Last week, my wife, daughter and I went out for an evening walk in a nearby seaside village that hosts night markets during the summer months. Having recently tested the Hassy X1D on fast action shooting, I wondered how it would fare in low light. Badly, is the answer. But what stuck with me most is that my blurry photographs appealed to me far more than the sharp ones. Interesting …
The topic is interesting to me for 3 reasons:
Ansel Adams famously said there’s nothing worse than a sharp photograph of a blurry concept. And I couldn’t agree more (hardly surprising a bias, considering his books mentored me through my early years).
But my question goes beyond this think before you focus advice by the grand daddy of modern photography. Is there anything specific to blurry photographs that appeal to (some of) us more deeply? Is there such a thing as a blurry image of a sharp concept, that nothing is better than, as a contrapositive proposition to St Ansel’s frustrated quote?
Take the portrait above and the one above it, for instance. So yeah, sure I can count hairs in the nostril of the Potter, but the girl is so much more interesting to me. Yes, she looks prettier 😉 But there’s more to it than that.
A lot more is left to the imagination, for a start. Having (poorly) focused on the background, I panned to keep her motion-free but out of focus blurred. This superimposes two different types of blurs (and I’d have preferred the sailboats to be in perfect focus for this effect) which works so well to trigger questions in the viewer’s mind.
Making the viewer’s imagination work is one aspect of photography that captivates. Mysterious photographs are fascinating to many observers. Blur is one way of creating mystery.
But there’s more to it. The photograph above uses exposure to create a bit of mystery, hiding a lot of details to focus the gaze on the potter and his work. The background was a mess.
For an exhibition, I’d crop the top. But it’s a good photograph with one diagonal formed by the man’s gaze and tools, and the other by the right-to-left light.
Yet, I still prefer the one below. To me, it just feels more human (the focus blur here is totally unintentional, ahem 😉 ).
This may be due to the fact that the photographs I prefer and have acquired over the years are all analog and slightly blurry, even from large format cameras. To me, the pixel sharpness of digital simply hurts the aesthetics of many (not all) photographs. They often look thin and bodyless. Whereas film images feel full bodied, in comparison.
But that doesn’t explain it all and the psychology of vision is probably better suited to come to my rescue. Our eye has high resolution over a very small patch of the retina and the rest is set up for fast, low-resolution, pattern recognition. We were programmed the hard way to survive sabre-tooth tiger attacks by detecting movements in our peripheral vision very quickly. Had the resolution been high everywhere in our eyes, the brain would have been much slower to respond (like computers faced with large files). Instead, our peripheral vision has super low-res but is hard-wired to recongnise patterns such as traight lines, some curves … The brain does very little work to identify a line in the corner of a scene.
This fact was used by Monet and his art-kin to create very vibrant and dynamic images. Highly detailed classical paintings force you to explore a scene bit by bit because there is fine detail everywhere. A bit like Gursky today. Monet used very broad strokes (of generally low contrast flashy colour) in comparison, so that what the high-res part of the eye sees might appear less detailed, but the rest of the painting almost comes alive with actual movement, because of how the peripheral vision reads it. I’m very partial to that effect and that’s probably why blurry images (seen at the right distance) have that exciting impact on me.
There’s a sort of spiral movement to the flower photograph above which somewhat makes it come alive but think how utterly forensic and boring this would be, if it was completely sharp. Yes, there’s a sharp flower for “anchoring” (ie a point of departure for exploring the image) but the spiral action and 3D happens in the blurry background. And nowhere is the photo completely sharp.
With modern cameras and lenses, bokeh is our only escape from the boring tirany of total frame sharpness. The various amounts (quantiy) and flavours (quality) of bokeh we, amateur photographers, often seek has given rise to a healthy cottage indsutry that seems to paradoxically thrive in a sharpness-driven market. To me, that’s proof that, although our “rational” brains are slaves to FOMO and have become addicted to resolution specs, our artistic side, is still very much in tune with the beauty of unsharp things.
Many artists have explored blur. Gerhard Richter, for instance, has blurred many paintings. Philip barlow, below, does the same for different reasons. He explains “my depiction of the ‘seen’ landscape is simply a vehicle through which I navigate territory of another nature. A landscape less ordinary; where the line between the physical and the spiritual realm has seemingly been removed”. I’m not entirely sure how spiritual those sexy bodies make me feel, but I love how the vibrant light, the shadows and the “specular” highlights on the sea look.
The bokeh imitation will feel gimmicky to some, I prefer to think of this image as a dream or memory, where people and nature almost turn into archetypes. The blur simplifies the scene and lets emotions overthrow the mental king inside our brain. We, viewers, can take control of this image and project names, faces and more onto the various persons and elements of this scene. In a way, the painting acts as an evocative canvas for us to create a personal story from. It would be completely trivial and uninsteresting as a sharp image, save for a depiction of holliday scenes a la Massimo Vitali.
Even more interesting to me are Hiroshi Sugimoto’s blurred architectural photographs in which he depicts famous monuments as they might have appeared in the architect’s mind, before they existed. In the case of the photograph below, you could argue it’s also how we collectively remember the towers.
There’s probably no single best explanation for why so many photographers enjoy blur (the main resistance against this being found in the ranks of landscape togs). But it’s fact that global sharpness enforces a bit-by-bit analysis of the photograph (from close up, at least) that feels very static, à la Poussin. And there’s empirical evidence that most of us have a blur-oriented lens (or more) in our arsenal. And let’s not even get into long exposure, which I dislike but does constitute a category of blur.
Our global reluctance about blurry photographs probably has to do with the fact that they have to be intelligently composed to communicate that story core the viewer can then fill in whith personal detail. In many ways, they are far more unforgiving. It’s harder to create a compelling underlying structure than to impress (short term) by peppering oodles of sharp detail. But it’s so worth it to try.
So when the dwindling photographic powers that be have culturally propelled us togs back 400 years by relentlessly peddling sharpness-in-all-conditions crack, maybe some of us can remember that intimacy is an antidote to porn and that sharpness isn’t an artistic quality in itself 🙂
All (my) photographs on this page were made with a Hassy X1D and XCD 90 lens, except for the flowers, for which an Otus 85 was used.
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