The fetish of sharpness isn't new

Forums All About Photography The fetish of sharpness isn't new

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    Ian McNab

    On the death of Julia Margaret Cameron in 1879, the Photographic News published a tribute containing this comment, which mentions a preoccupation among contemporary photographers:

    “If Mrs Cameron’s pictures were not perfect, they exercised an influence that was much wanted… Mrs Cameron was an ardent believer in lack of sharpness, and if not universally in the right, she proved very plainly that pleasing pictures were to be produced of an unsharp character, if we may use the expression, and that sharpness of focus was not, as photographers believed, the acme of photographic work”.

    (Who’d have thought that some photographers would still believe it a hundred-and-forty-odd years later , despite Mrs Cameron’s pictures and, more recently, Monsieur Cartier-Bresson’s derision.)




    Yes quite right and interesting. Two points come to mind. Sharpness relevent to the lens type and quality–and sharpness of “focus”. The former can be very acceptable. Baron once enthralled on a beautiful church across the river scene taken on a box camera. Out of focus sharpness not so good.


    Ian McNab

    Whenever this discussion comes up, I think of this striking Cartier-Bresson picture – among his most famous early work – from Mexico City in 1934-1935:

    It’s taken with a Leica, of course, which is not the easiest camera to focus very quickly, on the fly. (No autofocus on Leicas then – or even now on their flagship M series cameras.) So, in this case the focus is obviously way off – something which is true to a lesser extent of some other pictures by HCB, including two of his most famous:

    Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris and Hyères, France (and I’m not referring to the motion blur!)

    We see him in videos describing such pictures as ‘a bit soft’ (!).

    But in every case, the photograph is more important than merely how sharp it is. HCB says why, in this famous remark (which, as it happens, also makes an oblique reference to Julia Margaret Cameron and the Pictorialists):

    “I am constantly amused by the notion that some people have about photographic technique–a notion which reveals itself in an insatiable craving for sharpness of images. Is this the passion of an obsession? Or do these people hope, by this trompe l’oeil technique, to get to closer grips with reality? In either case, they are just as far away from the real problem as those of that other generation which used to endow all its photographic anecdotes with an intentional unsharpness such as was deemed to be ‘artistic’.”   (Henri Cartier-Bresson (1999) The Mind’s Eye: writings on photography and photographers. USA:Aperture. Page 39)

    His key point? That ‘the real problem’ for photographers is not how to get their photographs sharp, but how to ensure their photographs ‘get to closer grips with reality’.

    Of course, that wasn’t the problem that the “other generation” of Julia Margaret Cameron and the other Pictorialists were addressing with their ‘artistic’ soft-focus technique: for them, the problem was to get photography accepted as ‘Art’, and taken as seriously as painting. And the Pictorialists’ strategy – perverse as it seemed to Cartier-Bresson, and perhaps to us – was to make photographs look like misty, Impressionist paintings in as many ways as possible, despite their being obstinately in unpainterly and un-Impressionist monochrome.



    Well, in the end, content beats quality but club photographers over-value the latter. The early pictorialists did like soft images and I really like much of their work (Kasebier, Steichen etc, some of my favourite photos). Equally I enjoy the detailed rendition of a good nature shot. It depends entirely on what the photographer wanted to achieve. Sharpness matters when it matters to the intent of the worker.

    Practically speaking the problem for club photographers is an obsession with sharpness to the point of creating really quite ugly images, where one is, I feel just confronted with a mass of edges, they get in the way of what the picture is trying to say or show you.

    I am hoping this is the next trend which will die out – the out and out montages seem to be.

    All we need then is to start looking at images instead of reacting to them, and making images to be looked AT.

    Last week I judged at Chester and I praised one photo because it was fascinating and gave me lots to look at (while keeping sufficient overall integrity). It was printed “light” too, no “d and b”. Afterwards the author, a relatively young woman, came to talk to me and was quite ecstatically pleased that he efforts had been understood and appreciated. It was in the beginners section, where much the most pleasing work was to be found. I hope they manage to keep their adventurous spirit and keep well away from the notion that you need to take certain shots and do certain things to them to get anywhere. Vive la difference!


    Ian McNab

    Much to agree with in your post, John, but perhaps this, most of all:

    “It was in the beginners section, where much the most pleasing work was to be found. I hope they manage to keep their adventurous spirit and keep well away from the notion that you need to take certain shots and do certain things to them to get anywhere.”

    Indeed: more photography, and less obsession with manufacturing pictures to win competitions.



    Ian McNab

    To reinforce John’s point that content beats quality, here’s a picture and caption, both by the great Italian photographer, Gianni Berengo Gardin:

    Despite the torrential rains cyclists continue to move indifferent to their discomfort. 1977-79. “This is a photo that technically isn’t good, but it has meaning. It tells you what happens when the monsoon comes. This distinction is in all of my photographs – the technical side is less important”


    And here’s a picture by the famous American photographer and early exponent of colour, Saul Leiter:

    • This reply was modified 2 years, 10 months ago by  Ian McNab.
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