State of the ART: The Perfect Imperfection

Radiator Springs Bed Truck III © 2014 Peter H. Myers, film

One of the greatest challenges that I have personally faced as a fine art photographer has been giving up the notion that my work has to be perfect in order to be relevant. I think many photographers have an expectation of perfection that truly hinders their ability to project that special creative part of themselves into their work. But it is not without hope if one pays careful attention to the disease and then embraces the cure.

Many of us come to photography from a technical or scientific background where perfection is the norm. In my case, I started out on a career path in engineering at a very young age, and I literally grew up within a work environment that by its very nature demanded perfection. Half a career later, when my work switched over from engineering to working as an artist, I carried this burden of perfection into my next endeavor.

When I was fifteen, I won a work fellowship at the Santa Clara Valley Science and Engineering Fair (in the Silicon Valley) to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for the summer. By the end of the fellowship, my work had been successful enough that I was asked to come back and provide rudimentary electrical and bioelectrical engineering consultation services to NASA, at the ripe old age of sixteen. From that point forward, and for twelve years in total, I did so. Some of my work involved designing systems that were used for human-rated missions that flew in space, which required exacting care in design and testing to prove the work’s feasibility and reliability before use. In the space business, there is no room for error—PERIOD. To make an error means that someone might get hurt or die in the process, and it is the engineer’s job to make sure that this does not occur. A lot of us have experienced this type of responsibility as part of our day-to-day work. Similarly, an engineer who designs a bridge or a power station is just as likely to face the need for absolute perfection. The same with a doctor or nurse in an emergency room, and the air traffic controller in an airport tower—these are all jobs were perfection is paramount.

While often a requirement in various lines of work, perfectionism is a disease when you are an artist. It must at least be tempered and held in check before it stalls out one’s forward growth. After two decades of work as a fine art photographer, it has finally become clear to me that I must give up the pursuit of perfection in order to let my work resonate on its own.

My journey into photography has been no different than that of most photographers beginning in the medium. My first camera was a rather advanced consumer-level system, with the big zoom lens up front. I soon saw its limitations and wanted more. The number of camera systems that came into our house, and then left again as suddenly as they appeared, was dizzying. My dear wife tolerated the profound growth rate with only occasionally asking, “Are you insane?” I certainly had gear madness, and at each stage I learned more and more of what the equipment could and could not do to further my work. At a certain point, the gear limited out. That is to say, the gear got about as good as it could possibly get. At this point, like a fine musical instrument, it simply points a cruel finger back towards the artist’s own abilities—no longer the excuse of the tool.

Currently, the photo industry is so hair-triggered and wound up about camera technology just for the sake of technology that the conversation about the art form that it is supposed to help realize has been muted. For many, photography has become all about the equipment itself—which is a rather preposterous notion. We have wall-to-wall rumor pages in case a new piece of gear becomes available overnight. We have pundits who write endlessly on every nuance of touch, smell, and flavor of each and every camera body and lens that comes along, as though it were fine wine. And we have those anxiously awaiting a new glimmer of hope that the next camera system is going to be THE ONE—the perfect perfection maker.

And yet it never comes. Each round of new equipment results in someone discovering its weakness, flaw, or imperfection that renders the tool “useless” in our quest for the perfect photograph. And we can all thank our lucky stars that it is the flawed tool, not our work that is holding us back, right?

American Grasslands Homestead, Image 10 © 2014 Peter H. Myers, film

As I have written in recent columns, this year my work has migrated back to using film as my photographic media of choice. I am hardly doing so to be esoteric, but rather because film seems to fit who I am as a photographer and who I am at this specific stage of my life. As I warned previously, I don’t know if my newfound love for old film will last another day, week, month, or year, but it is what it is for me right now: a new lifeblood for my work.

A photographer friend of mine refers to the essence of film as “organic.” And so I stretched her thought into a newly created word, “organica.” I define “organica” as that which is composed from and takes on an element of fluidic imperfection in its existence, as though a living organism. The organica of film is that it images with perfect imperfection. It is a feeling, not a recording. It is a sense, not an actual copying process.

Film is thick. That is to say, the emulsion of film is thick—typically the equivalent in thickness of five or six digital pixels in width. It is this thickness of the emulsion that gradually absorbs and renders light from the back of the lens into something that is truly organica. Look at a film negative and you can see this mad force instantly shine through, perhaps a poor man’s hologram of what the lens actually sees.

I certainly am not suggesting that photographers run to the nearest bridge and dump their glittery new digital camera over the edge to seek out a life of film instead. That is hardly the point. But one should understand that my goal with film is simply not to be perfect. Instead I seek solace in the making of my photographs. Photographing with film in the digital photographic era does not make one impotent in mind or function, as many would suggest. For me, it is simply a matter of getting over the obsession with perfection that never seems to come through with digital cameras and getting back to something that paints with a broader brush, different light, and stronger focus (literally and figuratively).

A simple organica experiment with a digital camera might be to tape over the Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screen on the back of the camera, making it impossible to “chimp” shots or exposures at all. Then go out and photograph until making an exposure is no longer a technical exercise, nor one of perfection. It is surprising how difficult it is to live beyond the equipment, exposure, or the insanity of that tethered view. It is not a simple experiment, as it takes most months of sticking (in the dull sense) with the tape over the LCD just to start to feel the power of letting go.

Throughout the centuries, artists and artisans practicing the Muslim faith would purposely flaw their art so that they were not seeking perfection, which to them was only the absolute of God. In the Americas, the Navajo Indian women who have woven some of the finest blankets purposely created a flawed knot in the weave as a “spirit outlet” for their work. These are but a couple examples of surrendering perfection for a sense of relief from the burden. For us photographers, that burden is the perfect lens, the perfect camera, perfect technique, and on and on.

I recently noted with interest the chronicles of a gifted photographer as he was making his way into the fine art photography world. He quickly learned that the gallery owners had an expectation of perfection that was simply there to discourage and reject all those outside of their gallery. He was greatly shocked, indeed crushed, that the gallery owners were not motivated by great art, but rather by self-focus, using perfection as an excuse for their own personal biases and outright prejudices.

For many critics of photography, they have come to seek out flaws in others’ work so as to dismiss the work, voice loudly their own personal dissatisfaction, and follow with a long discourse on how imperfection has ruined the work for them. First, who are they to strike out with a voice of absolute authority? Most of the time, one finds the voice loud and the knowledge limited. Second, it shows outright weakness in their argument because they are “thinking” about the artwork, not “feeling” it. Third, they do not know “organica.”

It is important to understand the absurdity of the assumption that one more inch of technology is going to create the perfect platform to make your work sing. What makes your work sing is you. Don’t get me wrong. Great tools are quite fun to have and perhaps even important to our learning. If a person wanted to learn to play a musical instrument, and that person attempted to learn on a mediocre instrument, there would be much struggling. In contrast, a gifted musician would likely be able to make a beginner’s instrument sound as though it were golden. If you can afford great tools, all the better to quickly realize the artist’s limitation is not the tools.

But beyond the tools, beyond the cameras, beyond the glorious glass, what would it be like if we gave up perfection for the notion that we are truly seeking the perfect imperfection? What burden would be lifted from our shoulders and our work? Who is to judge and why would we hand them the power to do so? Isn’t it up to us as artists not only to do the work but also to do so in a clear state of self-being devoid of expectations of absolute outcome—of absolute perfection?

Microscopic view of Kodak TMAX 400-2 Film Emulsion, provided courtesy of Kodak Alaris

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    • Your article took me back to the nineteen-sixties through nineties, when wet film processing and darkroom were almost daily and nightly pursuits toward perfection for me.  Being in a human services profession where "perfection" was never attainable nor even desirable, photography was the alchemy of science and art where I could supposedly pursue ultimate perfection.  I remember a pro stock photographer once commenting on my work, that it was "technically perfect, but boring." In these retirement years following a mild stroke, I'm happily photographing with digital, often shooting raw in various Auto Scene modes (God forbid!) with a left brain hemisphere now too cobbled for applying the many nuances of manually controlled "perfection". I, for one am thankful for the increasingly sophisticated algorithms within Auto and Scene Modes, that make a simplified, less perfectionist approach possible for older folks like me. 

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    • I love this article and I am in the same place as you. In fact I am setting up a darkroom and using my old film cameras again and loving it. I would also add that the attraction to imperfection goes deeper than just the equipment. I am finding that imperfection in the shot itself to be almost magical at times. For example I take shots knowing that my shutter speeds will be to slow to stop motion but it is either take the shot as is or miss it entirely. Sometimes the flare from the Sun is in my lens but again it is either take the shot as imperfect as it is or miss it all together. Then when my film is processed the image is not only good but it is better than it would have been otherwise The emotion is captured in the blurs and flares.  Isn't life like that sometimes,  the most beauty is found in those precious imperfect moments. 

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