinion about what I wrote then state it. Don't talk down to me about what my writing "might do to my business reputation." That's just B.S.

There are no rivals in non-commercial blogging. Just different opinions.

Anonymous said...


I rarely comment on a blog. Back on the fifteenth when you first posted the lead picture of this post, It was the only picture that I went ooooh when I looked at it. It's lovely. It's about dance which is movement.

But the picture I like the best is the third. When I first looked at it, I thought nice structure. Good lens choice. Then I looked at the woman. And then I looked closer. Look at her head, tilted down and the right. Look at her eyes, they're closed. Which is really brave considering Paris traffic or She's absorbed in thought. Is she going to a presentation or returning? Can we tell anything from her right hand with the ciggarette?

This is a great picture. It tells a story. You got anymore like this from that trip?


Kurt Friis Hansen said...

The aye of the beholder (aye, not eye)

Hi Kirk

I’m not sure, I agree with your conclusions.

By pure chance I opened your page differently this time. I viewed all the images before reading even one word of text.

The first image I knew was from Zach; I had seen similar images recently. I knew some of the story behind the picture. The image was to me, as described by you.

The second image was more doubtful. Was it a drunk in a bar? Or a bad shot from Zach? I regarded the image as a mishap. The meaning behind using it would surely be revealed in your text.

The third image looked like some of my images from the seventies or eighties. Contrary to my own images, some highly treasured, your image gave me nothing. It was just an ordinary image, not that well executed as your text implies. Nothing special or worth remembering. To me.

After reading the article, it hit me. The difference in perception was rooted in the *story* behind the image. When you look at the third image, you perceive the story, the atmosphere, the past, the present and the future around the moment in time, where the image was created. Maybe you’re even able to feel the weather and recall other details given a minute or two. You’re not really seeing the picture as it is, you’re probably (re)experiencing the story; a story that is completely unknown by your audience, unless we read your text. Even then I do not feel, that I “get” the real story behind the last image.

At least, that’s how my treasured “mishap” images from a bygone time should be viewed. I know the complete story; some members of the family may too, but everyone else will probably not see anything interesting og memorable.

Now imagine, a perfectly executed image of exquisite viennese pastry at it’s best. Creamy, clad in a gleaming silvery white sugar coating, with a wobbly rectangle of red jelly on top. Sharp, perfectly lighted and full of color and joy. Or take a night view of the central business district in Singapore. Again perfectly executed with dynamic colors, romantic reflections in the river, emphasizing the highlights of the city landscape. Sharp, perfect and pure joy and sugar coating. Wow, I wish I could do that (erm… actually, I can, but…)

These images are beautiful, but after viewing a couple or more in row, they become stale. Empty. Just images without a story or deeper meaning. A caption may help a bit, but unless it is very different from most standard captions, you’re not getting the story behind the picture. Just the image.

Think platinum. Expensive, dull but one of the most common catalysts on earth. Put a block of platinum on the desk, and nothing happens (avoiding thieves). Use it as a catalyst in a chemical process, it does wonders without being consumed itself. In a way, good images work the same. They’re catalysts for the story behind. Without the story, the ingredient to be remembered, the image is just like a slab of platinum. Dull, unimpressive.

Now, I’ve been to Singapore. If I see a well executed image of parts of the city, I have seen or visited, it acts like a catalyst. I immediately see a lot more in the picture. I may even experience the past, present and future of a specific moment in time, that only I can remember like me, and if I’m lucky I can even recreate the moist evening heat of the tropic city in my body as well as a host of other sensory sensations. Suddenly the image becomes good. Maybe even excellent.

If you’ve ever been in Vienna and tasted the sweet morsels of joyful sin served in a “Wiener Konditorei” with a really, really good “Zuckerb├Ącker” out back, the pictures of viennese pastry suddenly acquire a new quality. In the right mood, you may even feel like being there, grasping the atmosphere, almost tasting the varm cocoa and feeling it working the cold bones, still felt after entering from the snow or sleet or rain outside. You remember the feeling, the bliss or even happiness of that savored moment, maybe experienced decennia ago.

Aw - rest of sunday destroyed.

Always a joy to read your musings - regards
Kurt Friis Hansen

mosswings said...

Speaking as a recovering EE, I know exactly what you are talking about, Kirk. For many years I pursued acquiring skills and knowledge that I realize now were giving me a sense of control and power over a world that I didn't quite know to engage with. That went pretty well for a while, but it never felt completely right...I knew that learning new things about the world would always be a passion, but that too much skillishness left me isolated. My terms of self-description were never "engineer", but "designer", or "modeler"; terms that offered room for mystery and growth.

Photography is one of those crafts that offers a seductive illusion: that you can capture and hold a bit of reality if only you use the right equipment, the right timing, the right technique. And to a tinkerer, a well-crafted tool can be a transcendent joy.

But the truth is if we follow this illusion we squeeze the life out of the experience of living.

As I've grown older, it has been wonderful to be able to release myself from striving for perfection and opening myself more to the experience; to step out from behind the viewfinder, even to leave a camera behind. There are far more accomplished photographers than me shooting exactly the same things in much the same way. I don't need to add to the babble.

The guide in this evolution has been my wife. I've hauled around the big iron (well-crafted tool), she's carried the point and shoot. Her pictures have consistently told better stories than mine, even though mine were technically better. That's because she captures those moments that speak to her, and the tool she uses simply gets out of the way and lets her do that. Mine glories in its demand that you be intimately involved with every aspect of the capture.

In this sense, I do believe that many folks that have ditched their cameras for their smartphone are displaying a very deep wisdom; they are using a tool that lets them concentrate on relating their stories instead of trumpeting the technical wizardry that captured a brief moment in time.

That's why I find your posts so compelling, Kirk. You understand this.

Chris Pisarra said...

I love it when you write the same things I do, only you write it better. This is what I wrote after seeing the Diane Arbus exhibit in New York a couple of months ago.


Alex said...

Creating a picture with a certain atmosphere in it is so much more difficult than creating a "sharp" picture. Thats why one finds so much more of the latter.
Thank you for this article, Kirk.

Brooke Meyer said...

Your post is a a good analogy to the genesis of the the Salon des Refus├ęs.

John Camp said...

I would ultimately agree, but I also think you didn't waste your time when you were striving for technical perfection. I think everybody who works (and becomes successful) in a really demanding art field has at least a touch of OCD, and maybe more than a touch, that drives you toward a mastery of technique. You just can't reach artistic mastery with technique and will-power, alone, however; I think real mastery comes when all the technique is there, but then you *relax* into it; technique becomes the background of what you're really doing. I don't think a true novice would have shot the photo of the woman crossing the street -- might not have seen it, but even if he had, would have fumbled the shot.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the add of the new pictures. Seen a number before, but others are new. Particularly like the one with the card players. The almost corpulent guy about to score with the skinny older guy scoping out his hand.


HR said...

I looked back at some of your recent blog posts and I see that you really like the Sony RX10III. Therefore I take back my comment about you laughing at my use of a superzoom sometimes when I travel. :-) I had assumed you were not into them, but the Sony is a 25x superzoom and the ones I have used have been 7x up to 13x. The one I have been using for the last 4 years is just 11x though. For some situations these lenses are wonderful!

Daniel Walker said...

As you have pointed out, it is hard to beat a 1" super zoom for versatility. My only concern is those situations when a larger sensor would work better. My work around when I travel is to also carry a small Camera like the Nikon Cool Pix A fixed lens. Unfortunately, Nikon doesn't make any more. When I travel I use my 1" and limit my ISO to 400. Any shots needing a ISO higher than 400, I use my little Nikon. This works for me with few regrets.