What comprises the ‘perfect’ photograph?

Despite decades of taking pictures, I don’t know if I’ve seen (let alone taken) a perfect photograph. After all, perfection is a rarely achieved goal. How often is perfection attained in any human undertaking? In music? In art? In literature? In making a cup of coffee at Starbucks?

All these enterprises have metrics or dimensions in which competence is required. In photography, for example, a good shooter needs to demonstrate appropriate exposure, retention of shadow and highlight detail, composition, processing, etc. But there’s more, of course. Considerations involving texture, form, use of line and space, shapes, and tonalities abound.

Then, of course, there’s an element — to me, the element — of photography that’s paramount. What is the photographer seeking to achieve? To demonstrate? To say? What is a lousy photograph to a viewer may be perfection to the shooter — because the image reflects precisely the photographer’s intent. Yes, that privileges authorial intent and discounts reader/viewer interpretation. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about audience applause or criticism in my photography. I’m just trying to figure what I’m trying to say through my images, then set about actualizing that intent with cameras and lenses (and, as my friend Sam would say, a lot of “fuckery” in Photoshop).

Google “perfection in photography.” Its algorithm presents numerous claimants who use those words in a company name — “Simply Perfection Photography,” “Capturing Perfection Photography,” “The Pixel Perfection” and so on. Is such usurping of “perfection” merely marketing? Perhaps.

The image-making universe is filled with exceptionally talented photographers. They are capable of brilliance. But perfection?

Here authorial intent vanishes. Now I’m a viewer of images. We’ve all (if lucky enough) seen photographic images that have struck us dumb, unable to articulate what we feel upon viewing. We’ve all had a similar experience with music. We’ve had a song, a concerto, a voice simply arrest us. (The media theorists call this “emotional possession.”)

The photograph that stuns me so deeply may not impress someone else. I like Ansel Adams’s work. But I revere the Himalayan photography of Vittorio Sella. But Sella worked with glass plates; Adams with film. Technically, Adams’ work is superior because of better technology. But Sella’s work stirs me at a more soulful level than Adams’s does. But is either man’s best work “perfect”?

Maybe a discussion of perfection in photography is pointless. Better we should seek the rare photograph that, for each of us, arouses our soul in ways other images just don’t. A hit on the soul, to me, is a much higher bar than mere “perfection.”

2 replies »

  1. I’m with you, Doc, perfection is subjective and elusive but smacking someone upside their soul is where the emotional and aesthetic value lies in shooting photographs.