The Perfect Photograph

I watched the BBC’s Genius of Photography series a few weeks ago. Having since read more stuff about photography, I now realise that The Genius of Photography presents what we might call the canon of photography. Like the Western canon of Literature, there’s a sense that these are THE photographers – the photographers academics like to reference. They’re the famous ones, like Man Ray (cool name!), Cartier Bresson, and Robert Capa. But the one that has stuck with me is W. Eugene Smith. The DVD had a little section about Smith photographing Pittsburgh factories at night. The legend is that he was high on stimulants to keep him going, and that – the bit that gets me – he was trying to take ‘the perfect photograph’. It seems that this ‘perfect photograph’ line has somehow stuck to W. Eugene. Plug his name into Google and there’s no end of this ‘perfect photograph’ stuff. The other thing that sticks to him is that his Pittsburgh project was flawed – that he took thousands of photos that he couldn’t whittle down into a small or coherent body of work. The sense is of this romantic genius who couldn’t or wouldn’t submit to the demands of presentation and commercialism.

This sense of the perfect photograph is something I fervently believe in. I believe that there’s a perfection out there that I can somehow ‘get’ into a photograph. I believe this naively, and I believe in this seriously. I can’t quite find the words for this, but suffice to say that this ‘perfection’ is part of why I carry a camera with me. I love shapes and colours, and how these things sometimes come together in beautiful ways:

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Maybe the ‘perfect photograph’ line has stuck because it simply represents something that a lot us understand. And it doesn’t much matter whether W. Eugene felt it. We’d have attached it to someone because a line is always better if we can put a face and a body to it somehow. But perhaps it also sticks particularly well because of Eugene and the stimulants thing. Because beauty is exciting and addictive. To capture or create beauty is right up there with being beautiful, even if it is second best. Maybe Eugene was on a monster ‘perfection’ rush – a huge WOW trip fuelled by Benzedrine and Dexedrine, and other mid century drugs I’ve only read about from the likes of Hunter. S. Thompson and Michael Herr. Maybe perfection was a part of the experience. And why not?! What is doing stuff, if it’s not about the experience?

But I’ve also felt that rush before, and straight. It’s like chasing after an epiphany. And sometimes epiphanies will come and seek you out, and kick the door in, or malevolent pixies will throw the corpses of small animals at your feet. Part of it is that photography can be very simple. It can be about seeing something and knowing that what you see is worth showing. And part of it is maybe that photography is not simple. Photographs can offer all kinds of associations that you didn’t ‘know’ about at the time. You might feel them at the time, or not, but recognise them more heavily later. So ‘perfection’ can be to edit in, or become more apparent upon reflection.

I don’t think I’ve managed to conjure well with the idea of ‘perfection’ here. I may have to come back to this…. I think it’s about the experience of looking and feeling – about feeling that something is possible. And it’s the possibility of perfection that makes carrying a camera worthwhile.

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About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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