In Pursuit of Imperfection

In Pursuit of Imperfection

Lakeside scene in Bali with shack

Let me tell you a story.

Some years ago, while running a photography tour with a great group of photography enthusiasts, the topic of photographic perfection popped up.

“I’m still chasing the perfect sunset photo,” one of our group bewailed. “I see so many of them out there but I get so frustrated because I just can’t capture it in-camera.” 

Another of our group offered the confession that he had recently purchased an exceptional lens at no small cost because he was chasing “the perfect out-of-focus bokeh” (full disclosure: this was not me, even if I do bang on a bit about great bokeh… 🙂 ). 

I asked them why they looked so hard to create perfect images.

“Because you see them out there — picture perfect landscapes, amazing portraits, the light is just perfect…” was the reply. “I want to be able to achieve that level of perfection too.”

Clearly, there was quite a bit of frustration behind this confession, and I must admit that when I see a photographic image that looks just too perfect to be real, I dream a little about creating something similar.

But I’m a bit more realistic in understanding that this is a futile ambition. I’m not the photographer who took that “perfect” image, so I wouldn’t be able to create something to similar effect.

But this conversation has stayed with me for a long time and I wondered if many other photographers also yearned for some kind of perfect ideal in their visual output. It slightly bothered me that we had this secret desire to produce something so ineffable and something so motivated by… envy? admiration? … that it could have an effect on our producing our own authentic work.

You may have heard of Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer who often works with the director Wong Kar-Wai. If you’ve seen any of his films, you’ll notice that there’s an intensity and energy to his work that creates incredibly lush scenes full of emotive frisson. Doyle once said:

“I work so often with younger people, and they treat the film like it’s a commercial; it’s weird. They are so obsessed with perfection. One: Perfection doesn’t exist. Two: The imperfections of an image are what give it energy.” (Christopher Doyle)

And when I read that, it was a powerful light bulb moment.

There is something too polished, too clinical about these so-called perfect images. Yes, they appeal to the eye and draw us to them because of their exceptional quality and finish. But… they lack, in Doyle’s words, the energy that keeps us riveted to images. They connect on a facile level; not on an emotive level.

Sunset reflected in window with silhouette

I began to think more seriously about pictorial imperfections. Which, if you know me, is a very strange thing for a judge to be considering. I mean, there’s a widespread belief that photographic judges seek perfect images, and that any perceived flaws and imperfections can cost the photographer valuable points.

But I would argue, as Doyle does, that it is often the glimpses of imperfections that give the image power and character. I would rather photographs draw me in with their splendid imperfections, then leave me cold with their sterile purity. As a photographer and a creative person, I am drawn more to faces full of lines and character, than faces flaunting flawless skin and perfect make up and hair.

You see, pursuing imperfection simply means you won’t be distracted by the desire to obtain perfection in the image. You’re not cluttering your mind with a host of rules and techniques that can often rob us of the ability to see and feel the soul or spirit of the scene or moment. You’re giving yourself to entering the “zone” where your connection with the scene or subject is at its most intense.

I would argue that when we take a photograph, we need to feel as much as we see; perhaps we need to feel more than we see. And if the desire to “capture the perfect something” gets in the way of our feeling, then it’s not going to be good for our photography.

I would challenge you to be brave and to embrace imperfection. Now, if you’re a self-styled perfectionist, this might take a few baby steps. Perhaps try to stop worrying about whether the horizon is straight or not — try tilting the scene a bit in your framing. Or, if you see something so interesting that you want to photograph it, then just go with the flow and shoot it without worrying about having the correct settings. Better yet, go out and aim to deliberately take photographs of things that are, in your esteem, not photogenic, and see what you can make of them.

And, just maybe, ignore sunsets and bokeh for a bit.

It will probably save you a bit of heartache and ensure that there’s a bit more money left in your bank account.

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